aus Jörg Adam/ Dominik Harborth (Hrsg.), Second Aid. Doorsteps, drip-catchers and other symbiotic gadgets, Ludwigsburg 2003

 

 

 

The Thorn and the Throne

 

Helpless Helpers

 

Sitting on chairs is one of mankind's more bizarre postures. Wherever you go, our modern society - which is a sedentary one - will provide you with a chair. Try finding somewhere without a chair or bench. Public and private areas are teeming with places to park your posterior. Whether at home, at work, or on the way somewhere, modern humanity is undeniably into sitting. Unfortunately for us, sitting is neither natural, comfortable, nor good for our legs.

   Sitting on chairs has its origin in the throne and was originally a great honour. The throne's base formed the block of stone on which humans were sacrificed to the gods. Later, about the time mankind began offering up animals to the gods instead of his own flesh and blood, the stone divided to give us altar and throne. From then on, animals were sacrificed on the altar, and a tribesman, elevated to the status of king, was set upon the throne. The enthroned king, by his very physical immobility, represented a sacrificial victim. A holy being seated on a consecrated throne in a consecrated place. Solitary. Unapproachable and exalted. On the throne, the king learnt to rule his own body: forced by this lack of movement to develop control over his breathing, he acquired the ability of concentration, of meditation. The posture of enthronement affected body, mind and spirit. By submitting to this discipline, the king became a medium for divine contact. His power transferred to his tribe, while he became their memory. His mental facility, developed through sitting, made him the creative hub of his society. He remained motionless that his subjects might move, while looking to him for orientation and meaning.

Sitting on chairs brings no relief. For as throne and enthronement disciplined the king, so chairs and sitting still discipline the populace. Likewise, sitting in chairs restricts movement, forcing the subject to remain still and exercise his grey matter instead. Chairs do not assist the human body; sitting on them does not promote comfort. Sitting on chairs forces the body into an unnatural position and simply means hard work – for your muscles, your intervertebral discs, and your lungs. Second aiders attempt to make the tiring act of sitting better and more comfortable by reducing the unnatural aspects, belatedly transforming sitting into a natural activity, which, of course, like all things natural, is in need of improvement. Feet, legs and neck, back, lumbar vertebrae and bottom are relieved, so that sitters can remain thus seated for as long as possible. What second aiders promote is the ability to remain in a disciplined posture and the myth that he who sits acquires a royal aspect.

In the eyes of a designer, the chair is a highly desirable object. More energy and creativity is expended on the function and appearance of such furniture than on any other everyday item. This is partially due to the chair's clearly differentiated structure: four legs, a seat and backrest, with or without arms. In addition, there's mobility and image to be considered, the fascination engendered by the direct contact between chair and sitter, the mythological significance of sitting, not to mention the cultural effect of sitting on the inward and outward composure of the subject. As ergonomists began to get involved in the design of chairs towards the middle of the twentieth century, they fostered hopes of being able to develop the perfect chair. But this optimism soon gave way to the widespread opinion that good chairs could only ever help prevent the more serious symptoms of prolonged sitting. Second aiders, by contrast, cultivate the illusion that perfect sedentary comfort is obtainable.

Mankind is a creature destined to invent the aid and its second aider. He relies on internal and external organs for assistance. Necessary and trivial. Items which ease his existence. Displaying a tendency to roam beyond the bounds of his immediate influence, he invents and develops tools with which to improve other tools and the objects produced by tools. He creates one aid, and yet another aid to help him produce even more. The world as we know it is the temporary product of a long line of items resulting from other items. A second aider helps the aid to help better. Houses help mankind escape a nomadic existence and climatic dependence, towns liberate him from the natural world. Chairs help him loose himself from his natural condition to find discipline and inner freedom. The human race, once an upright species of „goers“ and „stayers“, has become one of „sitters“; its point of contact with the world has moved from the sole of the foot to the pad of the posterior. These days, man and the world literally touch base, bottom to chair seat - meanwhile stretched to accommodate two dozen fellow humans and going under the name of „bus“.

Chairs are composed of a number of basic aids. The chair legs and chair seat relieve the torso, armrests supports arms and hands, while the backrest serves to keep the torso upright. Integral elements of chair function and design, these parts, when taken together in chair-form, fuse to become one complex aid. The more designers and ergonomists probe into the science of sitting, the more aids they build into a chair. Then, when discrepancies arise in practice between the features of a chair and the demands placed upon it, second aiders suddenly appear. Various ingenious devices are tried out in an attempt to solve the problem. If one causes said problem to disappear, a new second aider is born – an aid of the second degree. These subsequent additions eclipse the original function, or sometimes more sensibly, the original design.

Second aiders express a crisis of function: the misdirected or incomplete development of an object. As opinions concerning posture, its significance, and its effect on the seated subject tend to spring from private conviction and preference rather than actual fact, second aiders are big business. Since they correct individual dimensions, they necessarily interfere with other functions, frequently cancelling out important features, or introducing an opposite effect. Second aiders rarely focus on design. Solutions which are visually pleasing are therefore few and far between. The chair and the second aider remain at aesthetic odds with each other. It is indeed just this difference between the aesthetic unity of the chair and the visually separate device, which denotes the existence of the second aider, insofar as it remains distinct from the chair's integral features.

The first signs of a personal sitting crisis are the body's natural second aiders. Legs are crossed, arms folded, elbows propped up on knees to support head on hands, hands are wedged between thighs and chair seat, or body weight is used to tip the chair forward onto its front legs.

It's about relieving the muscles and supporting the skeleton. Commercial second aiders simulate natural second aiders: lumbar support provided by the backrest substitutes the crossing of legs, the backward tilt of the backrest the holding of the head, and the seat wedge the chair tilting, which takes the strain off the lumbar vertebrae. Back and armrests replace the crossing of arms, seat padding the wedging of hands.

Seats can be too high or too low. Only a minority of people are blessed with the standard measurements for which chairs are designed. Swivel office chairs featuring a vertical column on a star base are height-adjustable, four-legged chairs, or tubular metal chairs with skids seldom so. Many solutions exist to provide just this flexibility. DIY enthusiasts insert wooden blocks under chair legs and rails under chair skids, in order to raise the level of the seat for people with unusually long legs. It's also possible to buy such sets ready made. They are generally blocks of wood or plastic with holes for inserting the ends of the chair legs. Second aiders of the chair leg variety guarantee the positioning of the seat at the top of the calves, a defining aspect of sitting on a chair: the bottom should rest at knee height.

Booster seats for children rely on the legs of an existing chair. These foam cushions or rectangular blocks of plastic, with or without backrests and armrests, can be positioned on chair seats. The child sits on the booster, which is ten to twenty centimetre high, with his feet resting on the chair seat. There is even a table seat for the very young, so that children can participate in family mealtimes from an early age. While the table seat appears to be a chair in its own right, it is really only a complex second aid for the chair leg: a steel frame cradles a seat with fabric panels at the sides and back for extra safety, and a screw clamp arrangement is used to fasten the whole thing to the table. A safety harness prevents the child from standing up. The table seat classically illustrates the social expectations of a sedentary society, which has inserted an intermediate stage of sitting into the natural progression from lying to crawling to walking – a sitting stage between lying and crawling.

The main feature of all chairs, sofas, and benches is the seat: mankind's main point of contact with a material base. The seat may be horizontal, angled backwards or forwards, wooden, plastic, or upholstered. The upholstery, in any number of fabric covers, can be hard or soft, flat or rounded, simple or multi-layered. Modern office chairs offer the widest variety of seat types: designed like a saddle, divided symmetrically, or tailored to match the shape of the human bottom. Cushions account for a large number of the second aiders available for chair seats: as decoration, extra padding, or repair element. Padding is supposed to prevent poor circulation caused by long periods spent sitting, while expensive extra seat cushions add value to the chair. Wedge-shaped cushions serve a particular function. Cushions themselves may also receive a little help, in the form of protective covers, or cushion mats to prevent them slipping off angled seats.

Even the sophisticated high tech office chair, developed in accordance with ergonomic principles, is not necessarily safe from second aiders. Second aiders which concentrate on posture, extolling their virtues with naive assurance, prey on common misconceptions, often to the detriment of existing functions; as a standard wedge cushion with the pompous medical name „orthopaedic 'spine right' cushion“ amply demonstrates. The specially shaped seat of the particular office chair chosen to display the effect of the wedge cushion, is designed to complement the chair's backrest, helping to push its bulging form against the lumbar region and thereby preventing the sitter from getting a round back. In fact, seat and rest are unable to guarantee such prevention, since the upright posture promised by the chair manufacturers can only be maintained by a chair – and for a limited period of time only – if the sitter also remains conscious of it and actively uses it against overtaxed and fatigued muscles. The addition of a wedge cushion puts the sitter in a position that's impossible to maintain. It simulates sitting on a chair that is tipped forward, which in theory should be beneficial. At the same time however, it puts integral features of the office chair out of action, thereby making the situation worse than it was before. The ergonomic shape of the chair becomes useless and the support offered is lost: the depth of the seat is lessened, since the lumbar support offered by the backrest no longer pushes against the lower back, but instead against the pelvis, which now protrudes further; moreover, by raising the torso, the backrest of the chair and the spine of the sitter are no longer parallel to each other, making the backrest unusable. In practice, this means that the wedge is either soon discarded, or muscles and vertebrae are damaged by continued use. A wedge cushion can only be used effectively on the flat seat of a chair with an unshaped or height-adjustable back. The fact remains, however, that even when sitting on such a chair, where the seat is tilted forward at an angle, correct posture can only be guaranteed by a conscious effort on the part of the sitter.

 

The mythological significance of a chair is most clearly expressed by its backrest. The king was not wont to lean against it. The throne back symbolised protection, vocation, anointing: during enthronement ceremonies in Ancient Egypt, the high priest stood behind the pharaoh elect. He laid his arms on the shoulders of the heir to the throne and anointed him as pharaoh. The high priest embodied Horus, the hawk-like god, whom the pharaoh became during his enthronement. The back of the throne stood for Horus, for protection, and for the moment of anointing. Today, the height of the backrest distinguishes the managing director's chair from all others. The chairs in a company are all subordinate to the quality and look of the managing director's chair. The backrest which towers highest above the head of the sitter remains the prerogative of the boss. A few second aiders designed especially for chair backs aim to add visual status to ordinary chairs. Such compensation is either presented as an obvious increase in status and value, or is camouflaged under the pretence of comfort (e.g. the „happy back“ cushion).

Armrests are increasingly used as arm supports by those who work at computers; this is reflected in a variety of possible adjustments. Since armrests vary enormously in shape, their second aiders must be adjustable – things are stretched over the rests or wrapped around them, giving the impression that the chair is injured and has had to be bandaged.

Car seats are subject to a whole range of demands. Cars are in effect mobile chairs. High tech armchairs. Seats without legs, variously adjustable, and designed to offer the greatest degree of support when cornering and braking. As well as seat belts designed especially for children and pregnant women, an entire range of second aiders exists to take happy advantage off the absolute inertia of the car driver and passengers: seat boosters, back cushions, leather seat cushions, back seat organisers, and child seats for the back seat. Back seat organisers provide the modern traveller with all necessary travel essentials. Hung from the backrest by means of a metal hook or fastened to the headrest using press studs, such organisers help keep cars tidy, while providing quick and easy access to snacks, maps, toys, and magazines. Taxi drivers, travelling salesmen, and the like often make use of a beaded seat cushion to combat the effects of hours spent sitting. They happily go without the comfort of a smooth upholstered seat, since the massage effect and the improved air circulation brought about by the individually moving little wooden balls stimulates blood circulation and helps to keep the back muscles flexible.

The longer a person sits, the more dependent he becomes on sitting. The strain felt on standing grows. That's why second aiders aim to bring everything needed for a period of work or an evening of television within reach of the sitter. The armchair organiser TV Bello, a fabric receptacle which hangs over the arm like a back seat organiser, offers compartments for listings magazines, glasses, the remote control, and a host of other things. The portable chair organiser is intended for the same purpose when away from home.

Should a person, owing to age or illness, no longer be able to get up from a chair, there are devices which can help. The lift, a separate mechanism which can be attached to any chair brings the sitter to a standing position. Exerting pressure on the armrests or leaning forward sets off the lifting spring mechanism. This second aider dispels the anxiety of being stuck in a chair, unable to communicate with the outside world. Other second aiders ease the action of sitting down. Additional second aiders for weak or disabled individuals include bath seats, raised toilet seats, toilet seat cushions, orthopaedically designed seats, folding shower seats and inflatable cushions. From childhood onwards, mankind grows into his chair until he and it finally become one. The range of tasks assigned to second aiders by the elderly and infirm and on which they depend should not be underestimated.

Even unconventional perches such as gymnastic balls don't get away without a couple of second aiders. Dish retainers to keep the balls in one place are common. They are meant to check the force which, owing to the weight of the sitter, pushes the ball forward, a force that is otherwise absorbed by the ankle joints. Since the relief brought about by such retainers is marginal, designers have come up with a tubular frame in which to sit the ball. The ball becomes a chair, thereby losing much of its dynamic, flexible character.

Second aiders can also be invisible. Just consider the range of physical exercises designed for those with a sedentary lifestyle. These concentrate on releasing pent up energy, caused by a reduction in movement, in a variety of situations and using a selection of objects: at the table, in the car, in a chair, using machinery, with beer crates. At courses in sitting, movement programmes are practiced under supervision. Imaginary second aiders target the body and the consequences of sedentary inertia directly. These days, some companies are encouraging employees to literally think on their feet and make use of „thought corridors“ set up especially for the purpose. To be able to sit, mankind needs to keep on moving.

 

We can assess these second aids using the following criteria: their interpretation of the act of sitting and their effectiveness. One category which emerges is the pseudo second aid. It only serves to mislead the consumer: it either doesn't help at all, or causes actual damage by cancelling out the existing functions of a particular chair. At best, it addresses elements which simply relate to the mythology of sitting – to authority and anointing. Such second aids are nonsensical and merely reinforce common misconceptions. They are ideological rubbish.

The other category of second aids is the intermediary, a small step in the direction of the modern chair, the product of chair-related technological progress. Though aesthetically out of place, these afterthoughts correct functional flaws, and are generally destined to be incorporated into later models, thereby achieving the status of integral aid. The best of the second aids are the body's own strength and the many alternatives to the chair – lecterns, reclining chairs, Oriental floor cushions, kneeling in the diamond position, or standing chairs. Since they promote movement by stimulating frequent changes in posture and breaks from sitting, they quite simply prevent sitting from becoming a thorn in your flesh.

 

 

© Hajo Eickhoff 2013

 

 

 

Hajo Eickhoff

 

Duisburger Straße 13

10707 Berlin

hajoeickhoff @ versanet.de

 

24. September 2017

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