Design Notes: Now you aren't sitting comfortably

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The Independent Culture
SIT STILL! How many times have you heard that as a child? Why are you still fidgeting and why are you still uncomfortable in your chair? Is something wrong with you? Or is it your chair?

The voices of your past teachers and parents, bosses and clergy tell you that you are the problem. Your character is flawed or your posture training was poor, or probably both. Today people might even say that you have attention deficit disorder. Ergonomic researchers and some designers would argue that the chair could be better designed; the chair, not you, is to blame for your discomfort. They argue over lumbar support, seat height and tilt, the value of arm rests. Somatic educators, including Alexander teachers, and the "new ergonomic" advocates in Denmark and Germany, insist that the posture itself is to blame, not you or your chair.

Sitting is second only to the common cold as the reason for lost days at work - sedentary work is the main culprit for the rise of back problems. Standing is tiring for the legs, but sitting is tiring for the back. The compromise between sitting and standing could be called perching. Nasa calls it the neutral body posture, martial artists make use of it in the position called the horse, and Alexander teachers use it in the position of mechanical advantage. We all might use it more to our advantage. Perching is relatively easy because muscular exertion is balanced between the front and back of the spine.

To take advantage of this physiological observation, a team of Norwegian engineers and designers invented the kneeling chair in the late Seventies. Because it reconfigures the chair's most basic elements, it has been called the most radical chair design of the 20th century. However, its purpose is ultimately conservative, in that it lowers the perch position by folding the legs, primarily so that we can continue to use tables and desks at conventional heights and not have to invest in a whole new infrastructure of interiors. In contrast, in Denmark Dr A.C. Mandal has convinced schools to institute new perching chairs with correspondingly higher desks for all pupils. His hope is that as adults these children will demand higher chairs and work surfaces when they join the workforce.

Challenging the chair requires radical social change because the chair is deeply integrated into Western culture, so deeply that it has come to stand for westernisation, modernisation, even civilisation throughout the world. As a counter-trend, we could borrow from other cultures to add to our repertoire of the ways we do things. Every posture has its problems, so we want to avoid using any one of them excessively. When asked "What's the best position?" the Norwegian architect and chair designer Peter Opsvik quips, "The next one!" This means designing sequences of movement into our homes, schools, and workplaces. Job redesign is part of this picture.

The history of chair evolution over the centuries indicates that one of the biggest barriers to change is our sense of the chair as an indicator of our social status. Instead, we could embrace the concept of body-conscious design, and enlist designers' capacity to synthesise and integrate new functions into harmonious forms: for example, computers on swivel arms hovering at just the right eye-level of workers reclining in lounge chairs; stand-up workstations with bars for the feet; workmates draped over Italian physio-balls; old-fashioned rockers; zafus for kneeling; platforms for lying down while talking on the phone, thinking or resting. Redesigning our environment requires both conceptual and environmental change. Let's get a move on it!

Galen Cranz is the author of `The Chair: rethinking culture, body, and design' (Norton, pounds 19.95)