The Perfect Seat

A short course on sitting down

The Olo Chair, Designed by Andrew Jones / Courtesy of Keilhauer

In April of last year, David Holmes, a professor of psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University in England, developed a formula for the perfect posterior. Using the equation (s + c) x (b + f) / t – v, Holmes claimed, you could account for the appeal of any female bottom, factoring in its shape (s), circularity (c), bounce (b), firmness (f), texture (t), and pertness (v). He also came up with a formula for the male derrière, but the media took little note, sticking to the Kylie Minogue angle on the story.

Holmes’s formula is actually quite intriguing. By applying a scientific equation to something as varied and unscientific as a tush, Holmes was attempting to systematize taste, creating an ideal through a sum of heretofore private parts. Of course, securing the formula for perfection isn’t Holmes’s quest alone. Most industries have their own methods for defining what is paragon, though not all are lucky enough to have them distilled into math.

Consider, for example, industrial designers. They shape everything from toothbrushes to aerodynamic nose cones — which, as the architectural historian Galen Cranz put it, once built, shape us. There is no one formula for understanding perfect design, but if there were, it might begin with the basic tenet that an object can be more than the sum of its functions. Much like a good bottom, we know good design when we see it. But what, exactly, makes for good chair design? In a world of imperfect bums, there must be science behind the designs for where we place them.

Not surprisingly, a chair’s parts are anthropomorphic: legs, backs, arms, and, of course, seats. The chair is one of the most versatile pieces of furniture in the Western world, yet it is easy to take for granted. In The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design, Cranz reminds us that though we spend much of our waking lives in chairs, we know little about them or their effects on us.

The earliest chair-like objects date back to 10,000 BC, to the age of flint tools and stone houses, when benches and ledges were used for sitting and sleeping. The oldest extant example of a chair hails from ancient Egypt and was uncovered in the Valley of the Kings, near Luxor, in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Two basic types of chairs have evolved since then, and they have been reworked over the ages: the throne, a straight-backed chair traditionally used by royalty and members of the upper class, and the clismos, a more modest, popular seat with a slightly inclined back, used by the hoi polloi.

Structural deviations from these two fundamental forms have depended mostly on social and geographic context, with things like construction materials, dimensions, and hierarchical function varying slightly from culture to culture. Assyrian carvings show frequent chair use by kings — their thrones supported by sculpted caryatids — but also in domestic settings, where specific seating arrangements were dictated by social rank. The Greeks of the fifth century BC are known for chairs with rigid perpendicular backs, celebrations of status over comfort. In the Victorian era, upholstered chairs, like women, wouldn’t dare reveal their “ankles,” and were thus draped in floorlength sleeves.

Today, marking a move toward function over form, comfort and use are the factors that preoccupy most designers. Kirsten White, a Toronto-based designer who has run her own company for over ten years, says, “Comfort is at the top of my list, especially when it comes to chairs, which we relate to so physically — almost like an article of clothing. You know in a second whether or not a chair is comfortable.” White’s teak Kattegat chair, with its sleek lines and slatted seat, can be found in the Getty Villa Malibu and the Tahoe Mountain Club in California. When it was first manufactured, by Rock Wood Casual Furniture in Oakville, Ontario, it branded her as a no-nonsense designer with an affection for traditional materials. White, who cites the Russian constructivists, the Bauhaus school, and the de Stijl movement as early influences, doesn’t hesitate when asked to name her favourite chair of all time. “The Eames lounge chair is the most comfortable wooden chair I have ever sat in, hands down,” she says with affection, calling it “ergonomically bang on.”

Donald A. Norman is a psychologist and design guru who has been studying human reactions to design for many years. In his book Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, he proposes three categories of reactions to designed objects. According to Norman, the highest response to design is at the reflective level. Contemplative and analytical, the reflective reaction is all about deciphering meaning from form — reading signs and symbols or perhaps having memories triggered. The meaning of cherry versus teak, the implications of Le Corbusier over Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, your secret desire to have a higher chair than your cubicle-mate — this level is about the intimate relationship you have with your seating.

The behavioural level, as Norman calls it, is the one that many chair designers rank at the top of their lists. It raises questions like: Is this chair comfortable? Is it performing as it should, whether for practical purposes such as typing or for sweet, end-of-day release? The behavioural level is where the centuries of innovation and reinterpretation of what makes a chair a chair shine through — where function is a priority.

Finally, there is the deep, dark, and nearly inexplicable visceral level. The visceral is what holds us in occasionally compromising sessions of lèche-vitrine (window-shopping, though its literal translation is window-licking), lusting after the perfect design.

For Dell Texmo, owner of Living Rooms, one of the finest interior design stores in St. John’s, searching out the perfect chair is one of the perks of her profession. She often tests out chairs at furniture trade shows, among other places. “If I see something that looks good, I still want it to be comfortable,” she explains. “If it doesn’t pass the comfort criteria, I walk.” Then there is the other side of the equation. “Have you ever sat in a glider rocker? ” she asks, her voice tinged with disgust. “Boy, are they ugly: buttons on the back, maple wood bits. But when you sit in the darn things, they’re just so wonderful. Of course, I’d never give them floor space.”

What she does give space to are chairs made and designed in North America, with additional items stocked from overseas. For Texmo, chairs must realize their function, whether they’re designed for dining, working, or lounging. “There’s a George Eliot character who mentions salt in soup,” she starts, revealing her background in English literature. “You don’t notice salt when it’s there, you only notice it when there is either too much of it or too little. The same can be said for chairs. They’re so simple that we often take them for granted and only notice them when something is wrong.” Misplaced tuxedo arms; confused, slippery upholstery; or seats with “flat, nasty pieces of foam,” as Texmo puts it — these are only some of the embarrassments that have arisen in the chair’s long lineage.

Chairs have always been seen as a complex design challenge. Among the scads of very wrong chairs that have sullied the long and otherwise noble history of this quotidian object, a few symbols of perfection have emerged — epitomes of what it truly means to sit down. In the twentieth century, for example, Wassily (1925), the creation of architect and designer Marcel Breuer, emerged as a Modernist celebration of industry and progress. The first chair to be made out of bent steel tubes, this leather-wrapped seat was named after Breuer’s friend, the painter Wassily Kandinsky. “It is my most extreme work both in its outward appearance and in the use of materials,” Breuer once said. “It is the least artistic, the most logical, the least ‘cosy’ and the most mechanical.” Logic and mechanics underscored most of the century’s seminal designs: Gerrit Rietveld’s Red and Blue (1918); Mies van der Rohe’s hugely influential Barcelona (1929); Le Corbusier’s Grand Confort (1928); Charles and Ray Eames’s wood-laminate innovations; Eero Saarinen’s ever-blossoming Tulip (1956). For these chairs and others, clean lines and forms melded with new materials to help salvage design from the grips of the nineteenth century’s repressive classical revival.

“I am obsessed with chairs,” declares award-winning furniture designer Andrew Jones of Toronto, calling them the most challenging objects to design. “They are about the complexities of the body, but not just the physical ones,” he says. “Chairs are also about the psychophysical, where the touch and feel are as important.” Jones feels compelled to take a health-focused approach to design. “Chairs are terrible things,” he insists, citing problems such as back troubles, constricted circulation, and carpal tunnel syndrome as proof that people really aren’t built for sitting down. “We’re meant to move around,” he says. This and other ergonomic truths have worked their way into many of Jones’s designs. “I try to design chairs with shapes that support a person rather than hold them in one place, so that you can swivel your legs, pivot back, slouch forward, sit up straight. I like to allow for a lot of different possibilities.” His award-winning Olo chair, as well as his Gym, Ripple, and Woodrow, follow from this philosophy, with flexible wood and plastic curved edges and careful proportions allowing for freedom while seated. For Jones, “well-designed” means a spare, linear honesty, while putting comfort first.

But what we consider comfortable is changing, and today’s innovative designers are expanding the very definition of comfort. Not only is it about holistic bodily comfort, it’s also about being comfortable with the materials used in the chairs, and with how those materials are extracted. Call it what you will — mindful living, treading lightly, greening, wellness, conscious consumption — many designers will no longer stand for materials that don’t meet their environmental criteria.

“Right now, we make materials through heat, beat, and treat,” says Jones, who has been immersing himself in research on sustainable design, looking for ways to use healthy, non-toxic, reusable materials — the key components of psychological comfort. This is, if you will, the twenty-first century’s own revolution against the Industrial.

So where does this leave our asses? From the Neolithic era to the present-day, chairs are our loyal partners, supporting us, holding us, rocking us at all hours, ugly bits and all. From the reflective, to the behavioural, and finally to the visceral, our reactions to design are manifold and unpredictable. What makes a perfect chair? There is no single answer, just a slew of variables. The formula might look something like this: (h + i) x (f + e) x (r + v + b) / x, accounting for historical resonance, innovation, function, experimentation, and the reflective, visceral, and behavioural reactions to design. But the equation hinges, finally, on the perpetual X factor of our finest asset, the all-telling and most likely imperfect derrière.

Julia Dault