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.

Pratone


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.
-cw

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