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Three cheers for the chair

Behold the stately chair.

It’s the piece of furniture meant to conform to the upper rounded part of the hindquarters – one’s rump.

Chairs can be built for comfort and even repose, as living room recliners attest. Or they can be of the metal folding variety, or made of molded plastic, for which keeping one off the ground might be the best that can be said. Chairs also convey status, from the plush high-backed office seat to the imperial throne.

Design and architecture critic Witold Rybczynski – a prolific writer whose subjects include a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted – has considered the chair in all its manifestations in his new book, “Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

On Sunday, Rybczynski will appear at 1:30 p.m. at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to speak about the chair. His talk is called “A Tool for Sitting: An Illustrated Lecture,” and is being presented by the Darwin Martin House.

The News recently caught up with Rybczynski, who spoke to us from his home in Philadelphia while sitting, fittingly, in a chair.

Q: Why the chair?

A: One of the things interesting about the chair, and what makes it unique is how different it is from say, cars, where you have to go to a museum to see a car produced at the start of the 20th century. I’m sitting in a wing chair that is essentially a design taken from the 18th century. If you look at the materials, shape and form, it’s essentially that chair. Most technologies, especially modern technologies such as recording devices or smartphones, have a life measured in years, and not even decades for some. We have chairs that have lasted for hundreds of years. The director’s chair dates back to the end of the 19th century. It was called a boat chair because it was easy to set up on boats. When they got to Hollywood, somehow the idea of putting people’s name on the back caught the public attention, and it became the director’s chair.

Q: Is the chair considered a lower form of furniture since it’s primary purpose is to lift up the buttocks?

A: No, I think the opposite. We still have thrones – the pope sits on a throne, the Queen of England sits on a throne. We chair departments, and there are chairmen and chairwomen. We expect the president of a company to sit in an impressive-looking chair. It’s not the same chair his receptionist sits on. Status has always been a part of the chair. There were humble and grand chairs from the very beginning, and that’s still the case.

Q: What do plastic chairs say about the evolution of the chair?

A: I think what really separates the plastic chair from all the previous chairs is that it is made out of one material, and has no joints. The joint has to be made well in a chair, and the plastic chair eliminates all joints. The plastic chair dates from around the 1970s, and it’s still evolving and improving. We’re only at the beginning of that. Plastic chairs are made out of cheap materials, and mass produced with no human contact. It takes 60 seconds to make one from pellets. It’s become a global chair, and you can find them in every country in the world. The plastic chair also doesn’t come from the furniture industry, and there are no patents for plastic chairs. No one is associated with it, or maybe they don’t want to admit it, but it’s impossible to figure out who made the first one, or whether it was French, European or American.

Q: Do you have a favorite chair?

A: The chair I’m sitting in is one of my favorites. It’s a wing chair, and one I sit in usually for reading. It’s a chair that’s totally upholstered, so it is a comfortable chair with no hard edges. The first wing chairs were called sleeping chairs, because they were really invented for elderly people like myself to doze off. They were in the bedroom for people with all sorts of respiratory diseases or had trouble lying down. It’s only later that they migrated into the living room and other parts of the house.

Q: What about your subject most surprised you?

A: After working on it for a year and a half, it seemed to be a very ordinary subject, so I’ve been surprised by the reaction of interviewers who saw it as an odd subject. Maybe architects think more about chairs. The line between architecture and furniture gets blurred, and many architects have designed chairs.

Q: As you know, so did Frank Lloyd Wright for the Darwin Martin House, which is sponsoring your lecture.

A: Wright designed very bad chairs. The architects who designed good chairs tended to work with chair manufacturers, and they would go back and forth between the architect thinking about the chair, and the manufacturer who wanted to make money in the process. The manufacturer knew about carpentry and materials, and this dialogue was very important in producing good chairs. Comfort was also important to the manufacturer, who had to sell the chairs. Wright designed chairs for particular projects, like the Martin House, and it was still a time when you could actually design chairs and give the drawing to a carpentry shop, and they would make a chair for you. Wright designed on his own, and the reason they are so uncomfortable and awkward was that he didn’t know a lot about carpentry and chair making. They’re really objects you happen to sit on.


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