Note: This is the first of a set of essays written by Byron Ferris for the "Design Sense" feature of the Sunday Northwest Magazine insert of The Oregonian during 1984 and 1985. Mr. Ferris, for six decades a hub for design in the region, is working with Pinch to share the history of design in Portland between 1950 and 1978. He has granted our office permission to reprint these essays. We will post one per week, unchanged from the original typeset text, over the coming twelve weeks.
I'm sitting here thinking about sitting, which is half way between standing and lying down. We all do a lot of it.
Sitting separates humans from animals. I can't think of many others of God's creatures who sit on the ends of their spines the way we do. Pandas, maybe, and bears begging for peanuts. Monkeys almost, but they rarely own chairs. Dogs and cats sitting around usually keep their paws on the floor.
To help us humans, thousands of chairs have been designed, some formed for work and some for overstuffed relaxing. Form follows function.
One of the most difficult design tasks must be shaping a chair for the dentist's waiting room. It shouldn't be too comfortable, because the sitters really don't want to be there. On the other hand, they'd like to be comforted, in the hope that the nurse won't call their names.
The dental chair is another matter. It is shaped for comfort, and when the dentist tilts it back, it's half chair and half couch. I've even dozed off in Dr. Knauss' chair, but maybe it's the nitrous oxide. I've often wished that the airlines would install dental chairs for long flights, although I suppose that would be funny-looking.
Materials change chair design. The Thonet Model 14 (drawing No. 1) was made in volume when Michael Thonet steam-bent beechwood in 1859. It is an elegant use of wood – a chair composed of only six pieces and a wicker bottom, strong and lightweight. The Thonet chairs were shipped unassembled, 36 of them fitting into a 3-foot cube for transport. Because of their beauty, economy and quality, 50 million have been sold – good design of the kind that warms corporate management's heart, as the bottom line is considered. The chair's bottom line is flat, however, though the caned seat offers a pleasant give.
By the 1920s, steel production had advanced a lot, and Marcel Breuer began designing with chromed steel tubing. His "Wasslly" chair (drawing No. 2), named for Wassily Kandinski, Breuer's fellow instructor at the German Bauhaus school of design, is sturdy and sparse. Leather strapping forms the armrests and sides, and the leather seat and back support the user with a comfortable sling effect. The bottom line is rather steeply slanted – it's impossible to sit in this chair without relaxing. It is not a work chair, but it has taken its place as a classic office conference chair.
One of the most comfortable chairs is Poul Kjaerholm's "EKC 13" (drawing No. 3), designed in 1975 with side pieces of chromium-plated spring steel. Sitting in this chair is like floating. Because the bottom line is somewhat slanted, as with most office chairs, the front part of the seat can press against the legs, restricting blood circulation. This can lead to uneasy fidgeting during long meetings – not exactly the bottom line management is seeking.
A recent Norwegian entry is the Balans "Variable," designed by Peter Opsvik (drawing No. 4), which is hard to think of as a chair. The bottom line slants forward, and the knees rest on pads, positioning the spine in an upright, non-slump posture. The seat is comfortable for an office workday – but don't lean back. Our musician friends can breathe easily at play. I doubt that the Variable is appropriate for playing the viola da gamba, though – it is better suited to rock music.