The tyranny of chairs: why we need better design | Design

The tyranny of chairs: why we need better design | Design

‘Let’s face the considerable evidence that all sitting is harmful,” writes Galen Cranz, a design

‘Let’s face the considerable evidence that all sitting is harmful,” writes Galen Cranz, a design historian whose book The Chair traces this object’s long history. Not all sitting, of course. For people who use wheelchairs, they’re an elegant and crucial technology. And sitting itself is not the culprit; any unchanging, repetitive motion or posture fails to give the body the variation it needs. But Cranz, writing primarily for an audience of ambulatory readers in industrialised and therefore sedentary societies, is one of many researchers who have been saying for decades that chairs are a major cause of pain and disability.

Sitting for hours and hours can weaken your back and core muscles, pinch the nerves of your rear end and constrain the flow of blood that your body needs for peak energy and attention. Most people’s bodies are largely unsuited to extended periods in these structures. Extensive research confirms that sitting in chairs is correlated, Cranz notes, with “back pain of all sorts, fatigue, varicose veins, stress and problems with the diaphragm, circulation, digestion, elimination and general body development”. There is growing evidence that relentlessly sedentary jobs – in some, such as bus driving and forklift operating, bodies are literally strapped to chairs – are harmful enough to shorten life expectancy.

For most of human history, a mix of postures was the norm for a body meeting the world. Squatting has been as natural a posture as sitting for daily tasks, and lying down was a conventional pose for eating in some ancient cultures. So why has sitting in chairs persisted in so many modern cultures? As with all material objects, Cranz reminds us, function tells only part of the story. The other part, always, is culture – the inherited and sometimes arbitrary ways that things have always been done, and therefore continue as common practice. “Biology, physiology and anatomy have less to do with our chairs than pharaohs, kings and executives,” she writes.

One kind of historical chair, called the “klismos” by historians, developed primarily as a historical expression of status. Setting a body higher than and apart from other people, in an individual structure with rigid, flat planes – a throne, if you will – evolved as a way of recognising an individual’s power, with the earliest known models dating to ancient Egypt and south-eastern Europe. Their use as an expression of authority continued throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the endurance of this symbolism lives on as metaphor in many contemporary leadership titles; to chair the committee or the department, or to sit in the designated “director’s chair” on a film set, is still to hold a seat of power.

The seat of power … the Egyptian god Osiris on a throne.
The seat of power … the Egyptian god Osiris on a throne. Photograph: De Agostini/Getty

In the centuries prior to western industrialisation, stools or benches were common household furnishings, but chairs were special-occasion objects, usually the exclusive property of the wealthy and powerful. The era of mass manufacturing in the 19th century, and the rapid social and economic changes that came with it, brought chairs into daily life for the first time. Industrial jobs, with their repetitive tasks, required a seated posture, and the high demand for chairs that this created in turn made them available and affordable to middle-class people in Europe and the US.

“Chair-and-table culture,” Cranz writes, has become fully entrenched in many parts of the world since then. Modern interior designers have done their part to perpetuate chairs as a fashionable and practical norm, reinventing the form again and again in its aesthetics, though not nearly enough in its ergonomics. Chairs are four-legged creatures with anatomical backs and bottoms, familiar to humans because they stand up, almost like animals, beckoning us with their lifelike structures to sit down. Cranz notes that they appeal to humans, and perhaps especially designers, with this blend of the “architectonic and the anthropomorphic”: they are structurally interesting and an echo of the body itself.

But while they remind us of the human form, chairs rarely do much to actually support it. For instance, many chair designs feature big, soft cushions that seem to indicate comfort, but in ergonomics, the consensus contradicts this padded aesthetic. Cranz writes that “an overpadded chair forces the sit bones to rock in the padding rather than make contact with a stable surface, thereby forcing the flesh in the butt and thighs to bear weight”.

How can a nice cushioned chair that screams comfort be so ill-suited to most actual bodies? The real science of ergonomics, Cranz argues, should point designers toward chair design that supports and enables the body’s need for movement, not stillness – with seats that angle downward in front, for example, and have a base that’s flexible enough for the sitter to shift their body weight from leg to leg. But for the most part, these principles are ignored in favour of fashion and cheap manufacturing.

Chairs are generally not a response to the realities of the body, its natural evolution, or its needs over any extended period. Instead, the industrialised body has devolved in its needs and succumbed to chairs. “We design them,” Cranz writes, repurposing a famous line of Winston Churchill’s, “but once built, they shape us.”

Naturally, there have been plenty of attempts by designers to reinvent sitting. There are kneeling chairs, bouncing balls, perch-style stools with rounded bottoms to encourage shifts in weight and movement. There are flexibly designed chairs such as the Tripp Trapp for children, with pegs for adjusting the seat and leg supports to grow with a young body. Some offices have started to introduce standing desks. But at the average restaurant, in the ordinary classroom, and on trains, buses and aeroplanes, you’ll still find chairs that are mostly at odds with any idea of comfort.

It’s not just chairs, of course – so many of the products brought to market by the profession of industrial design were not created for many bodies. Instead, they were designed to be plentiful, novel rather than necessary, and cheap. One famous designer, Victor Papanek, memorably dubbed these bad designs a form of “do-it-yourself murder”.

“Never before in history have grown men sat down and seriously designed electric hairbrushes, rhinestone-covered file boxes, and mink carpeting for bathrooms, and then drawn up elaborate plans to make and sell the gadgets to millions of people,” he wrote in 1971. “Today, industrial design has put murder on a mass-production basis. By designing criminally unsafe automobiles that kill or maim nearly 1 million people around the world each year, by creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous breed.”

Papanek was calling out his entire profession when he wrote these words. Design for the Real World, his first book, was a fiercely argued polemic about the misguided operations of industrial design in the mid-20th century, a call for designers to question what Papanek witheringly referred to as “shroud design” – a preoccupation with the way things look on the outside, at the expense of how they should function and how robustly and sustainably they are made. He understood how the products with which we navigate daily life match (or fail to match) the bodies and tasks they are meant to conjoin as tools. He likened his peers’ shirking of their responsibilities to “what would happen if all medical doctors were to forsake general practice and surgery, and concentrate exclusively on dermatology and cosmetics”.

Victor Papanek.
‘Designers have become a dangerous breed,’ said Victor Papanek in 1971. Photograph: Album/Alamy Stock Photo

Papanek was responding to the heady early days of truly mass manufacturing in the aftermath of the second world war, when supply chains expanded to previously unimaginable scale, fuelled by an equally huge advertising industry. Papanek understood the job of product design to be an ambitious one – to “transform man’s environment and tools and, by extension, man himself” – but he saw in the giddiness of postwar growth a moment when designers lost their way. An overwhelming cultural belief and investment in technology created a cultural appetite for whatever seemed shiny and new, and the industry now pandered to it.

The public’s ready acceptance of these shiny new objects, whose lifespan was meant to last only until the next new thing arrived, created an allegiance among designers to what Papanek called “the dark twins of styling and obsolescence”. Manufacturing for styling, amplified by advertising, resulted in an empty desire for unnecessary objects that became quickly unusable. And objects that were created purely for ephemeral desire, in turn, created a whole ethos of obsolescence – an accepted disposability that made for a dangerous neglect of safety standards, resulting in needless injury from common household objects. At the time of his writing, he claimed that 600 women annually lost a hand in injuries brought about by top-loading washing machines. When operating at its worst, design resulted in needless injury, but in its everyday mediocrity it also created conditions where objects were not in harmony with the needs of the people for whom they were designed.

As Papanek observed, there is a wide gulf between the people who use TV remotes, car dashboards and other everyday items, and the people who make the design decisions that bring those items into being, who are driven or constrained by motives other than ease of use. The bodiedness of people gets lost, especially in the sedentary workplace, where human labour is imagined not as flesh and muscles, but as measurable economic deliverables, organised by roles and tasks. Yet the work is carried out by bodies all the same, not just in chairs, but among the angular shapes of desks and copiers and countertops, alongside mechanical and digital machines. The passive as well as active physical requirements of our workdays tax our bodies, whether we bend repeatedly to harvest berries or sit still in a phone bank for hours on end.

Papanek was particularly barbed in his assessment of design’s failure to allow for non-normative bodies. He called for a much closer focus on people and conditions whose needs were commonly written off by his design counterparts as “special”: older people, people with disabilities, elementary school students, and any population considered beyond the scope of the middling mainstream. But as Papanek pointed out, we were all children once, and almost all of us become, in turn, adolescents, middle-aged people and older adults. If we combine all the “seemingly little minorities [and their] ‘special’ needs,” he wrote, we discover that “we have designed for the majority after all”.

Post-Papanek, designers continued to wrestle with the conundrum of chairs. In the late 70s, the office furniture giant Herman Miller commissioned independent designers Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick to look for opportunities in the furniture market, gaps that new products might fill and thereby expand the company’s market share. In the course of their research, Stumpf and Chadwick, seasoned observers of humans and designed environments, noted one particular context in which chairs were creatively adapted but ill-suited to their sitters: older adults who spent a lot of their day sitting in La-Z-Boy recliners, watching TV or doing otherwise passive activities.

They noted that the recliner had even become a makeshift medical treatment chair; they witnessed it being used, for example, in a half-reclined state for people undergoing dialysis treatment. Despite the advantages of its variability in pitch and support structures, however, it was the wrong chair for many of the conditions that come with ageing. Older adults with weakened muscles had trouble getting in and out or reaching the lever for changing positions, and the deep padding, used for its presumed comfort, put people who sat for long periods at risk of bedsores.

Inspired by the spirit of the recliner, Stumpf and Chadwick reconsidered all of its traditional features and generated a prototype called the Sarah chair , which they pitched to Herman Miller in 1988. It had all the flexibility of a recliner and more – multiple ways to choose the pitch of the back, seat and arms, and a flexible footrest for changing positions more easily. They reduced the padding significantly, making a thinner and more breathable seat structure. The model was popular in-house as a chair with purpose – many Herman Miller staff could imagine it being useful for their grandparents, for example. But the mass-market appeal wasn’t obvious at first, and the firm rejected the Sarah in its first iteration, only to revive the design a few years later.

An Aeron chair
An Aeron chair. Photograph:

For the second version, Stumpf and Chadwick imagined the ergonomic features of the chair with ageing still in mind, but also the body of the average office worker, commonly tethered for long stretches to a personal computer and keyboard. They got rid of the foam padding altogether, making the model’s signature new aesthetic a cushionless seat of thick plastic webbing that would support the shapes of any body, not just an ageing one. The Aeron was a wild success, quickly taken up as a status symbol in high-end office environments like those in Silicon Valley.

Aeron chairs have become a canonical, if expensive, example of what’s called “universal” design and its variants, barrier-free and inclusive design. This principle is what many people think of when they hear the words “disability” and “design” together. The logic of universalism goes like this: designers gain surprising and powerful insights from looking closely not at norms and averages – not at people whose experiences fall well inside the expected middle of a curve – but instead at people and scenarios at the margins of experience, so-called extreme users. Good designers, the thinking goes, will take a close look at unusual circumstances, places where products (or environments, or services) are full of friction for people with particular needs. There, in the margins of human experience, are clues to suboptimal conditions that may also affect people in the normative middle, though perhaps to a lesser degree.

In the case of disability, that would mean closely observing older adults and wheelchair users, and people on the autism spectrum, say, and then abstracting from those observations. What is working for these people, and what isn’t, based on what they say or do, or what they don’t say or do? Where might improvements be introduced to address those points of friction at the margins, the places where design isn’t working? After a series of prototypes and testing, the process aims to make a more user-friendly, ergonomic, accessible product (or service, or environment) for all – in principle, at least, design “for everyone”.

It wasn’t Papanek who offered universal design to the world; it was disabled people whose long-held insights generated what became a set of principles that designers could follow. Ronald Mace, a wheelchair user and architect, is credited with introducing the term “universal design” to the public in 1985. In part, the coinage was strategic, recasting features of design that had been considered “special” as simply good design, resulting in products and buildings that were straightforwardly “usable by all people”.

The universal design principles that Mace and others in the disability community generated read like an antidote not only to the preoccupation with “styling and obsolescence” that Papanek called out, but also to the “murderous” results of negligent design; they include principles such as “simple and intuitive use”, “perceptible information”, “low physical effort”, and perhaps most important of all, “tolerance for error”.

Universal design isn’t restricted to high-end items such as the Aeron chair. If you go looking for kitchen tools in your average store, for example, you’ll easily find the Oxo Good Grips line, with the familiar thick black pliable rubber handles that have just enough give to hold comfortably, and just enough sturdy resistance to offer leverage. The brand began with a vegetable peeler, an object so everyday as to be invisible – and that peeler originated, as design often does, in a complaint that inspired an idea.

In the late 80s, a woman named Betsey Farber was attempting to use a standard metal vegetable peeler in the holiday house she was renting with her husband, Sam, a retired entrepreneur. The tool was frustrating to use, especially because Betsey had arthritis. So, right there in the kitchen, Sam and Betsey started to sketch out ideas for a new version of a peeler. With further refinement, those ideas resulted in the now-ubiquitous Oxo design: fins on the sides elegantly indicate the place to put your thumb in order to optimise the mechanics of use, a visual cue for intuitive handling. When you hold the peeler against a carrot, it encourages you to apply just enough pressure to catch a ribbon of skin without cutting too deeply, and without a reckless amount of slip that would send both carrot and peeler flying from your hands.

Sam Farber came out of retirement and went to work on the peeler, and the idea that he and Betsey hatched was taken up in a partnership with a product design firm that went on to create the Good Grips line: can openers, salad tongs and other tools made for the subtle work of manual kitchen tasks. Thus went a now-classic universal design success story, which has taken its place in the canon alongside that of the Aeron chair, as inspiration to a generation of would-be practitioners.

An Oxo Good Grips tin opener.
An Oxo Good Grips tin opener. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

There are other stories besides. Designer Marc Harrison was commissioned by Cuisinart in the late 70s to overhaul its commercial-grade food processor into a more consumer-friendly domestic model. The company didn’t ask Harrison to address disability as a use case for its product, but Harrison’s research and teaching at Rhode Island School of Design had included years of collaborative work on furniture for rehabilitation settings and wheelchair-accessible housing. Those experiences nourished the insights Harrison brought to the processor. He introduced things such as large-print, high-contrast lettering for the labels, and controls that flipped like paddles rather than requiring fiddly turning. These and other features were informed by usability principles Harrison had learned from looking closely at disability. This kind of commitment and imagination in design yields products and experiences that can make life better without you even noticing it.

Disability is the little-acknowledged heart of the innovation in many digital tools, too. The history of the telephone, for example, is tightly bound up with research on deafness. Alexander Graham Bell’s work with deaf students and their teachers solidified his research on making speech visible, reducible to signals and therefore transmittable by electronic means. That research made telephone technology possible, but it also helped set in motion the standardisation of signal processing that was crucial to early computing.

In the US, perhaps the most hidden-in-plain-sight of examples of these innovations is the landmark change to media consumption that happened after disability activists fought for closed-captioning technology to be built into every standard television. The Television Decoder Circuitry Act, passed in the US in 1990, required the technology to be a standard part of the television manufacturing process, rather than an extra device attached alongside it. The battle to pass the legislation was difficult and protracted, in the face of resistance from within the communications industry about the perceived extra expense it would entail. But thanks to the economy of scale created by the legislation, the cost of adding this capacity to televisions is now so small that it is almost impossible to calculate. Meanwhile, closed captioning has become a standard feature of daily life. It’s how you follow along with sports matches across a restaurant or airport terminal, and it’s how you understand clips from an election debate on your laptop with the sound off, making it possible to multitask when your kids are in the next room trying to get to sleep.

It would be easy to conclude from these stories that universal design is dispatching “murderous” objects to the dustbin of history, and that it alone points the way to a more accessible future. Designing ergonomic objects that can be mass-produced and affordable enough to find their way into the hands of people who need them is an unassailable good. But disability scholars also point to the ironies created by the work that Mace and his ilk set in motion. One is that while the dominant model of universal design has disability at its centre, the very success of the innovations it generates tends to obscure their origin stories, as in the case of the Oxo peeler. That success makes many people overlook the barriers that still exist to an adaptive, flexible world for disabled people. Universal design also tends to stoke an unquestioned faith in the importance of products, attained by consumers, as the key to building a desirable world. A better product might be useful in the short term, but sometimes it’s a better process, or a better system, that’s needed to provide a long-term solution.

Take, for example, the Leveraged Freedom Chair, a design created with paraplegic wheelchair users in parts of the world where accessible streets are rare. Amos Winter, director of the Global Engineering and Research Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), did years of trial-and-error field research with his team in Tanzania, Guatemala and India, in order to collaboratively design a chair with variable torque in driving, even in off-road terrain, using very simple technology. Depending on where you grab one of its extended handles, you get more or less mechanical advantage, just like switching gears on a bicycle, which makes uneven pavement or dirt roads much more navigable. A third wheel in front adds balance. “We failed a number of times,” Winter has said. The design process “has to start and end with end users”, he says. “These are the people who have to define the requirements of the technology, and give it the thumbs-up at the end.”

Getting the seat, frame and handles in the right positions to be both comfortable and advantageous in their physics was an engineer’s task of very fine designing and building. But the real ingenuity isn’t in the mechanics; it’s in the sustainable system for repair and maintenance. Many wheelchair companies make their chairs with their own proprietary parts, so even if they donate free chairs to people who need them, the parts are expensive to replace, and the chairs become unusable when they break. If a wheelchair is going to last in a rural area among populations who aren’t rich, says Winter, “it has to be repairable using the local tools, materials and knowledge in those contexts”. The Freedom Chair was made of globally standardised and affordable bicycle parts, so they can be repaired and replaced anywhere in the world.

“To make something cheap and simple and reliable often takes rigorous engineering,” says Winter. “What is the solution that will give you the required performance for as little money and as little complexity as possible?” The Leveraged Freedom Chair was not a compromise; it wasn’t a chair that was “good enough” for the people who use it. It was the right design for specific people in specific contexts, and it was designed to last.

• Adapted from What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World by Sara Hendren, published by Riverhead Books

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