The Chair Conundrum

Every industrial designer in his or her lifetime hopes to create an iconic chair. Almost all of the heavy weights of design or architecture have a chair or seat associated with their name. Le Corbusier is known for his chaise longue, Ludwig Mies Vande Rohe for his Barcelona chair, Verner Panton for the S chair and Achille Castiglioni for his tractor-seat inspired creation.


But the point I want to make with this article, perhaps echoes the sentiment which gave rise to Studio 65’s Pratone. The Pratone with its oversized blades of polyurethane grass attempts to bring indoors the joy of sitting in a lush green lawn. It also wills the user to be a tad less serious about sitting upright, after all who needs a chair to sit? You can sit just about anywhere you manage to park your behind.
Now let us examine this thought in a different context. In an environment, that is austere and lacks all luxury. Let us think about the households in third world countries, which have fewer means than the reader. For those households the question –‘Who needs a chair to sit?’ is not just a rhetorical comment, it is in fact a plainly stated fact. Chairs are not indispensable, they are not essential for life. And yet a lot of designers and architects continue to exercise their efforts in the design of chairs and other such seating furniture.
Let’s suppose for a while that the chair was never invented, that human beings didn’t mind sitting on the ground. Let’s imagine a completely revolutionary domestic landscape, where short stools perform the function of writing desks, where all the working surfaces are lower to enable working while sitting on the ground. The picture I am painting here would perhaps be familiar to those who have seen slums in India or other parts of the world. People who lead impoverished lives often improvise and do away with what they deem unnecessary. And yet, I am not even completely sure whether chairs are unnecessary. Even as I write this piece from the comfort of my reclining office-style chair, there are questions which come to my mind about the practicality of a chair-less situation. For a chair-less existence to be possible in this day and age, a completely new eco-system of products would have to be designed. This would eventually be counteractive to the budgeted use of material and processes I wish to advocate. On the other hand, in a household where chairs have not yet made their presence felt, having furniture or a product which facilitates the use of ground as a sitting or possibly comfortable sleeping surface could be beneficial.
I am not undermining the efforts of those designers or architects who have made chairs. But I wish to impress upon any creatives reading my words that do give an enormous thought before designing another chair. Examine the motives behind your design; strip them down to the basics. In case you wish to create a product to sit upon, do consider alternatives which leverage the usefulness of floors. Use elements of multi-functionality where appropriate. Take a reductive approach to design and do away with the non-essential. These very sentiments were once voiced by the Bauhaus School when it ushered in an era of designs and architecture which was devoid of formal ornamentation and honest to it purpose. They shunned excesses and opulence preferring a minimal aesthetic. The principles of austerity they preached at the time are still valid. In fact, it would be much better to examine them more deeply and connect them to design at a more fundamental level and not just a formal or aesthetic one.
Austerity is easier to observe when it is enforced by design and not by constrains. Designing products which encourage austerity in our daily lives could make us more conscious of our actions and their results on the environment around us. If designers can teach the end-user to make do with less, they would make their profession more relevant to the needs of today. The question of sustainable design would be better answered when the very existence of a product would be closely scrutinized. Austere designs would make the designer’s profession more relevant to a larger part of the world’s population – specially the part which needs their intervention the most.

The Length, Breadth and Depth of Design

Whenever someone asks me a question – What is design? I find myself giving either clichéd answers or fumbling to stitch together inadequate sentences to describe the vocation I love. The meaning of design is definitely very hard to pin down. But with this article, I’d like to take a jab at it.
Design is both a noun and a verb. It is a designer’s passion, a business activity, a thought process and a way of life. Design is not mutually exclusive of other creative disciplines be it fine art, architecture and performing arts. And can very well include traditionally non-creative disciplines like engineering, sociology and scientific research. But for the sake of having an organising principle let me start by taking an academic approach to identifying types of design. Design which is taught in d-schools world over is usually categorised as follows: Industrial design (often includes Product design, Car design, Furniture design, Ceramic and Glass design), Space design (Interior design & Exhibition design), Graphic design (may include UI design) and Fashion design (Apparel design, Knitwear design, Textile design, and Accessories design). Design students are taught to optimally use design elements such as form, shape, colour, and texture to come up with aesthetically appealing and functional end products. These principles of design are fundamental to and applicable for all disciplines of design. So, to put it in a big nutshell – the way a mobile phone, television set, house, office, car or garment looks and functions is all design. The many design types mentioned above or the ‘design departments’ as we call them, form the length of design.
Despite having a governing set of principles and laws postulated by pioneering design practitioners and design schools, design is definitely not an exact science. Design, like art has an emotional aspect. A product may be deemed likeable or dislikeable simply on basis of the emotional appeal it exerts on a given individual. Design is also ever evolving. A solution which may seem perfect now may become dated or obsolete by the end of the year. Design can easily be compared to an organically growing entity which absorbs new information, mutates and grows. But design is not always about ‘What’s new?’ Design also involves breathing new life into the old, re-inventing our heritage to retain its relevance to the current times. And yet ensuring the identity of our culture is not lost in the process. The degree of innovation could be the breadth of design where innovation strictly means creating something new. A design may be creative or interesting, but yet not innovative. This in no ways means that less innovative design is not as good as more innovative design. I use it simply as a parameter to categorise different designs. The latest digital tablet in the market is as good a design product, as your grandma’s finely woven Pashmina.
Finally we come to the depth of design. This aspect of design is probably the hardest to define. It explains the extent of influence of design as a way of thinking. When we talk about the depth of design, I’d like the reader to imagine taking a deep dive into a bottomless ocean. The depth, to which your imagination can take you, is the depth of design. Design is not always tangible. A lot of design is an intangible thought process. Design is not just the form of your smartphone, it is also the creative marketing techniques which are involved in selling it. A lot of design is done by non-designers. It is part of the inherent inventive nature of human beings. Sometimes this realm of design is called ‘design thinking’. In a design school it may be taught as part of a ‘Service design’ course wherein not only is the product designed by a designer. But the whole experience around the product is also consciously designed. The design of a mobile app which facilitates car pooling in crowded cities cannot be merely contained within the discipline of UI design. The idea also counts. It is the simple result of a complicated thought process; it is the result of ‘thinking like a designer’. The depth of design is easily the most powerful and influential aspect of design. It tackles issues and problems which are often not associated with a designer. In fact, in some ways it demands the intervention of a designer in areas which require a design thinker’s attention the most. Design is all about thinking laterally – considering alternatives, questioning dogma and exploring what’s new while taking advantage of what already exists. While strictly speaking design disciplines tackle the design of a single entity, design thinking considers the whole eco-system of design. When BMW proved through its Fun Theory program, that it could get more people to take the stairs by simply making it fun to do – they did not invent a whole new gadget. They simply used oversized piano keys on top of stairs– definitely not an innovative product, but the context in which it was placed made it astoundingly brilliant idea. Who’d have thought that designers could help reduce obesity without making gym equipment?
Although I did start out attempting to define design, I now feel that design cannot be defined. It is a dynamic, ever-changing, ever-growing field. And ironically, the non-designer is more important in the evolution of design than the design professional. Design is like a tool – a resource which free for all to use. It is adaptable and meaningful to different situations. It does not come with an instructions manual and that is the beauty of it. It works for you in the way you want it to work; it contributes to the extent you want it to contribute. It is a magic wand and you invent your own spells- it simply harnesses the inventiveness, intelligence and creativity which already resides in you.