“The best chair,” wrote the industrial designer Niels Diffrient, “is a bed.” Diffrient was referring to the awkwardness of the seated position. Our bodies have evolved to walk upright and to recline in repose; sitting elevated off the ground, folded into a piece of furniture, is a cultural habit. Indeed, in many parts of the world, squatting or sitting on the floor is the norm. Designing a good chair, therefore, is the art of making the awkward feel natural—a near-paradoxical proposition.
Diffrient was not deterred by this. In the 1990s, as he approached the age of 70, he set about designing a better office chair, a project that was to consume him for the rest of his life (he died in 2013 at the age of 85). The result was a series of task chairs that jettisoned clunky, complicated controls in favor of a light, flexible frame with intuitive adjustments. Trying out Diffrient’s World Chair, Witold Rybczynski, Hon. FAIA, finds it comfortable, “simplicity itself.” Although, he notes, “it lacks the lyrical qualities of an Eames or a Wegner chair.”
From the basic three-legged stool to experimental designs that please the eye more than the backside, Rybczynski, a contributing editor at ARCHITECT, surveys dozens of chair variations in his delightful new book, “Now I Sit Me Down; From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). As the subtitle suggest, Rybczynski is just as interested in the human behaviors that call for different kinds of chairs, and the cultural shifts that give rise to new ways of sitting, as he is in chairs themselves.
“Now I Sit Me Down” isn’t a coffee-table compendium or an academic tome on furniture. Instead, it’s a sprightly narrative history of how people have approached the art of sitting, from ancient Greece, birthplace of the enduring Klismos, to the present-day United States, where millions of backyards are outfitted with the same, generic, one-piece plastic chairs. “Chairs are fascinating because they address both physiology and fashion,” Rybczynski writes. “They represent an effort to balance multiple concerns: artistry, status, gravity, construction, and—not least—comfort.”
The chair may well be the ultimate design challenge, so it’s no surprise that it proved irresistible to architects. For centuries, craftsmen called joiners had dominated the pursuit. Then, in 1899, Adolf Loos approached the Thonet company, makers of the iconic No. 14 café chair, with a custom design he wanted produced for a café in Vienna. From then on, designer and craftsman (or manufacturer) mostly went their separate ways. As the Bauhaus spread the gospel of “total design”—the importance of working at every scale, from door handle to building—architects eagerly tried their hand at the chair.
For Rybczynski, the golden age of the chair was the 18th century. Woodworking in France and England had reached a level of high refinement, materials (like mahogany) were of the best quality, and upholstery, invented only a century before, improved the sitter’s comfort. As social customs changed and became less formal, master joiners created a new chair for every occasion, like the fauteuil à coiffer, a low-backed armchair for the brushing of a lady’s hair, and the voyeuse, a chair meant to be turned around and straddled while playing cards. (The top rail was padded for resting the arms.) The downside: these chairs were very expensive, costing about 30 times the daily wages of an ordinary worker.
Not so the Windsor chair, an English style with a curved back hoop that the colonists in America unmistakably made their own. Even more than the regal French fauteuil, Rybczynski has a deep appreciation for the Windsor; both light and sturdy, unpretentious and graceful, it became the chair of American democracy, at home in both taverns and George Washington’s study at Mount Vernon (where one was fitted with an overhead fan that was swung side to side by a foot treadle). The Founding Fathers sat in Windsor chairs when they signed the Declaration of Independence and, later, the Constitution.
Whether describing the Egyptian stool or its surprising descendant, the Hollywood director’s chair, Rybczynski elegantly sums up the social trends and technological innovations that have conspired to change the way we sit. Sprinkled throughout the text are his delicate drawings of chairs—if this sounds as if it might be twee, it’s not. He also shares personal anecdotes from a lifetime of thoughtful chair-sitting. These are often funny, like the story of how he purchased Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair and found it so uncomfortable that he could only use it for hanging his clothes. There is a tactile quality to the writing that stirred my own memories, such as how I was mortified as a child after breaking a caned chair in my father’s office, and how in my mid 20s I found a Jetsons-esque version of a Klismos at a flea market, an odd chair I love for reasons I can’t quite understand.
Among the few shortcomings of the book: It doesn’t discuss the work of Latin American designers (such as Sergio Rodrigues and Lina Bo Bardi), which is too bad, and the section on IKEA seems cursory, given that company’s outsized influence on today's homes. Rybczynski gamely tests an Ivar chair for a week, but I would argue that IKEA’s Poäng has a better claim to being the chair of our time—it’s a fixture of first apartments, baby nurseries, and Air BnB rentals around the world. Readers can draw their own parallels between IKEA and the 19th-century furniture giant Gebrüder Thonet—the subject of one chapter—but I would have preferred it if the author had done so more thoroughly.
There is no such thing as the one perfect chair, because “there are so many different reasons to sit,” as Rybczynski observes, and so many types of bodies. Still, some chairs can’t be improved upon. The Klismos, the Windsor, Thonet’s No. 14, and the Eameses’ plastic shell chair have all attained a form of perfection. So has the $10 folding canvas chair I take to my son’s soccer games, an efficient design that has barely changed since it was invented by Joseph Fenby in 1877. “Now I Sit Me Down” makes it impossible to take an ordinary activity, and all the human ingenuity that has gone into it, for granted.