Cheese and Chairs
There is something about building a chair that challenges us on many different levels. Why, you may ask, is a chair any different than any other piece of furniture? Well it’s how we use it I think that matters. We sit in it, on it, around it, we pick it up and move it about from one side of the table to the other, we fidget in it trying to get comfortable, we tip back on its two rear legs, and then we slam the chair back to earth and get comfortable for ten more minutes and then have to move around again. It needs to do its job of holding us up without fail, be well-made so it can survive the abuse we give it, and a pleasure to sit in if it is to be a great chair. Commodity, firmness, and delight as Vitruvius, Roman author, would have it said about architecture. So too, of a chair.
A chair is not like a cabinet where the only physical interaction with it is to touch a knob or bang into it with a knee or elbow. With a table, your commerce with it is mostly how high it is. The only thing you ask of it is: do I feel comfortable when I’m working/ eating/ reading at it. It’s why most people are not impressed with a table sitting in a gallery space or at home. It just sits there. You throw your keys on it, bam, it lands, you’re done. Unless it’s unusually large, a table rarely symbolizes anything. They are unilateral, multi-purpose, egalitarian.
But a chair is an interaction both visually and aesthetically that requires good solid engineering while in the end, so to speak, also being ergonomic/ comfortable. It makes the chair a very intriguing build. No other piece of furniture has so many requirements unless you think of a boat as a piece of furniture, which I suppose some folks do. Because of the chair’s role in history first as a symbol of royalty and power, then opulence and privilege, and finally comfort and lastly community, the chair remains a powerful image for us. Put two chairs alone in a room facing each other and upon seeing them a deep impression is made. Performance artists have made a living off two chairs in a room.
Now think about the chunk of raw space that a chair inhabits. This cubic rectangle of air is filled with potential chair and your task is to remove all that is unnecessary from it to create this object. This analogy not only implies, it insists on a reductive process. Take away everything from this space that is unnecessary. Everything that is not chair, I remove.
Hence my brilliant analogy to a block of cheese! You have forgotten? Take a chunk of cheese, [one could I suppose substitute clay or cold mashed potatoes, but what about the eating?], and start to remove the unnecessary sections. By removing the negative space from the brick of cheese, one creates the positive image/ shape of the final chair. It is a marvelous way of drawing/ sketching out a chair because you concentrate then on amorphous, non-symbolic chunks of trapezoidal, rectangular, or triangular shapes. It’s easier then to see this shape because it doesn’t resemble a chair. It resembles the trapezoid or whatever. Easy to see, easy to draw. Pull away the negative space. What is left?
The chair. And, if we use my cheese model, a great pile of cheese that needs must be eaten!
I simple take away the chunks of unnecessary cheese until all that’s left is the shape of the chair. But as with cheese, so too with wood. When my chair/ cheese model is complete, it will have no stability to hold us up. Even a model of a cheese body could not sit on this cheese chair. Why? Because cheese, as any school child knows, has no structural integrity. It can’t hold up its own weight. Neither does wood if you start with a tree trunk and take away all the negative spaces you want in order to create your throne. Short grain sections will not hold up even as you carve away on the log. They aren’t just liable to break. They will break.
So if we made this cheese chair, well I don’t have to tell you what would happen. Cheese-tastrophe. Same thing with carving a block of wood and creating something that is light enough to move. Once this is done, the wood has too many short grain parts to have any integrity. Sit once in it and it will collapse. Our reductive process may be good for modeling but maybe not so good for reality.
The concept however is apt. Think about the chair aesthetically as a block of form and then remove everything that gets in the way of your idea. Then move to the reality and engineering and ergonomic side of things to create a prototype adding sections together. Now we have an additive instead of reductive process. Now we can create something that you can actually sit in which is when we start to face some issues like what is comfort? Read Witold Rybczynski for some sense of when that idea came into play. Blame the Dutch ascendancy, their golden era in the 1600’s, and their middle class is his take.
Then consider what is comfort for you or for another. Is the chair height important? The angle of the seat relative to the floor? The width of the seat? The angle of the backrest to the seat? The backrest supports? Chair arm height? Yes, the answer to all of the above.
And you thought it was just a chair. Just a chair. Try to build a chair sometime, from scratch. No plans, no numbers for you to copy and you’ll feel like you’re trying to reinvent, uh, a chair. A wheel is easy. Figure out how to get motion. But a chair, goodness, you have to entice the viewer who spies it to want to sit in it. Then once she does, it has to hold her up. And finally it has to feel good to sit there and by extension she looks good sitting in it. Bring in the serfs!
So much to consider. Which is why when people call up and say: I have a simple project that I would do myself if I had the tools, they display their deep ignorance of a field that is deep and far-ranging. It may be simple to build this project for someone with skill. It may be simple for someone with experience with this particular and singular shape. But try your hand at it and see how simple it turns out to be. Make it out of cheese first I say. Just to see if the idea has any merit. If not, eat the evidence.
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