There are certain subjects that do not seem to lend themselves to serious or interesting scrutiny. I would have said the history of the chair, and its place in society, would have been one of those subjects until reading Professor (and Alexander Teacher) Galen Cranz's new book, The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design.
Professor Cranz takes a look at the history of chairs, their place establishing hierarchical relationships among people, and the various design attempts artists and architects have made at creating chairs. Cranz makes clear in her book that in chair design often the "emphasis is on materials-plastic, metal, and wood in varied applications-rather than on the effect of the chair and its structure upon the body and its structure." The chair becomes an object, an everyday sculpture, that oftentimes disregards the fact that it is being used in particular ways for particular purposes, with substantial impact on the individual who sits in the chair.
In recent history, an increasing focus has been made on the way chairs affect our use. For anyone interested in the way we use ourselves, the portion of the book that examines the ergonomic attempts to create a more body-friendly chair reads like a dark comedy, as various attempts are made to address one part of the body, without adequately considering another part. Cranz takes us through this process and helps us see the misconceptions that many designers have built into their chairs. One of the first, and biggest, problems facing designers is figuring out how to determine what would make a chair that facilitated ease and comfort. Comfort is a particularly vexing concept, for reasons obvious to any Alexander teacher, since the old familiar habitual patterns are going to tend to feel comfortable, at least in the short term. Cranz suggests that the various attempts at measuring comfort, including the use of "Electromyogram tests... stresses along the spine, using needles in the discs or pressure-sensitive pills" have been unsuccessful in measuring a meaningful change in comfort level for the person sitting.
Another refreshing aspect of the book is the radical notion put forward by a new breed of ergonomic designers that chair design specifically, and workplace design in general, should not be restricted by "traditional cultural expectations. They want to change traditional workplace design. For them, the beginning and end of design should be the body."
Cranz gives a short history of the Alexander Technique in her book, but only references the Technique when it is relevant to the general design questions at hand. The Technique is presented as a unique approach that can help inform chair design, without proselytizing about the specific benefits of the Technique itself. The Technique has simply become, in effect, part of the relevant literature on design issues.
In one section of the book, Cranz talks about how one's conception of gravity will change one's design ideas: "If a designer thinks gravity is the enemy, he/she will design chairs like bags to hold our collapsed structures. But if the designer believes that gravity is useful to us, the sitting surface can function more like a platform so that the structure of forces and counterforces helps us spring into the body's natural volume-as opposed to being stacked from the bottom up like a wall or collapsed into a heap." She goes on to say that "The most wide-ranging philosophical insight from the Alexander Technique and the somatic perspective generally is that human beings are designed for movement, and that more important than any single given posture is the quality of our movement, our overall coordination."
Cranz questions the traditional notions of lumbar support, of chair backs that do not continue high enough to support the shoulders and head, and of the various other design decisions that have interfered with a more natural use of the body. In the last sections of the book, Cranz lays out her recommendations for a better chair, ("a forward-tilt seat, firm-textured surface, a flat uncontoured seat, butt space between seat and backrest,") as well as examining some of the more unconventional approaches that have been taken to try to address the complex challenges of more intelligent and humane chair design.
Cranz has successfully turned a topic that could easily have been relegated to the back shelves of university libraries into a fascinating account of what chairs have been, done and stood for over the centuries, and what they can become in the future.