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Please Have a Seat ... at Your Own Risk

Our Love Affair with the Chair May be a Star-Crossed Match, Says Professor Galen Cranz

by Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
posted October 14, 1998

From La-Z-Boys to prison electric chairs, strollers to rockers, we sit in chairs for much of our lives. How and why this is so -- while as much as half the world eats, works, relaxes and entertains without chairs -- is something that architecture professor Galen Cranz has been grappling with for 13 years.

An architectural sociologist and a certified teacher of Alexander Method body work, Cranz says her research began in earnest in 1985, when a friend showed her snapshots from a stint of voluntary service in Africa. Among the photos was a picture of two African men with superb physical development. Both, it turned out, had been raised without access to chairs or desks.

"Trumpets sounded," Cranz recalls. "That was the birth of my hypothesis that the reason the ergonomic literature in scientific journals was so contradictory and confused is that it never questioned the chair itself."

"This was a threatening point of view," she recalls. Yet it ignited her inquiry into the history, politics and physiology of chair-sitting.

Delving into social science, design history and modern ergonomics, Cranz concluded that the chair was "created, modified and nurtured" not in response to bodily requirements, but as a means of indicating differences in status -- between lord and subject, man and woman, boss and employee, adult and child.

This history, she says, is preserved in terms such as chair persons, county seats and seats on the stock exchange -- all metaphors for position, social role and power.

Not every culture shares our devotion to the chair, she notes. Turkish homes feature raised platforms. The virtues of Indian divans, Japanese tatami mats and Chinese heated k'ang, Cranz says, should not be overlooked.

Yet Westerners often do just that. In her new book, "The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design," Cranz quotes a 19th-century English colonialist who condemned East Indian laborers' fondness for squatting as "indolence and inefficiency." Raised seats, he opined, were "one of those natural steps toward a higher civilization."

Ironically, Cranz notes, it is we who pay a high price for choosing chair-sitting over squatting, kneeling, sitting cross-legged or other postures common outside the West.

The rise in back problems over the last century, she says, "correlates directly with the increasing number of hours we spend seated." In the U.S., back pain is second only to the common cold as a reason for missing work, she says; the price tag is about $70 billion annually.

Attempts to address this back-pain epidemic have spawned a small industry, as designers and back specialists seek to create back-friendly chairs. But the quest for the perfect chair design remains elusive, Cranz believes, because right-angled seating is inherently stressful, and cumulatively deforming, to the human body.

From a purist point of view, Cranz would argue that chairs should be abandoned. Pragmatically, she says, "we need to explore how they can be fixed or at least improved."

She advocates a "body-conscious" design movement that would potentially change workplace, home and urban environments, and even social relations, in fundamental ways.

Cranz now believes offices should be designed like exercise par courses, offering postural variety and more freedom for workers to move around and alternate tasks.

"Challenge the chair," she says, "and you find yourself challenging desk, table and window heights, then attitudes about the body, authority and respect -- in short, the whole problem of how we regulate movement and activity."

If the implications of body-centered design are daunting, she believes they are also exciting. "There hasn't been anything original in furniture design," she asserts, "since the early 20th century, when modernists started fooling around with materials."

"My interest in seating had its origin in my own physical problems," says Cranz, who has scoliosis and has successfully reduced the curvature of her spine, without surgery, through body work and modifications to her home and office. "But I think I found something of universal significance."


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