Unseating the chair

Elizabeth Tunstall

Chairs are a health hazard – that is according to Galen Cranz, U.C. Berkley Professor of Architecture and author of the book, The Chair: rethinking body, culture, and design. She states in a 1999 article:

If the designer wants to create a chair, narrowly defined as supporting the classic right-angle seated posture, he or she will be forever chasing the problem of instability throughout the body. Designers notice the sliding-forward problem, so they cant the seat up. This creates a problem in the hip joint so they compensate by opening the angle of the chair back. But this creates problems in the neck which people solve by drawing their heads forward and collapsing their chests. To look up at others with the neck so drawn forward rotates the head back and down, interfering with the primary control described earlier. In addition, chair sitters absorb some of the problem in their ribcage.

Our human bodies were not designed for right-angle seated posture.

In fact, the origins of chair design and use were to seat the sacred bodies of ancient rulers on thrones and klismos (e.g. ancient Greek chairs). Cranz describes how the archaeological record found the first chairs in Egypt and Mesopotamia around 2850 BCE. As described by design historians, from the Renaissance through the 19th century, “people of status” used chairs while the masses used benches and stools.

It wasn’t until after the Industrial Revolution and the mass manufacturing of furniture, especially the emergence of the Thonet No. 14 bistro chair in 1859, that chairs became affordable for the masses.

The myriad changes in the materials, forms and manufacturing processes of chairs over the last century of modern chair design, including the focus on ergonomic chairs, does not take away from the fact that the basic design of the chair is bad for the human body.

So if chairs are a health hazard, why do we still use them? Cranz argues that it is because chairs allow people to display their status to each other. The person who owns an original Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair is judged to be more educated, affluent, and refined than someone who owns am IKEA Poang armchair. But there has to be greater social value to chairs than that, yes? Maybe, there is not one.

The ‘Triad of Limitations’ and the social value of the chair

One of the key figures in design anthropology is designer Victor Papanek. In his book Design for the Real World, he introduces Robert Lindner’s concept of the Triad of Limitations as a framework to evaluate the social value of designs.

Triad of Limitations as described by Papanek and Lindner. Illustration by Elizabeth Tunstall

The first limitation is biological. As humans, we seek to protect against and extend beyond the weaknesses of the human body. The second limitation is that of habitat. We seek to overcome the barriers of the natural elements, space, and even time that limit human movement. The third limitation is death itself, in which we seek immortality.

How is the Triad of Limitation to be used? Papanek quotes Lindner:

If there is a purpose to life, the purpose must be to break through the triangle that thus imprisons humanity into a new order of existence where such a triad of limitations does no longer obtains…Thus the value of an item of knowledge, an entire discipline, or a deed of art can be placed upon a scale, and its measure taken.

How does the chair measure up? Does it help us humans break through our biological, habitat, or mortality limitations?

The chair at the centre of the Triad of Limitations. Illustration by Elizabeth Tunstall

According to Galen, the chair is biological health hazard, which exacerbates our body’s weaknesses instead of reducing them. So no, it does not break through our biological limitations.

Does the chair protect us from the natural elements or help us transverse space and time? In a natural disaster, you might go under a table, but not a chair. Astronauts might sit in chairs when they go to space, but the chair does not directly allow humans to break through time and space. Thus, it fails the limitation of habitat measure.

Do chairs extend our lives? No, in fact our sedentary lifestyles seem to be shortening our lives even after some great medical advances in the mid-20th century.

Thus according to Papanek and Lindner’s framework, the chair lacks social value in terms of helping humans break through our three major limitations. So, why are we still making and sitting in chairs?

Perhaps the Triad of Limitations has it own limitations as a framework for determining social value. I have been dissatisfied with the fact that it hinges on addressing negative human fears of bodily injury or harm, of confinement and control by nature, and of death.

The Triad of Well-Being and the social value of the chair

Influenced by the literature on subjective well-being, a couple of years ago, some students and I created the Triad of Well-Being to provide a more positive measure of social value for the evaluation of designs.

Triad of Well-Being by Elizabeth Tunstall. Illustration by Elizabeth Tunstall

The Triad of Well-Being focuses on the life affirmations that individuals and societies receive rather than on those things which we fear. A sense of belonging is the first aspect. Belonging is defined as the extent to which we feel mutual and secure affinity towards others. Psychological studies by Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary have demonstrated:

The need to belong is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation.

The second aspect is recognition. We describe it as the identification and acknowledgement of the specialness of an individual or group as part of the appreciation for diversity. The third aspect is self-determination. This is the extent to which an individual or group feels they possess the skills, control, and contextual knowledge to be motivated into action. Self-Determination Theory is its own sub-theory within the field of well-being studies.

How does the chair measure up to these three positive criteria?

The chair at the centre of the Triad of Well-Being. Illustration by Elizabeth Tunstall

Does the chair contribute to a sense of belonging?

It is possible to build a sense of community from the symbolism of having a specific brand or type of chair. One might feel an attachment to a specific chair. But belonging in the social sense is not inherent in the function of the chair.

In fact, the design of the chair lends itself more towards separation and individuation between people. The seat is often meant to hold only one person. Its mobility can encourage distance as well as closeness. Of our manufactured seating choices, the bench affords a greater sense of belonging because one must sit in more direct physical contact with others.

Because of its history as a form of status display, the chair does contribute to recognition. The social hierarchy built into the origins of the chair is reinforced in English language speech conventions such as the academic department chair or chair of the board. We describe positions of power as chairs because originally only the people with power had them.

Does the chair contribute to self-determination? The successful assembly of an IKEA chair may provide a temporary sense of skills, control, and contextual knowledge that contributes to a sense of self-determination. Yet, the assembly of an IKEA bookshelf might generate a deeper sense of accomplishment. Beyond the self-determination we assign to basic consumerism, the chair itself does not contribute much to the sense of self-determination.

Thus, the chair fails in two of the three criteria for evaluating the social value of a design based on the Triad of Well-Being. It succeeds in recognition by making manifest the hierarchies of status, which probably does not enhance social well-being overall.

The social value score card and un-designing chairs

The Social Value Scorecard and the chair. Illustration by Elizabeth Tunstall

I propose that we should stop designing and sitting in chairs. One of the distinctions that I maintain for design anthropology is that it advises people as to where they should stop designing because the designs hold limited social value. The Triad of Limitations and the Triad of Well-Being are two frameworks that can assist us in figuring out what we really need that allays our fears and contributes to our well-being. If a product or service does not contribute to at least four of the social value criteria (both positive and negative), then maybe it should not exist.

What are some products or services that fail to provide social value and thus should be un-designed? I would be interested in seeing your ideas.