An Ergonomic Evalution of Midcentury Modern Chairs

June 3rd, 2010


Ergonomics is the study of the relationship between people and the machines in their environment, in our case, the chair.  Mies van der Rohe has equated the level of complexity of designing a good chair with designing a building.  Many mid-century architects and designers became enthralled with the idea of designing the perfect chair.  While aesthetically pleasing, which of these are actually comfortable and beneficial to our bodies? 

Most chairs are either over-designed or poorly designed.  Some have the no-work approach, being overstuffed and unsupportive.  Some focus on only one part of the body, rather than the body as a system.  Others take a mimicking approach to organic design and often overly exaggerate the shape of the body in its form.  And with many of the high design chairs, as architectural critic Withold Rybczynski wrote, there is "something charmingly naive about this belief in the power of art to overcome physical reality." 

I'll start with one of the most famous chairs, the Wassily chair (1925) by Marcel Breuer.  Named after his friend Wassily Kandinsky, the chair was Breuer's first trial using bent metal framing and leather.  Breuer wrote, "It is my most extreme work both in its outward appearance and in the use of materials; it is the least artistic, the most logical, the least 'cozy' and the most mechanical."  The aesthetic is undeniably utilitarian, yet the taught leather lends a luxurious note.  Rybczynski criticized the chair for being psychologically uncomfortable, stating, "it looks more like an exercise machine than an armchair."  Ergonomically, the chair performs quite well.  The taught flat leather provide a slight spring and encourage movement, unlike an overstuffed chair that holds the body in one position.  The chair also fits a wide range of body sizes.  The seat band leaves space in the back for the buttocks, while the lower back band supports the reversed curve of the lower back.  However, there is one major flaw; the steep angle of the seat forces a person to lean, creating pains for the neck and head.

Next to slaughter, the Eames chair by Charles and Ray Eames.  During WWII, Ray was using plastic resins to design medical casts and splints.  From this experience, Charles and Ray began experimenting with free-form plastics to create an organically shaped chair.  Stamped from a single sheet of plastic, the chair was easily and cheaply produced, making it a staple furnishing in laundromats, airports, schools, libraries, and bowling alleys during the second half of the 20th century.  As fashionable as it is, especially after Eero Saarinen modified it with the pedestal base, it does have some faults.  Unlike the Wassily chair, the eggshell shape does not provide adequate space for the gluteus maximus.  When one leans back in the chair, the curve forces the hips forward, creating a c-shaped slump and back pain.  Basically, it is a wonderful chair to seat guests in that your really don't want to stay all that long.

Surprisingly, one of the most comfortable chairs evaluated in the study was one intended to make an ideological statement at an exhibition.  Designed by Gerrit Rietveld in Holland, the Red and Blue Rietveld (1919), the chair became symbolic of the De Stjil movement. It presented an abstract planar systems separated into two disparate yet interconnected structures.  When placed in front of a black wall, the black frame faded from view, highlighting the 'floating' primary colored and purposely crude plywood seating planes.  Everything about the chair is blunt and designers and historians have admired it for its conceptual clarity.  Remarkably, the austerity and rigidity lends comfort to the chair as well.  Since there is no padding on the plywood seat, the whole chair is angled back to keep the sitter from sliding out.  To accommodate this tilt, the back rest is extended to support the neck and head.  The lack of cushion would eventually become tiresome on the bones and the tilt allows for little more than rest, but all in all, it rated quite well. 

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