Un-Design

Un-Design

Sitting phat: re-designing obesity and chairs

Flesh Chair designed by Nanna Kiil Permission to use image given by Nanna Kiil.

My Twitter feed blew up with retweets of Dezeen’s February 4 2014 article on Danish design student Nanna Kiil’s Flesh Chair, which she had entered in the 2014 Stockholm Furniture Fair. According to her page on the Royal Danish Academy of Art, the concept of the chair shape:

Reflects undesirable human overweight as an aesthetics impetus, combined with a pleasant appearance in bright and soft materials that leads the user to be embraced by comfortable volumes.

The comments about the chair on the Dezeen site and on Twitter ranged from outright disgust to pleasant surprise.

Selection of Tweets about the Flesh Chair on Twitter. Twitter

This range of responses reflects the complex and contradictory values associated with obesity and its relationship to furniture design.

Obese versus fat chair design

Obesity is a hot topic today due to the growing number of people in the world who are becoming obese. In Australia, one in four people are categorised as obese. A search of the term “obesity” just within The Conversation yielded more than 90 results, including its 16-part Obese Nation series published in June and July of 2012.

The articles cover a wide range to topics related to obesity including stigma, discrimination, genetics, policy, exercise, urban planning, personal and public health. Yet, the role of product design in the experiences of obesity has not been addressed.

Understanding the role of product designs in the experience of obesity is important because products can dictate the micro-interactions that people who are obese have with the world. Thus, those micro-interactions whether positive, neutral, or negative are by design. For example, the mention of super-sized drinks is common in the context of policy or public health discussions of obesity. Cups that hold 96 fluid ounces were by design. The US promotional marketing agency Frankel designed the cups “dino-sized” for the McDonald’s promotional tie-in to the first Jurassic Park film in 1993.

Katie Phillips, one of my Design Anthropology Masters students, is seeking to design systems of products and services to change the paradigm of “calorie in-calorie out” that oversimplifies the issues of obesity and underlies the stigma attached to people who are obese.

As part of a demonstration in the Multi-Sensory Design Anthropology class, she had all of us class participants put a heavy backpack over our chests and stomachs and try to sit down in a chair. The experience of how our bodies had to adjust to the extra weight affected our sense of the “ease” of sitting down and helped established empathy for people who are obese. It led us to ask:

What is the relationship between the values associated with obesity, the design of chairs, and the experience of people who are obese?

The fact there is a stigma attached to being a person who is obese, in places like Australia, the United States, and Europe, has been well addressed in other articles on The Conversation. Deborah Lupton’s article on fat discrimination encapsulates it best when she writes:

Fat bodies are culturally represented as inferior, deficient, ugly and disgusting. These meanings have developed over centuries, derived from the Judeo-Christian idea that the disciplined body is closer to God.

The disgust reported by some people who viewed the images of the Flesh Chair attest to this cultural bias. But, this bias is not universal as there are other cultures that view large bodies as a sign of wealth and power or just culturally accepted. Pacific Islander culture has been often discussed as one in which there are positive views of large bodies, but research shows that this varies.

Phat is an American American slang term, which originally in the 1970s referred to a sexy and attactive woman, in contrast to the negative connotations of fat in Anglo-American culture. It now refers to something excellent.

Today’s sedentary lifestyle, which is considered one of the key factors in the increase in the number of people who are obese, exists because the chairs, seats, and benches upon which we sit. In 2009, Charlotte Kingsnorth displayed her student project At One chair, which interrogates the relationship between people and sitting. She states:

‘At One’ narrates the bond between a person and their sofa. Together they sit as one, the flesh spills and bulges, enveloping the wooden frame as a marriage of two mediums. The new form is grotesquely beautiful.

At One chair designed by Charlotte Kingsnorth. Permission to use granted by Charlotte Kingsnorth. Photo by Howard Kingsnorth.

Fat versus phat chair design

While Nanna and Charlotte’s student projects openly explore the ambiguity of obese flesh as an aesthetic form, the design of everyday chairs subtly expresses the idea that people who are obese do not or should not exist. The average chair is designed to hold approximately 115 kilos, which is about 250 lbs. With many obese people over that weight, the chairs often fail to support them.

Video memes of “Fat People Breaking Chairs” or “Fat People Getting Stuck in Chairs,” with their real or artificial laughter tracks, seek to humiliate people who are obese by turning this lack of support into humour. Note: Many YouTube videos exist but I have declined to link to them. News stories report that nail shop owners sometimes discriminate against people who are obese by using the breakage of chairs as an excuse to deny services.

For people who are obese, chairs evoke experiences of embarrassment, social isolation, and actual fear, when mentioned in their blogs and Tweets.

Holly Rose summarises these feelings in her blog:

How many times can you fall?
How many times can you break a chair?
How many times can you tolerate the humiliation?
Before you just stop leaving the house
Before you just stop accepting invitations
Before you give up
Retreat
And just lock the doors

Obesity breeds isolation
Because on top of the health issues you have
There is the fear
The anxiety
The growing realization
That you just don’t fit anywhere anymore
So why try

The design community has been slow to design for one of the fastest growing sectors of the human population. But it is now exploring the opportunities to re-design a world in which obese people fit.

The projects of design students, such as Nanna Kiil and Charlotte Kingsnorth, challenge people’s aesthetic assumptions about human flesh and furniture by seeking both the beauty and the grotesque in them. Principles of universal design are now being applied to the design of seating, thereby challenging people’s functional assumptions by insisting that products and environments should be able, as much as possible, to be used by all.

Recently, Modern Healthcare online magazine reported on how hospitals, particularly those in the United States, are leading the way in the design of bariatric seating (i.e. seating specifically designed for people who are obese).

So to answer to Holly Rose’s question as to why should she try, it is because the design of chairs will support you, both physically and emotionally so that you may now be sitting phat.