Sit down and make a political statement

The modern chair offers insight into the souls of men, so what does this say about the Tory Party Conference?
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It's poor sport, really, poking fun at the Conservatives for their choice of conference chairs. Here they are, doing their best to be a little bit groovy, a little bit New Labour, and what do we do? We snigger. "They're actually jolly comfy," said the Conservative Party deputy chairman Michael Ancram defensively, in the manner of a middle-aged woman caught buying thong knickers.

More tellingly, Ancram goes on to say that their Ikea chairs show that "we have changed". Now this is more like it - the chair as political statement. Comfort has nothing to do with where we sit, and arguably never has had. Chairs, say Charlotte and Peter Fiell in their important study Modern Chairs, "reflect the aspirations and socio-political viewpoints of their owners, laying bare their personalities and their social class. More than any other furniture type, the chair offers an insight into the souls of men."

Looked at this way, it is easy to see why the Conservatives chose the Tullsta armchair as a metaphorical four-legged manifesto: it is a slightly updated version of a traditional style, but not so modern that it will frighten the horses; it is just upright enough to stop its occupants nodding off during keynote speeches, but laid-back enough to say: "Hey, we're pretty cool, us Tories; sometimes we unbutton our shirts at the collar..."

It's the Modernists who usually get the blame for taking the comfort out of chairs and turning them in to intellectual statements. The American architect Philip Johnson, a protege of the arch-Modernist Mies van der Rohe, did once say that "comfort is a function of whether you think a chair is good-looking or not", and the Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld believed that if you were tired you should lie down, because sitting demanded an active participation (as good a justification as any for the punishing geometric lines of his Mondrian chair).

But if you look back at the history of seating, it has never been a simple matter of comfort.

Medieval chairs were primarily ceremonial - the man who sat raised above others was not concerned with supporting his gluteus maximus; he was symbolising his status and authority (hence the word "chairman"). The notion of sitting comfortably became established only in the Victorian era, but even then there was a hidden agenda.

Plump, buttoned chairs were a visual manifestation of a gentleman's status - an indication that he was wealthy enough to be able to afford to put his feet up.

In the 20th century, while we take functional comfort for granted we have got the status thing down to a fine art - nowhere more ferociously than in the office.

We reward the executive with the fine-tuned, high-performance chair in padded black leather with wrap-around power, while the lowly clerical worker is kept in his or her place with the status equivalent of a B-reg Skoda: armless, upholstered in vomit-green rake tweed and ergonomically correct to ensure maximum productivity, but without the frills that might give anyone ideas above his station.

Sheridan Coakley, of SCP, where Labour shopped for their ever-so-cool Summit furniture kit, damns the Ikea choice with faint praise. "It's inoffensive," he says carefully. On the other hand, he is pleased to see politicians harnessing the power of modern design, which they once regarded with suspicion as "stuff for pinkos and homosexuals".

And while he thinks they could have gone somewhere a bit more cutting- edge for their design statement, he has to approve it on practical and economic grounds: "It's only got to last a week, after all, so Ikea's the obvious choice," he remarks, adding to this week's glut of flat-pack jokes.

In terms of what Charlotte and Peter Fiell call the "intellectual content" of a chair (now there's a frightening thought - your chair may be more intelligent than you are) it's probably not a bad fit: fairly lightweight, middle-brow - although it's a bit of a tight squeeze for Matron Widdecombe.

Chocolate Baby by Paul Daly at Space. "It's square ... and the upholstery comes from Scotland where the Tories could do with more seats." - Emma Oldham, owner of Space

The Balzac chair by Matthew Hilton at SCP. "It's the modern version of a classic gentleman's club chair, so it gets all the hormones going in that direction. The only drawback for the Tories might be that Peter Mandelson's got one at home." - Sheridan Coakley, owner of SCP

The DaDaDa rocking stool by Philippe Starck at Viaduct. "It's a symbol of the human swingometer. And it comes in all colours." - James Mair, owner of Viaduct