in: Arnd Friedrich / Kerstin Finger (Hrsg.), 220O C Virus Monobloc. The infamous Chair, Berlin 2011
Final Destination: Plastic Chair
An Insight into the Culture of Sitting
Good design is eternal.
Modern societies are seated societies. Technological progress is happening while the people are sitting. Human body movements are reduced to operating levers, keyboards or the mouse because we are surrounded by technical equipment all the time. Today, sitting is a very common thing to do and might be regarded trivial, it arose however, under uncommon circumstances. The chair is a helpful device certainly and a lot of ergonomic aspects are related to it. Every single type has its history, however, and people are generally not aware of that.
The chair in the beginning is a throne. And the one sitting is a king. The throne and the king have a common history. The throne used to be a holy object which turned into a common chair. The powerful gesture of throning changed into everyday sitting.
The king is an archaic figure structuring a community. He is focus, direction and virtue. He is said to be untouchable, unifying and powerful. He can either be the spiritual leader of a community like a tribe, an empire or a nation. Or he can be a religious, political or military leader.
The throne is an archaic object creating structure. A framework that attaches the king to a certain place. The throne of people that are settled is special. Its sitting surface is on a level with the lower legs. The one throning therefore has to sit upright and thus the hierarchy is depicted – the holy order from top to bottom, from divine to human, from powerful to powerless.
King and throne both individually represent structure and unity. But only when the king is actually sitting on the throne, the diverse effects and meanings are created. The king on the throne symbolises dignity and authority as well as the connection between heaven and earth.
The king is the imitation of the clay sculpture of a goddess who is giving birth to a child in the squatting position flanked by two lions. The Egyptian thrones were derived from this sculpture. They are, in turn, models for other thrones and chairs.
The throne itself arises from the sacrificial stone altar. It is the central section of a holy area. And archaic communities used to sacrifice human beings on it. The sacrificial stone altar is split into two elements when the idea to kill animals instead of human beings comes up: The sacrificial chair and the sacrificial table. The table (ara) when raised (alta) turns into the altar and is thus the basis onto which the animal to be sacrificed is put. The sacrificial chair turns into the throne. The one on the throne once condemned to death stays alive – the one lying on the altar is being offered. The reason why a community would benefit from the throne is that the king is restricted physically when sitting on it and would therefore develop spiritual abilities and would also offer a permanent sacrifice to the community.
Thrones, the kings would sit on in an upright position and houses, people would build rose at the same time. By building a house, the one doing so would take some space from the cosmos, and thus would separate themselves from the celestial powers: By creating their own cosmos on a smaller scale they were provided with some autonomy. The throne aims at appeasing the sacriledge coming into being by this behaviour. The seated king can only survive when he succeeds in turning to his very soul and in creating a spiritual scenery he can waste his energy in. In order to do so he has to be able to control his muscles and respiration. Thus, he is reopening heaven's door for the community who is shut out for they have built houses with a roof and walls. As a result of the way sitting is coined culturally so far, the throning king is the one who knows. He knows about his emotions and motives and empathically also knows about those of the other members of the clan which makes him a wise man and early therapist.
Seats are not important in the everyday life of ancient civilizations. Today’s chairs are used everyday. From Greek vase paintings we know they must have had seats. However, only theatre benches made from stone are preserved. In ancient Rome there are seats for the senators and there is the emperor’s throne, the so-called Sella curulis. The Christians turned it into the Holy Chair or the Pope’s throne. In the 10th century monks adopt the holy posture of throning and come up with the choir stalls: According to the monastic rule of Benedict of Nursia which he established in the 6th century, they are supposed to kneel, stand, sit-stand and sit within a restricted area. After the monasteries would have more and more thrones, also the principles of the crafts and the guilds, well-off tradesmen and influential governmental representatives of the guildhalls were given the right to have a seat within the sanctuary. This is the time when the throne little by little gives way to the common chair.
The sitting on a chair in everyday life was invented in Europe: It was the middle classes in the European Renaissance who actually turned the king’s holy throne into a non-holy object – into the common chair, the chair for sitting on each and every day. At first, it is an object of the upper-middle class, but little by little all the middle classes gain the right to sit: And after a period of 300 years of ongoing conflict every citizen finally obtains the right to have a chair. The sitting priviledge goes down in the French Revolution. The fact that the king’s throne was turned into the pope’s throne, then into the choir stalls and into the everyday chair of the middle classes finally, can be looked at as the democratization of a king’s principle.
The real clou for the middle classes, however, is sitting on a chair whilst combinig it with a table. Chair and table are a very efficient unit making it possible to work in a comfortable position. The combination is also powerful and productive because thus the table is made the center of the house, of the family and of professional activities. The table is the fertile plain, the modern field and the center of middle class communication. Sitting around it, the citizens exchange knowledge, technologies and skills and thus make the table the strategic center of their networks.
In modern times, table and chair are purposeful elements affecting body and soul again. Just like the sacrificial stone altars used to be in former times. In school, the two elements have to be matched with another. There, the children grow into their chairs little by little and by practising how to partially suppress sensory stimuli they learn how to deal with abstract ideas and logical operations. Table and chair have quite an effect on muscular tension and breath reduction, however. Sitting down, the skeletal muscles are stretched, the pelvis is tilted and the natural curve of the lumbar spine is flattened. The moveability of the one who is sitting is reduced, their muscles harden in a chronic way and breathing is reduced as well, until the body does not dispose of enough energy for intellectual, physical and emotional activities anymore. At the same time muscles and respiration affect one another : Shallow breathing tenses the muscles and hardens them whereas respiration is reduced because of tense muscles, which tenses the muscles even more. Breathing and muscle movement thus empty into a cycle of mutual reducing and hardening until the one sitting does not even feel like moving anymore. Resulting from this, the body of the one being part of the seating society is somewhat restructured and they really become a sitting human being, a homo sedens. That is why Fernando Pessoa, an author and also an accountant all his life, is right when saying: „I cross the street like a sitting person."
Around 1800, sitting is accepted by society, but a type of chair which would be affordable for each and every citizen is still not available. Michael Thonet, a cabinetmaker, is the one to develop it by applying a new production method, bending beech wood. He mass-produces the so-called Vienna coffeehouse chair from 1859 on . It is a product for the masses. In the decades to come almost one million copies are manufactured annually and send everywhere in the world. The chair is well-priced, lightweight, affordable for many people and, above all, does not ressemble the aristocratic models at all. It is made only for the citizens. The chair marks the start of the coffeehouse culture, a special place where citizens could actually sit and discuss politics in public.
At first, it was about giving a chair to each and every citizen. Modern people, however, nowadays have the opportunity to potentially use three dozen chairs: Chairs are everywhere in seating societies – eagerly awaiting to be used.
For the manufaturing sector is getting bigger chairs are used more and more at work in the factory and the office. Due to the fact that the chair turns out to be an object burdening the person sitting on it pretty quickly, orthopaedic specialists are soon analysing the act of sitting scientifically in order to adjust the chair to the one sitting on it. The first product is from 1884 and is called Staffelstuhl. The experts carry out the experiments either with the sitting surface or the backrest. Around 1950 they realise that both, surface and backrest sort of go together and have to be seen in relation to one another. Today professional chairs are mostly quite high-tech and have switches, levers, knobs and computer-controlled motors.
Compared to the kings, the ones sitting nowadays do not know how to objectify their chairs at all, no matter whether they sit on a professional or an everyday one. To learn it they have to make the act of sitting special and superior again, a meaningful ritual of high value regarding aestectics, morality and spirit. The posture has to be changed more often to make sure body and soul are getting the balance right. It is about time to allow the body to be in the position it wants to be in and is able to be in – standing, walking, sitting and squatting.
The development of the throne into a chair is also noticed with respect to material and design. The first materials used are wood and stone, followed by steel and plastic. The first designs are modelled after classical ancient styles. The ones to follow base on the ideas of the Arts and Craft and the Art Deco movement, on functionalism, pop art and Memphis. Today, there are various styles and non-styles. With the Thonet chair and the blue-red wooden chair designed by the Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld in 1923 chair design faces a turning point. In 1925 the first tube chair made from steel called Wassily is presented by Marcel Breuer in the Bauhaus. The first cantilever chair is presented by Mies van der Rohe in 1927.
The material of the 20th century is plastic. In 1907, Leo Hendrik Baekeland developed the early plastic called Bakelite. It is hard and brittle. After World War II the USA carry out experiments with polyester, fibre glass, polystyrene, plexiglass and polyurethane. They turn out to be the plastics that are groundbreaking for chair production for they are robust and elastic at the same time. The designers Charles and Ray Eames design the first seat made from fibre glass in 1950. It is still supported by a framework of steel, however. When polypropylene is developed in 1963, plastics show their great design potential. From now on chairs can be made of plastics only.
The kind of material in use is also closely linked to where the products come from – designers of the Bauhaus try out steel tubes, designers of the North use layers of wood glued together and Italian designers use plastic material because to them this is what real progress is about. European designers use plastics for producing chairs in the 1960s for the first time. They orient themselves not on ergonomic specifications, but on the way certain shapes go together and the possibilities the material is offering them. The Bofinger chair by Helmut Bätzner from 1966 is made from fibreglass reinforced polyester and is already produced from one single piece. Making the product takes four minutes and there is no need for any finishing treatment. The keen Tulip Chair is made from the same material. Its designer, Eero Saarinen, is given the International Design Award for it in 1968. The previous year, Vico Magistretti designs the Selene chair and Joe Colombo develops the injection-moulded Universale plastic chair which reveals the way function, material and form are related. An opening in the backrest makes sure the chair can be easily removed from the tool. It is narrowed a bit in the area in front of the back legs and thus is stackable. The legs are additionally flattened on the sides which makes row-seating possible. In consequence of the production both, the legs and the chair itself are manufactured individually. Designers working with plastic materials at an early stage as well as the pop art designers make sure the material is designed well.
In 1972, after the oil crisis, production of plastics is dropping. Crude oil is becoming more expensive and many companies decide in favour of other raw materials. In the 1990s, Europe tries once more to establish sitting as such on a global level, with plastic patio chairs. The so-called Monobloc is produced of one single piece of plastic. This time we are not talking about millions of chairs that are produced within some decades like in case of the Vienna coffeehouse chair. This time billions of chairs are produced within a few years.
Polypropylene and other plastics are forced into the shape of the chair under pressure and at a temperature of 220 degrees celcius by means of the die-casting method. The method is simple, only one material is needed, the chair is stackable and costs as much as two breads. Thus, this one is a global chair par excellence. And this is why you can find it everywhere on the globe at present: In sidewalk cafés and private rooms, in outdoor restaurants, on major events like concerts or at church gatherings. Sometimes you will find thousands or even ten thousands of them being set up. It is also at home in the deserts, in high montains regions or the jungle.
In the 21st century, plastic material and good design finally make a reconnection. Konstantin Grcic, a designer, accepted the challenge of developing the first cantilever chair produced completely from plastic together with the German chemical company BASF and Plank, an Italian producer of furniture. The Myto is from 2007 and made of Ultradur High Speed.
Plastic chairs like the monobloc are not made for using them at work. They are not obliged to meet any ergonomic standards which is advantageous if they make the ones sitting on them change their posture frequently. But they should tie in with the ambitious shape, the good design of pop art chairs or precious designs and products like the Myto. Plastic products can only be eternal if their design is worth it. Then, sitting on a plastic chair is cool.
© Hajo Eickhoff 2012