#82 Sit down design
Butterflies, carousels and chairs
It’s Design Lobster #82 and we’re in a sedentary mood. Questioning what we really mean by sitting comfortably, with a special look at the story behind the Finnish Karuselli chair. So sit back and enjoy this week’s issue. 🛋
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Question: How might we sit comfortably?
In his 1969 essay The Sitting Position – A Question of Method, historian Joseph Rykwert questions why the Butterfly (or Hardoy) chair - shown above - had found it’s way into so many homes over the previous decade, despite being in his view deeply uncomfortable to sit in. Rykwert took this chair’s popularity as evidence that we are rarely guided by purely functional considerations but instead by the symbolic power that some designs exert on us. He goes on to interrogate what we mean by by comfort, at first glance a straightforward term, but in fact highly historically and culturally situated:
“…comfort is a complex notion, which varies from person to person, and from social group to social group; varies for an individual throughout his life and more important goes through very violent changes independent of our physical constitution but directly connect to the inconstant pattern of convention.”
— Joseph Rykwert
The idea that something as apparently universal as comfort is in fact culturally determined, deeply fascinates me. I think so much of design is about understanding and navigating the kinds of codes and conventions that underlie seemingly straightforward words like comfortable, useful or good value. Design is a symbolic enterprise as much as a rational one and successful work must succeed on both these levels, if it is to succeed at all.
Design takeaway: What symbols are present in your design work?
Object: Karuselli chair
The story goes that one winter in the 1950s, Finnish designer Yrjö Kukkapuro had been drinking vodka and, rather tipsy, fell down into a patch of snow. The resulting impression he left in it by his body inspired the form of the Karuselli chair.
In fact, Yrjö designed the chair by sitting on suspended wire mesh, which he then used as a frame for sculpting in plaster. The resulting forms were then cast in fibreglass and padded with leather to make the chair.
Karuselli is Finnish for Carousel and was given its name by Yrjö’s daughter because of the way it span like a fairground ride. The chair went on sale in 1965 and despite its radical shape and materials, became highly popular. Terence Conran called it the most comfortable chair in the world, though quite what that really means, we might question!
Design takeaway: How could you use the form of the human body to guide your design?
▶️ Watch a video showing a Karuselli chair being made.
Quote: “A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is famous.”
– Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe
This quote from Mies I believe was his (possibly rather tongue in cheek) response to someone describing a chair he had designed as an Easy Chair! Nevertheless, I like the way it reminds us that design challenges some in all shapes and sizes.
Here’s another great quote about chairs from critic Ralph Caplan.
Have a great week,
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