11.04.21
Lee Moreau + Judith Anderson | Audio

The Futures Archive S1E4: The Chair


What chair do you sit on the most hours of the day? And is it comfortable? Do you think chairs fit our bodies well, or are they designed to be recognizable as a chair? On this episode of The Futures Archive designer Lee Moreau and this episode’s guest host, Judith Anderson, discuss the history and design of the chair, and the role and importance of prototyping.

With additional insights this week from Galen Cranz, Pat Kirkham, and Gregor Finger.

Lee asked Judith about form versus function:
The aesthetics is what draws you to an object. Like the egg chair, it's a beautiful aesthetic—the form, the seamless kind of integration of back to seat to arms, it looks beautiful. And then you sit in it. Is it actually comfortable? Does it live up to its aesthetic? And that's that connection between something really beautiful that's in your environment and something that feels beautiful as you interact with it, as you engage with it. People say a chair is for sitting, but it also is comfort. And it's also a sense of transition to your mood, to your attitude, to the activities that you're doing, and that goes beyond just the aesthetics.
Lee Moreau is President of Other Tomorrows, a design and innovation consultancy based in Boston, and a Lecturer in MIT’s D Minor program.

Judith Anderson is the Chair of Industrial Design at Massachussets College of Art and Design.

Galen Cranz is a designer, a consultant, and Professor Emerita of Architecture at the University of California at Berkeley.

Pat Kirkham is an author, professor, and design historian.

Gregor Finger is Spatial Computing Lead at Bakken & Bæck, a technology driven design agency.


Subscribe to The Futures Archive on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app. And you can browse the show archive.

Kathleen Fu created the illustrations for each episode.

A big thanks to this season’s sponsor, Automattic.

And to our education partner, Adobe.



Transcript

Lee Moreau
Welcome to the Futures Archive, a show about human-centered design, where this season, we'll take an object, look for the human at the center and keep asking questions. I'm Lee Moreau...

Judith Anderson
and I'm Judith Anderson.

Lee Moreau
On each episode, we're going to start with an object. Today, that's the chair. We'll look at the history of that object from our perspective, as designers who've done work in human-centered design. Not just how a chair looks and feels, but also the relationship between that object and the people it was designed for,

Judith Anderson
And with other humans too.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you by the design team at Automatic. Later on, we'll hear from Wagner Veloso, a designer on the WooCommerce team. The Futures Archive's education partner, this season is Adobe.

Lee Moreau
Hi, Judith, thank you so much for being with us today.

Judith Anderson
Oh my god, Hi Lee, it's so nice to be here.

Lee Moreau
So maybe before we get started to be good to kind of introduce you, give you a little background. I know you as the chair of the Department of Industrial Design at Mass Art and an educator, but I also know you've got a bunch of different degrees and a really interesting background. Would you like to share a little bit more about where you come from?

Judith Anderson
I'm a- I'm a professor at Mass Art in uh- in the industrial design department. I started out doing aircraft engine design at General Electric. I have a mechanical engineering degree as well. And from that going into industrial design, I had to, you know, learn about aesthetics, I tell you. But also just making those connections to the human aspect of designing in general. And then from there, I just I went on to be much more focused on the development of objects or services for people in the experience that people have with the built environment, basically.

Lee Moreau
So you're in the shop and there's all this stuff happening around you. But the question I have for you is, what are you sitting on right now?

Judith Anderson
Well, I am sitting on an Aeron chair and it's, you know, they're typical office equipment. I have the low, low grade one, but it is a very comfortable chair for long term sitting.

Lee Moreau
There's nothing typical about the Aeron chair, though. That's a pretty special chair, right?

Judith Anderson
Well, I mean, it's highly designed for the human fit.

Lee Moreau
So now we're going to hear from a few experts in the domain of sitting and chairs, some historians, designers and other folks who are going to help us get a sense of the chair and of the world around the chair.

Galen Cranz
And it starts out with status, that the Kings and the Pharaohs were elevated on thrones and then commoners mostly squatted in kneeled in front of them. So it becomes a symbol of being important.

Lee Moreau
Galen Kranz is Professor Emerita of architecture at University of California at Berkeley, and she's also the author of: "The Chair, Rethinking Culture, Body and Design." So, I mean, she kind of goes after right there, right. Why is the chair so important as this sort of representational object — she talks about, like the pharaohs sitting down and everybody sort of surrounding it reminds us a little bit of Game of Thrones, you know, the kind of Iron Throne in the center of that big room and everyone is sort of assembled around it. The chair, perhaps in its earliest instantiation, was a spatial organizer, as much as it was a thing for somebody to sit on.

Judith Anderson
Well, it's funny. I had no idea that, that's a great perspective even to start in terms of creating this basically a hierarchy. But we don't we don't go out and buy thrones anymore. I mean, I don't know if you have one in your home, but you know.

Lee Moreau
No.

Judith Anderson
But it would be a really cool thing to actually have the space to have a throne in my house. But then what do you do like that it? You wouldn't, it would alienate people because that, you know, it becomes this distance. But there's a really distinct change in how we perceive someone sitting in a throne versus sitting in an Aeron chair even.

Lee Moreau
But they're both symbolic. So, you know, the throne symbolizes a certain kind of power, but even the Aeron chair has a sort of power associated with it as well. I remember when they were first introduced, it was like, Whoa, that's that's a real chair, right?

Judith Anderson
You know, there is a symbiotic relationship between the what we're doing when we're sitting, the actual thing- instrument that we're sitting in, and also the environment that's surrounding us as we're sitting in and doing so, you know, I'm thinking about sitting cross-legged directly on the ground versus, you know, sitting up high on a on a perch. Or, you know, as a whole, different level of dynamics that changes as we interact with each other just based on those two positions. So yes, sitting is it's kind of important to us in terms of what we're doing and-and how we're doing it.

Galen Cranz
I think we're still stuck in that mentality of thinking that the chair is a sign of status. If you don't offer someone a chair, you're rude, right? And when you go for a job interview, you know which chair you're supposed to sit in, there's no doubt. At Thanksgiving, around a big table there might be a set of chairs and one or two of them have arms, is the chair for the arms for the oldest member of the family? No, it's usually for the so-called head of household. So again, the status built into everything. Office furniture had an executive version and a secretarial version — on and on it goes. We're still struggling with that, and I think it's one of the reasons we haven't been able to be rational and truly intelligent about chair design and more broadly, interior design.

Lee Moreau
But we've been putting a lot of effort into becoming more intelligent with chairs, right? So you teach a program, and I'm sure one of the big assignments at some point in your undergraduate career is designing a chair. I mean, I remember some of the iconic chairs that I first encountered. There's the Thonet chair, the French designer, which is well over 100 years old. And then the various Eames chairs, a couple of which I'm able to have. Here I've got a Joe Colombo chair, right? So we've we've put a lot of attention and effort into surrounding ourself and living with chairs that will suit our needs.

Judith Anderson
You know, I've been accused of having like more chairs in my living space than normally needed, and it's mainly probably because I just can't decide which- which one to do I like aesthetically, functionally.

Lee Moreau
You know, in spite of the fact that this is a podcast about design, human-centered design specifically, we don't spend a lot of time talking about aesthetics, but this is one example— the object being the chair, where we can't help but talk about the aesthetics, right?

Judith Anderson
I mean, the aesthetics is what draws you to it. I mean, like the egg chair, it's just a beautiful aesthetic— the form, the seamless kind of integration of back to seat to arms, it looks beautiful. And then so the next level is when you sit in it. Is it actually comfortable? Does it live up to its aesthetic? And that's that connection between something really beautiful that's in your environment and something that feels beautiful as you interact with it, as you engage with it. In a chair from a functional aspect, you know, people say a chair is for seating, but you know, it also is comfort. And it also is a sense of transition to your mood, to your attitude, to the activities that you're doing and that goes beyond just the aesthetics.

Lee Moreau
But not every chair hits on all of those registers, right?

Judith Anderson
No, not at all. I mean, what is your go to? Like do you have like a go to chair that you know, that it hits every aspect of whatever you want out of it?

Lee Moreau
No. But recently we got a stool that almost does this. It's a stool from the manufacturer Hey, in Europe, and I have never sat on a chair with no back at all, where I felt completely supported. And I mean, it sounds weird, but it cradles your butt and this really incredible kind of way, and it's super comfortable. I can sit in that thing for hours, but trying to find a chair that has the aesthetics you want, the function— I mean, this is a lot of tough criteria. It's all hit with the same design object.

Judith Anderson
There's the functionality part and there's the aesthetic part. But there's also this this connection to like the wow part, like: How did you do that? How was that ever possible? And you know, to bring that into kind of an everyday object like the chair is something we, you know, everybody has something that allows you to sit on. That's universal across all cultures. So being able to reimagine this over and over again is interesting.

Lee Moreau
We can't talk about chairs and wow, I think without talking about the Eames. Let's talk about Ray and Charles Eames for a second.

Pat Kirkham
What's interesting to me is that when you talk to people about this 1946 chair, you know, there's a wooden version and a metal leg version, all the young architects and designers who bought it and wanted it when they were like 20, talk about what it looked like, that they were blown away by it.

Lee Moreau
Pat Kirkham is an author, professor, and a historian of design.

Pat Kirkham
The magazines are still focusing on the technology, you know, the technology for the for the new era of things and the business of mass production. It didn't become so popular I don't think because of the means of production of it, it became popular because people really liked what it looked like. It seemed to float in space to a degree, at least.

Lee Moreau
You know, I was really blown away by the furniture from the Eames as a student. I remember seeing them for the first time in person. I'd never actually seen them until I was an adult and thinking like, Wow, and they all meant different things. So there- and there were several. So there was the sort of, you know, Eames lounge chair that I couldn't afford. I would just see in a showroom and think, Oh my God, that's amazing. You know, I still lust after that chair. And then the more kind of quotidian ones like I have at my dining table, which are, they were produced by the hundreds of thousands, I think. But these were really powerful. I wanted to live in that world. I aspired to like the kind of futuristic world that that created. And it wasn't just the new technology which was clearly there, like whether it was fiberglass or molded plywood or whatever. It was the sort of world that it represented that sort of mythology.

Judith Anderson
I have that relationship as well. Like I walk into, you know, a furniture store and I see, you know, these iconic pieces of furniture that it creates a whole environment just by looking at that one piece. Like you- I can imagine this whole environment of comfort and warmth and openness and and and just relaxation. But, you know, like going back to the Eames lounge chair, that whole bent wood, you know, came from it was a beautiful splint that was made, that is the same type of technology, you know, like thinking about like, how that then translates to a chair or to a lounge chair, so that also created a really nice connection to wow— like how did that technology in that technique of manufacturing manifest in this beautiful piece? So that's always in the back of my mind when I'm looking at especially chairs in general, like like, how was that done? Like how how was it created?

Lee Moreau
So the chair can create an environment. It can create a mood, but why are chairs the thing? Here's Galen Cranz again.

Galen Cranz
Every architect has tried their hand at designing a chair.

Lee Moreau
Yeah, every architect has tried to design a chair. Every designer! I, you know, I when I studied architecture, I did a chair and as an undergraduate in design school. You know, it's something that's, well, it's human scale, but it's also the designers scale as well. And it's a world that you can control.

Judith Anderson
In my graduate program. I did two graduate projects and one was this fidget stool that I thought I would create. And it was on, it was a actual molded-plywood seat on three ball bearings. And the idea was that it allowed you to move around whenever you needed in that fidgeting part of a chair of a being able to sit for a long period of time and fidget to move around and exercise your muscles is a good thing.

Lee Moreau
And so you built, you built this chair, I presume. How well did it work?

Judith Anderson
It was a little clunky. It needed a couple of iterations, but for the first one, it proved the purpose of what I was trying to do.

Lee Moreau
Yeah, I mean, an interest in prototyping— one of the interests in prototyping is that you iterate the design, and another interest is that you can, well, things can fail, right. And that's good. But the problem is, you know, if you fail in a work of architecture, the building collapses. And that's not so great. So the nice thing about a chair is that actually, you know, failure is is actually not so dangerous. And I'm sure you've seen tons of failures of chairs in your years of teaching.

Judith Anderson
Yeah, fear failure is not so dangerous. I think that's a really good way of looking at it. I mean, you again, when you go back to the Aeron chair and looking at how many iterations they had to build that in and factor in manufacturing, factor in the actual aesthetics. Factor in the comfort level, the functionality of it, it takes a while. It's a rare occasion if you actually nailed it on the first- first time. So we do something we learn from that we build on that to improve that. So it may not necessarily be a failure, but it's not meeting the goals of our particular intent at the moment. So that means we need to improve on that.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you by the design team at Automattic, which is building a new web and a new workplace all around the world.

Wagner Veloso
I am Wagner Veloso. I am a Brazillian designer, live in the UK. And I am a prouduct desginer at Automattic.

Lee Moreau
Once he joined Automattic, Wagner started designing but new priorities.

Wagner Veloso
After working for this digital agencies for a long time, I realized it was time to pivot my career. I wanted to be more like part of the process, not only working on briefs but working on products. I was redesigning the ratings and review system in the WooCommerce website. So when you buy an extension and then you need to know more information about the extension, right— so most of users, they rely on the reviews to see what other users are talking about. So you validate your work based on the user needs, while when you work like in a design studio, you're validating your work based on like the opinion of the client. If the client says yes, approved, but we cannot do this, we validate things based on like the user necessities.

Lee Moreau
Designing a better web. Join us at Automattic dot com slash design. That's AUTO-M-A-double T-I-C dot com slash design.

Lee Moreau
Let's hear some more from Galen Cranz:

Galen Cranz
Chairs are something we don't think about. We think they're natural because our legs bend and our hips bend. We think chairs just are a natural consequence of that. In fact, they're a social invention.

Lee Moreau
The interesting thing about Galen Cranz, she's also an expert in the Alexander technique, which a lot of dancers and performers use for understanding body posture. And as we were doing the interview with her, she was saying, like the right angle of a chair isn't really natural. And so she started demonstrating, like while we were on camera, and she kind of like tilted the camera down, picked up her butt, you know put some books underneath there, and she said, no, the optimal position is an 11 degree tilt. She was like live prototyping, like while we were on this call. And I think that, you know, people who are wired this way are constantly thinking in this mode, you know, sometimes we're victimized by the chair, they manipulate us. But other times, you know, we're in control and we're able to control the chair in the environment through that. I think it's very powerful.

Judith Anderson
Yeah, I mean, just thinking about a chair with an upright back, and how many times we actually took the chair and propped our butt on the top of the upright as a as a leaning pose. And, you know, instead of actually sitting in the chair itself, you know, like the chair has this structured kind of a known structure that we're very familiar with. And yet we don't necessarily use it in a very familiar way because we are able to create a relationship with the chair that suits us based on what the situation is. So it's interesting if we could actually design a chair that has that kind of flexibility that allows it to morph in situations as we need it to morph. I'm not sure what that chair would look like or even if it would be aesthetically pleasing, but an interesting exercise just thinking about how to design a chair that could actually accommodate three or four distinct type of uses that we know a common uses of the chair.

Gregor Finger
How many more chairs can we design that are unique in their appearance or their use or the materials they're made of? Now it's actually time for the machine learning algorithm to step in.

Lee Moreau
Gregor Finger is spatial computing lead at Bakken and Baeck. He partnered with Space 10, Ikea's Innovation Lab on a project called Techno-Carpenter, and he's basically talking there about using machine learning and using artificial intelligence to anticipate or even create new forms of chairs.

Gregor Finger
And in the beginning, we were thinking of having some kind of interaction where you would create a line in space, for example, that resembles the backrest. And then a machine learning algorithm would complete your design and create like, you know, the legs, the armrests, whatever.

Lee Moreau
So that the chair almost auto-generates, is auto generated, let's say, by a little bit of human intervention with technology. And then this kind of machine learning engine in the background. Is that the future of how we're going to think about chair design?

Judith Anderson
It's interesting. I understand the the ability to generate things quicker, faster, more intelligently. But I also feel like— where's the soul? What happens to the soul of the object when that when they are generated in that realm?

Lee Moreau
So I think this tool that Gregor is talking about does take some of the agency, maybe out of the designer and puts it in the hands of the user. That's kind of interesting and maybe a new- a new avenue.

Judith Anderson
That's an awesome leap forward to like creating a world where we feel like we're participants and we're part of creating our environment. So as a an avenue for bringing people into the design process? Sure. You know, I mean, we could talk about like the Big D, little D and what does that mean and how how do we convey that.

Lee Moreau
I think this is important to talk about this notion of Big D and Little D, as you suggested, are many of our listeners are going to be students of design who may or may not have a full appreciation for the kind of what you're describing as expertize and training that goes in. Can you help explain what Big D and Little D means for the listeners?

Judith Anderson
I mean, I would say that because of the word design is so ubiquitous, that is an understanding of like things that are created from an idea and it manifests it in a way, whatever it could be, a system, it could be an artifact, it could be an actual service— but there is that notion that an idea becomes something tangible, that's that's part of the Little D like that understanding of that change in state. But Big D, I would say, is much more about the whys behind what the design is about, in the hows: the how can we make those those concepts or those ideas tangible, real? And that part becomes, you know, the discipline of understanding the tactileness of how we interact with things, the the human factors of the engagement. We talked a little bit about comfort in a chair. We can look at the aesthetics of a chair and then we can say- those, it's a beautiful chair, but then we sit down and we think, OK, well, it's not a very comfortable thing.

Lee Moreau
That's horrible,

Judith Anderson
Right? There's so many aspects of that chair that we're looking at to make it viable as a product. Is it functional? Is it manufactureable? So it it takes a little bit more in terms of how you're thinking about the artifact.

Lee Moreau
I think it takes a lot more. I mean, the kind of the kind of complexity that you're describing, you know, it's not something you just know as a child, the kind of the way that the world works in the way the materials come together. It takes training and skill. And it's because we now have these new technology platforms that allow people to enter into, quote unquote, the design process that they're able to be there. But without these technical-technologically enabled processes, they couldn't go there. So it's almost like, yes, we're democratizing design, but we're doing it through highly limiting platforms that allow some level of engagement, but not the level of complexity that you just describing, right, so it's there's a big delta there between Little D and Big D.

Gregor Finger
Previously, the designer had like this ultimate power of like looking at something and saying, this is the solution that fits everybody. And now we're entering this phase where everybody can chime in and say, like, why don't we create this solution together?

Judith Anderson
There is- there is beauty in, in that everyone gets to have agency in the decision making. And, you know, maybe it's threatening to some designers that it takes away that, like that power of the creator that is dictating what the outcomes are to the individuals that will actually experience that. And you know, we we look at participatory design as an aspect of being able to create something with the people that will actually benefit from it.

Lee Moreau
But we haven't got to like, you know, us designing chairs and then having them be manufactured. That's a huge leap. The kind of, the resources that it requires to like, you know, go into production. So I think this this Space 10 idea is kind of playing in in the middle- middle realm: like design your own thing, that we maybe produce a run of one object. It's interesting. I don't know where this is going to take us,

Judith Anderson
And I'm sure we have, you know, that whole realm of 3D printed chairs, we could get there. And maybe there's components that you pick and choose and you can create your own chair by a certain line of of backs, there's a certain line of seating forms, there's a certain line of legs. And yeah, that's almost sounds like an IKEA chair. But but if you could, you know, be able to pick and choose and then buy it in a flat pack and come home and assemble it yourself. But then you also wonder why— why do you do that? Why would you want to do that? Not everybody wants to be a designer. So, you know, that's the other part of it. Like you, we can democratize design all we want. But maybe I don't have the time or the the patience or feel confident in just doing that, and it's OK to have someone else create that experience for me.

Lee Moreau
So I think the question really, you know, as we move forward: What if we didn't always fall back on convention? The conventions that are embedded in the world around us and the things that we have to interact with and that ultimately the chairs have to interact with. What if we could do a better job of pushing the boundaries beyond those limits?

Judith Anderson
I think we need to pay more attention to what we're doing now. I mean, I feel like, you know, over the pandemic, everybody sat at home and worked in their their home chairs like their dining room seats, and we realized that that's that wasn't really nice and comfortable and started to bring more attention to like how we are sitting- seated in terms of how we're working or even just how we're relaxing.

Lee Moreau
Let's talk about the failure of chairs. We touched on that earlier. But you know, as you're prototyping chairs, they don't all make it. Talk about the role of prototyping, whether it's about chairs or just in general.

Judith Anderson
That's one of the things, I mean prototyping is a really key thing. It informs your ideas, like most of the people that come to design they love sketching, they have ideas, and those are the two things that they think about. But that three dimensional component of prototyping is a really important aspect of creating in space.

Lee Moreau
I'm also wondering how chair design will have to change in the future. As you know, let's say we're spending so much time on virtual reality, right? So we're not actually having to sit at chairs and see each other. We're starting to engage through goggles and stuff like this. And then our bodies still need to be supported. These are kind of sci fi visions of the future. You know, if you think a Star Trek Captain Kirkr on a, or Picard or something like that, on a- on his captain's chair, that's a pretty normative version of the chair that we know now. But there are all kinds of other dystopian versions of like The Matrix, where supporting the body is happening in all kinds of different ways. Where does where do we go with that?

Judith Anderson
It's a good question. I mean, we can even take a step back and think about just normal postures and and as people age or, you know, just in terms of abilities, whether it's age or not, are we actually supporting the body and the human well enough in a chair? You know, you think about the settings if you're in a hospital or even as a as a home, someone that, like you're saying— sitting down watching TV, what do you do? Like are we laying on the couch? Do we ever really use chairs to watch TV?

Lee Moreau
No. But you're making it sound like the La-Z-Boy is a vision of the future. And, you know, from a body position perspective, that's not crazy, right? If you see somebody reclined in a La-Z-Boy and you look at Neo on The Matrix when he's getting jacked up and, you know, it's actually a very similar pose,

Judith Anderson
And maybe we need to work on designing really nice looking La-Z-Boys. I think the future is actually paying attention to what we're doing. And like you're saying, we're doing more video games where, you know, we're having more virtual conversations. So we're on on the computer more. I think it's just paying attention to what we're doing and how we're doing it and who, who is doing it.

Lee Moreau
All right. Let's change gears. Every episode of The Futures Archive will end with a prompt, a sort of design exercise for you, the listener, to keep working on the object and the ideas that we've talked about in this week's show. You'll be able to share your ideas and see what other listeners are thinking about, too, and I'll explain where to do that in a bit. What we'd like you to do this week is to make a sandwich. And then we'd like you to make a chair for that sandwich. And when you're all done, we'd like you to eat the sandwich. So you might be wondering, what does this have to do with chairs? And it occurred to us this week as we were recording this episode that while the structural integrity and failure rate of sandwiches and chairs are pretty similar. And so we wanted to put those together for you and see what you come up with. Please post your photos and maybe some fail videos on Instagram and use the hashtag #TheFuturesArchive, that's all one word. We will share some of our favorite responses in our Instagram Story at Design Observer. You can read the full prompt on our Instagram. And check out some of our favorite responses to last week's prompt as well.

The Futures Archive is a podcast from Design Observer. To keep up with the show go to TFA dot Design Observer dot com, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Judith, thank you so much for being with us today. This was amazing. If listeners are curious to know more about you or keep in touch, where should they go?

Judith Anderson
Thanks, Lee. You can find me on LinkedIn or at the Mass Arts website, Mass Art dot edu.

Lee Moreau
Please post your answers for this week's assignment on Instagram using the hashtag #TheFuturesArchive, that's one word. We're really excited to see what you've come up with, and please make sure you're following us at Design Observer on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The Futures Archives education partner is Adobe. For each episode, you can find supporting materials, including further reading, lesson plans, and all kinds of activities suitable for college level learners. For more about Adobe's educational initiatives, follow them at EDEX dot adobe dot com. And the Futures Archive is brought to you by automatic thanks again to Galen Cranz, Pat Kirkham, and Gregor Finger for talking to The Futures Archive. You can find more about them, and my co-host Judith Anderson in our show notes, as well as links to archival audio and other interesting stuff. Our associate producer is Adina Karp. Owen Agnew edits the show. Blake Eskin of Noun And Verb rodeo helped develop the show. Thanks as always to Design Observer founder Jessica Helfand and to Design Observer executive producer Betsy Vardell.



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