What do we want in our furniture?
Style, comfort, price, functionality. Any furniture with comfort parameters usually makes one unwilling to move.
Modern chairs and sofas that have captured the imagination of designers the world over include- Barcelona chair by Mies Van Der Rohe. Other influential chair/seat designers include: Charles Eames, Gerrick Rietveld (Red and Blue Chair), Marcel Breuer (cantilevered chair), Eero Saarinen (Tulip chair), Thonet Brothers, Arne Jakobsen, Hans J. Wagner, George Nakashima, Le Corbusier, Sori Yanagi (Butterfly chair), and Peter Opsvik. Most of these chairs fall into the category of easy chairs for the living room. They are for rest and relaxation though the designs of Marcel Breuer and Eames have influenced work chairs. The easy chairs are easy to get into but impossible to get out of. It is not uncommon to hear people say ‘oof’ when they sit down in a sofa! This is probably due to the anticipated effort required to get out of the sofa.
What is ‘normal’ and relaxing – sitting down, standing or moving around? Standing is perceived to be uncomfortable and one usually wants to either sit down or move around. Chairs are meant for sitting down and there are several advantages to the sitting posture. It improves stability so one can undertake fine tasks better. It also reduces by half, the difference between tall and short persons. It uses up less energy than standing up.
Going by the number of Treadmill Workstations that are appearing on the US market, the current thinking is that people need to move around even when working. The normal office chairs including the so called ergonomic designs (‘Aeron’ Chair by Herman Miller, ‘Leap’ by Steelcase and ‘Freedom’ by Human scale) do not encourage people to move. People are so comfortable in these chairs that they remain seated for long periods of time. Opposed to these are the new chairs on the market that actually discourage people from sitting down for long periods of time. These include Swopper Stool, Locus leaning seat, Muvman Sit/stand stool, Ongo chair and Pyramid chair (VG). Sometimes even these chairs (such as Core) are sold as ‘comfortable’ enough for working and even exercising in. Surely the best exercise is something that happens as part of the work routine.
The idea of comfort is difficult to define as comfort is more in the mind than in the body. Chairs that look comfortable are not necessarily what ergonomists define as promoting good ergonomic postures. So instead of defining chairs as for work or relaxation, comfortable or otherwise, one can divide chairs into two categories- Passive and Active. Passive are those where the user sits in a ‘comfortable’ posture for long periods of time and has to make an effort to get out of. Active chairs are those where the act of getting out takes no more energy than the act of sitting down and the user sits down for short periods at a time. Office chairs with swivel base and castors allow people to shuffle their feet to get around but are more difficult to get out of than say Breuer’s Cantilevered chair.
When confronted with a minimalistic chair design, some people ask- is this comfortable enough for sitting in all day? Actually it is bad for anyone to sit in any chair all day, however good or comfortable it might be. Sitting is the new smoking and chairs are good if they encourage people to get out of them every once in a while. They are even better if the act of getting up is easy and natural.