Food: An investigation of seating disorders
Sunday 26 September 1999
It's the bottom line, representing that crucial point where the designer meets the diner. Get a bad chair, and chances are, you won't notice it. You won't stay long, either. No extra-curricular dessert wine, or coffee and petits fours for me, thanks, early morning, you know how it is. Get a good chair, however, and you still won't notice it, right through three courses, coffee, and far too many cognacs.
You can tell how long you are meant to stay in a restaurant by the nature of its chairs. The hard benches of the noodle bar are designed to send you on your way as quickly as possible, to make room for the next lot of faithful slurpers. A warm, comfy, padded armchair, on the other hand, says welcome, chief executive officer; settle in, lord of the realm; and make yourself at home, master of the universe. We are but your slaves.
A great chair works with your body, not against it. It is in proportion with the table, and in harmony with its surroundings. It's not so high that your feet are left dangling, and not so low that you feel you are a five year old at the grown-ups' table. It doesn't wobble, scrape the floor with a screech, or make your bum go numb.
Some chairs try too hard. You don't know whether to sit in them, or to stand in front of them wondering aloud what the artist was really trying to say. Some look like the thing you took home from school after metal- work class, others like Apollo 13 crash pads. Then there is the garden furniture that has escaped the great outdoors in order to ruin the great indoors. Unless your dining-room is prone to extremes in temperature and the occasional downpour, I can't see the point.
Some chairs wrap themselves around you like a Sumo wrestler's bear hug. They tend to get up to go to the bathroom at the same time as you do. Then there is the designer bum rap - all angles and curves, over- garnished and under-ergonomical. I recall one such chair that, rather than being shaped to one's posterior, actually rose in the middle of the seat in an attempt to divide and conquer. Gave me quite a fright at the time.
If you are looking for the very essence of a nation's character, the answer is right under its collective bottom. A French chair has character, poise, confidence. It stands more seriously at the table, with a sense of purpose, waiting for that soft, powdered derriere, for the tap of high heels on old parquet, secure in the knowledge of its birthright. A traditional British chair is as much at home in the drawing room as the dining room. All polished wood and glowing velvet, it is designed to impress rather than be impressed upon.
But oh, those Spanish chairs. Clean, curvaceous lines, long, lean legs, and a flash of humour - I could sit there all night. American chairs? Well, think airport, think commercially viable, think capable of carrying the weight of a fully grown corn-fed steer. If the Australian chair were a person, it would be a Swedish backpacker on Bondi Beach: always tanned, blonde and wooden; and happier out on the terrace in the sun than it is cooped up in a dining-room.
The truly great chairs do not come along everyday. Michael Thonet invented the classic bentwood chair in 1859, which went on to become the biggest selling chair of all time. Arne Jacobsen invented the revolutionary Ant chair in 1955, moulded from a single piece of plywood. You may remember that Christine Keeler added considerably to its popularity, while at the same time confusing many as to the correct way to be seated.
What's next? The cube. My local sandwich shop has cubes on wheels that can be moved to form tables, chairs and magazine stands. No legs, no backs, no arms, no wobbling, and no designer features, because it is in itself a designer feature. That should make everyone happy - except that pain in the bum, Goldilocks.
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