The Seat of Power

“Two-thirds of the people in this world don’t even sit on a chair,” a Jesuit once pointed out, a gentle corrective to one of my many first-world assumptions. I had no idea if this was an exaggeration for effect; how does one fact-check? Besides, his point was inequity, and that was irrefutable.

The sentence returns to me often, for some reason. (Guilt, most likely.) I thought of it again while gazing with delight at the miniature chairs fashioned by a retired architect. Tiny, brightly painted Adirondacks; a bentwood Alvaar Alto he tried to fabricate by boiling wood; The Glass Chair, designed in Japan with plate glass (but he uses acrylic); the famous marshmallow chair (he used fabric-covered buttons)…. He spends hours in his workshop recreating designs by Hans Wenger, Peter Shire, and my favorite, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose neat rows of square cutouts and precisely spaced slats must be excruciating to replicate in miniature.

Abandoning social justice, I savor what an art form the chair is. It began hard, the way power always does. Then people padded just the seat, the most obvious point of friction. Alas, “however much a chair seat may be softened, the pressure of the bone will eventually be felt on the flesh of the buttocks as uncomfortable,” note Charlotte and Peter Fiell in 1000 Chairs. Over the years, as more of us were accorded the privilege of sitting in a chair and not just on a bench or stool, the backs and arms grew democratically cushy, and the upholstery began to follow our shape rather than insist we follow the chair’s. Which can be a right angle, demanding better posture than most of us achieve, or a giant cupped hand, making it hell to rise, or a bent slantboard sort of affair….

The chair is meant to take the load off our feet, give us a break from gravity yet keep our bottom from touching the earth. It puts us all at the same level—ostensibly. Of one of the world’s humblest chairs, Thomas Merton wrote, “The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.”

But what of the executive, king, or judge who remains seated while his supplicants stand before him? Think of the difference signaled by leather versus cloth, or by a high, winged back versus a task chair. There are department chairs, board chairs, endowed chairs—why did we steal that word for humans in charge? No one takes direction from a department sofa.

I have been reading Sigrid Nunez lately, and in The Last of Her Kind, she slides in one of those gentle, throwaway questions that always stop me: “In those days, she always preferred to sit on the floor, even when there was no rug or when the floor was rough or dirty. There must have been a reason for this preference for the floor so many shared back then, but what could it have been?” I was one of those people, always saying, “Nah, I’ll take the floor.” Often we vied for the privilege. What was that about? I close my eyes, try to summon the mood back. Chairs were formal. Conventional. Pulled out with a performative scrape for old people, germaphobes, and women who wanted to be treated like queens.

When I met a man who always held my chair, I became one of those women. And when life stiffened my knees, the old preference faded until it seemed strange to me. But at the time, it felt, quite literally, down to earth. I could spread out in ways no chair would allow, and the ground would support me in any position I chose. I could laugh without falling off my chair.

Besides, so few chairs were really comfortable. My feet dangled from most of them, manufacturers catering to heights loftier than five-three. Sofas were so deep, I felt like Jonah in the whale’s mouth. My grandpa’s pink Naugahyde chair (yes, chosen by my grandmother; he drank enough beer every night to forget the color) worked like flypaper on bare thighs. It must have been either an aberration or a close-out; we were the sort of family that chose a rough, nubbly tweed and Scotchguarded it.

Only later did I learn that chairs could be upholstered in sumptuous velvet; they did not have to be as hard as church pews or as awkward and ugly as those in our home. Some were even playful, piecing together tubular steel like playground equipment. Studio 65’s Capitello shaped foam into a tilted column capital. Vernor Panton’s Mrs. Emmenthaler chaise longue let you sit in her lap, and there was a hole in her head to cradle yours.

Even now, after decades of innovative design, few chairs are truly comfortable. The New York Times recently urged compact lounge chairs, and only one had arms to support our own. That one had a back no higher than the arms. It hurts to look at.

We tolerate the design sacrifices, because in our lives, chairs are indispensable. They exist for every stage in life: birthing chairs, potty chairs, all-one-piece student desk chairs, chairs big enough to smoosh into with your boyfriend, easy chairs, swivel chairs for midlife indecision, rockers and recliners. One hopes for a life that stops without an electric chair, though I would not mind sitting a spell on one of those stone chairs in a putridarium, where the bodies of dead nuns and monks were ensconced until they decomposed. (A hole in the center of the seat allowed the liquid to melt into a vessel beneath the chair.)

Moving on. In their exquisite catalog of chair designs, the Fiells say that chairs are all about connection. They connect with our bodies and our senses through their shape, color, and texture; they connect their own parts into a whole strong enough to hold us; they connect us to a larger cultural moment, artist, or idea. According to the British architect Peter Smithson, “When we design a chair, we make a society and city in miniature.”

I look up the chairs he and his wife designed. One, the D38 Trundling Turk lounge chair, has been called the most colorful chair in the world—it looks like someone cut up a Mondrian painting and assembled it like Legos. A fun society, to be sure.

But the chair I fall in love with is from a different world altogether, late-1800s Europe. The Dante Gabriel Rossetti chair is made from ebonized, turned oak and detailed in red paint, then softened with a woven rush seat. Its back frames a graceful harp design, the restrained elegance of the curves a soft reminder that utility can be art.

Runner up is the Steltman chair that Gerrit Rietveld originally designed for a jewelry shop in the Hague. White painted oak, it looks like half of a Greek key, deconstructed and reassembled by a three-year-old. It is wrong, asymmetrical, and beautiful, possessing both clarity and the ability to surprise.

Could I sit comfortably in one of those chairs, knowing how many people are squatting or sitting on sun-baked earth? Here is the irony: Their way is far healthier for the joints and the spine. We have grown soft in our pursuit of power and comfort. When you cheat gravity, you pay.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.