Against Chairs

If you hang out with industrial designers, one thing you may have noticed is that they’re really into chairs. In fact, tastes are predictable enough that you can often tell a designer’s favorite chair maker from his or her shirt. Black button-down? Mies van der Rohe. Black turtleneck? Peter Opsvik. Low-cut black V-neck and conspicuous […]

Illustration by Tiffanie Tran.

Illustration by Tiffanie Tran.

If you hang out with industrial designers, one thing you may have noticed is that they’re really into chairs.

In fact, tastes are predictable enough that you can often tell a designer’s favorite chair maker from his or her shirt. Black button-down? Mies van der Rohe. Black turtleneck? Peter Opsvik. Low-cut black V-neck and conspicuous hair product? Campanas. Every design school graduate wants a cool-looking chair in their portfolio, and chair design can be a savagely competitive field. If you can be bothered to read to the back of Wallpaper Magazine, I imagine you’ll find the page where they list all the job openings for the position of Famous Designer: “Need not apply unless strangely enthusiastic about crafting beautiful, terrible furniture for rich people.”

I hate to piss on the party, but chairs suck. All of them. No designer has ever made a good chair, because it is impossible. Some are better than others, but all are bad.  Not only are chairs a health hazard, they also have a problematic history that has inextricably tied them to our culture of status-obsessed individualism. Worse still, we’ve become dependent on them and it’s not clear that we’ll ever be free.

It sounds absurd to claim that chairs are dangerous. They’re comfortingly ubiquitous and seem almost too boring to be harmful. But when one considers that the average Briton, for instance, spends over fourteen hours seated per day, relying on chairs for support while working, relaxing, commuting, eating, and sometimes sleeping, it’s easy to believe that chairs could have a serious impact on public health.

It turns out that they do and the figures are grim: last year, the American Cancer Society wrapped up a fourteen-year longitudinal study of 120,000 participants and discovered that sitting for extended periods during the day dramatically increased participants’ risk of death. The result held even among participants who exercised regularly, and although there’s the usual confusion over causation and correlation, the study falls atop a growing pile of evidence that long times spent seated are a contributing cause of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, and practically innumerable orthopedic injuries. It does not matter if you are young, eat well and live an otherwise active life. Just being seated, in excess, will hurt you.

Yet these results are misleading. They make it look like the problem is just that we sit too much. The real problem is that sitting, in our society, usually means putting your body in a raised seat with back support — a chair. Sitting wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t sit on things that are bad for us.

What makes chairs so awful for the body? That’s a complicated question to answer, because different chairs get different things wrong. Uncomfortable chairs typically put adverse pressure on some part of the body or require excessive muscular work in order to sit. This can cause soreness and encourage the sitter to adopt slouched postures that restrict circulation, impede respiratory and intestinal function, and lead to musculoskeletal injuries.

Comfy chairs are even worse. By encouraging the sitter to remain in a single static position for long durations without moving, they put extended, unrelieved stress on the spine, weaken the muscles that support the body’s frame and prevent injury, and cause the same circulatory problems as their less comfortable counterparts. And that’s just the beginning.

There was a time when idealistic furniture companies like Hermann Miller prophesied that a safe chair design would emerge from the murky sort-of-science of ergonomics. But the ergonomics literature, pockmarked as it is with controversy and confusion, offers little insight.

No one even knows what a “good” chair would have to do, hypothetically, let alone how to make one. Some ergonomists have argued that the spine should be allowed to round forward and down in a C-shaped position to prevent muscular strain, but this pressurizes the internal organs and can cause spinal discs to rupture over time. Others advocate for lumbar support, but the forced convexity that this creates is not much better in the short run and can be worse in the long: it weakens the musculature of the lumbar region, increasing the likelihood of the very injuries it’s meant to prevent. There are similar debates over seat height, angle and depth; head, foot and arm support; and padding.

Galen Cranz, a sociologist of architecture and perhaps the world’s preeminent chair scholar, has called ergonomics “confused and even silly.” For designers without a scientific background, it’s a clusterfuck.

But admirable efforts have been made, though with only limited success. A number of Scandinavian designers have designed ball chairs, kneeling chairs, and chairs that encourage sitting in several different positions. These are improvements but not total fixes. They also frequently don’t work properly at common table heights and their unconventional appearances make them unacceptable in most workplaces.

After decades of trying, perhaps it’s time to admit that there is no way to win.

If chairs are such a dumb idea, how did we get stuck with them? Why does our culture demand that we spend most of every day sitting on objects that hurt us? What the hell happened?

It should be no surprise to readers of Jacobin that the answer lies in class politics. Chairs are about status, power, and control. That’s why we like them. Ask any furniture historian about the origins of the chair and they’ll gleefully tell you that it all started with the throne.

Some time in the Stone Age, probably between 6,000 and 12,000 years ago, high-status individuals in some cultures began to sit on small raised platforms, just large enough to hold a single person and with a backrest to support or frame the sitter. This was an effective way to designate elevated status among people who otherwise sat on the ground — much more so than stools, which lacked a back, and benches, which accommodated more than one person. The earliest evidence of these primitive thrones comes from figurines excavated in southeastern Europe, but single-person seats with a back were important status symbols in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, as well.

Obviously our chairs today are utterly different from ancient Egyptian thrones, but the throne-like properties of chairs and their resulting importance as class markers have been the key historical factors behind their rise. The general trend at most points in Western history has been that upper-class people sit in a certain type of chair — typically the crappiest, most damaging design available at the time — and everyone else tries to imitate them.

During the Middle Ages, chairs were not common in the Western world at all. After the Visigoths sacked Rome, their habits of squatting and sitting on the ground became the predominant ways for commoners to sit and until the Renaissance even wealthy feudal households had very little furniture because they had to keep moving around to avoid getting sacked themselves. The richest families would have had a single massive chair for the exclusive use of the master of the house; this chair was typically too heavy to move (to keep it from getting stolen when the house got sacked). Tables were boards on trestles, which were set up in front of the chair rather than the other way around, a practice that we still reference today in the phrase “chairman of the board.”

Eventually life got easier for the rich and lavish furniture became more widespread among the upper class. Style became increasingly important in furniture design through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and chair making, previously the domain of generalist woodworkers, became a specialized trade in its own right. Tellingly, furniture in this period was typically designed based on trends in decorating fashion rather than physiological concerns. Despite increasing use, however, chairs remained an accessory for relatively affluent households until the nineteenth century. Poor people sat on stools, benches, their beds, or improvised objects like barrels and trunks.

That changed with the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly chairs were being made cheaply in factories and more people could afford to sit like the rich. At the same time, labor was being sedentarized: as workers moved en masse from agriculture to factories and offices, laborers spent more and more time sitting in those newly mass-producible chairs. As usual, class aspirations determined what people bought: body-conscious innovations like patent chairs, which were adjustable, and rocking chairs, which encouraged movement, sadly received only marginal acceptance from the wealthy and saw limited use.

And so it was that from the turn of the twentieth century on, chairs had society in their clutches.

As chairs became prevalent in schoolrooms, they became a tool for teachers to control the movement of children, whose healthy tendency toward activity made them difficult to teach. Today, children in the developed world learn early that sitting still in a chair is part of what it means to be an adult. The result is that by the time they actually reach adulthood, most have lost the musculature to sit comfortably for prolonged periods without back support.

As if social and physiological dependence on chairs weren’t bad enough, designers have screwed us once again by building yet another level of dependence into our environments themselves: offices and kitchens are often fitted with work surfaces fixed at standard chair heights, chairs are a fixture in almost every form of vehicular transport, and computer monitors, lighting, and other devices are often designed in such a way that they’re difficult to use unless seated at a table. Chairs are, so to speak, part of the furniture. Not only is there no way to win, there’s no way to escape.

We’re faced, then, with a couple of depressing conclusions. One is that chairs are a sort of inanimate parasite, ensuring their continued production by addicting each successive generation of kids. The other is that they’re here to stay for the foreseeable future.

I’d love to end this essay with a cry for a cultural shift away from chairs and toward more active sitting, on the floor or squatting or whatever, but really, we’re stuck with this shit for a while. The best we can hope for from chairs right now is a lesson on the dangers of fashion and a historical counterexample to the myth that the public acts in its own collective interest. If you want to sit healthily, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands; the best habit to develop is not to stay seated for more than ten minutes at a time.

If you read at an average speed, you should get up right now and walk around.

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