Every chair has a different story to tell.
Straight off the production line it sits patiently in storage, boxed and wrapped in a shiny cocoon, waiting to be delivered into the world. Sooner or later it is bought — for the reason of being comfortable, ergonomically correct, fashionable, practical, aesthetically pleasing, suitable for the size of its primary user, or maybe because it is cheap. That is when the life of a chair really begins.
A chair is so essential and ubiquitous that you don’t really notice it until it is absent. Forced to wait in a room without one, you stand with the weight of your whole body on one leg, then another. You switch between legs, you fidget, you look for a wall to lean against, or something else to land on. You briefly consider using another chair-like object, like a cardboard box but have no idea whether it would be able to handle your weight.
Maybe you see that someone else has found a great solution to this problem, and a feeling of envy is filling up inside you. Someone chooses to sit on the floor, but you are not quite sure whether it is clean. Besides, will you be the only two people sitting on the floor and will it look peculiar? Is this a sign of your weakness? Shouldn’t you be able to hold out for a few minutes?
Usually chairs come in sets of 4, or 6. Sometimes 12. Those are good numbers, round and even. They are suitable for a typical family, plus it gives some room for occasional guests. Chairs are carefully arranged around the house, and set the stage for our social lives. They give us their support on a daily basis. They reflect our values. They remind us to keep our back straight, or allow us to curl up with a book and a cup of hot tea. They can be pushed around, stacked, collected, used as a ladder or a table. They can be the centerpiece, the jewel of a room, or they can sit quietly in a corner and wait for their master.
When a chair is damaged you try to fix it, but the glue you generously apply on its parts doesn’t hold for as long as the store clerk promised you it would. So the parts keep popping out of their sockets, constantly putting you in danger of embarrassing yourself in front of your cat. You apply more glue, let it set overnight, or make that 24 hours, just to be on the safe side. Perhaps you even cherish that piece of furniture so much that you reupholster it, and give it a new chance in life.
Eventually, you decide you no longer need all these chairs in your house. You put up an ad on Finn, or Craigslist, or whatever other yellow pages service is available to you. You take the chair to a second-hand store or a garage sale. Or, perhaps you just place it outside of your house, lurking behind the curtains to check if someone has picked it up already. It makes you happy to think that your chair will have a whole new life, and a little sad that you won’t ever know what the future of this chair entails.
Making the perfect chair is a rite of passage for a designer. Breaking it is a rite of passage for the rest of us.
As a teenager I lived in a country whose own pangs of growth and transformation were powerful yet largely invisible to me. Crumbling financial systems, engendered by greed and opportunism, a complete overhaul of social institutions and cultural values, political chaos, resurrection of the religion — it all paled in comparison with my own struggle to be a good student and find my little spot under the bleak Siberian sun. Back then, I did not realise that being a good student meant mindlessly following an existing formula, so rebelling against the system, and feeling the spirit of revolution we heard so much about in history class, was quite literally a balancing act for me.
I balanced on the two rear legs of my school chair, killing my boredom, whilst diligently wiping off any memories made during that day at school. Rocking on my chair I was exercising what little free will I felt I had at my disposal. It was a way of sneaking some fun into an otherwise mind numbing environment. Of course, we were constantly reminded to sit straight, be attentive, not destroy public property, mind our posture, and to spit out that chewing gum already. Naturally, the gum often ended up on the underside of the state-owned chairs, which at the end of each semester we were told to scrape off.
The early 2000s were marked by the arrival of standardised testing in the Russian school system, similar to the SATs in the United States. It must have been May 2002 and I sat slouched at my desk, ready for another 5 years of university studies, followed by 45 years of administrative work.
At that moment of my readiness the principal walked into our classroom. He was eager to see how this new and exciting experiment was coming along. He was a man we all feared and disliked, although whether this was justified or not I don’t know, as he never really spoke to us. He always wore a dark brown suit, and spent most of the day in his office, only briefly making an appearance into the crowded hallways where his large adult body towered uncomfortably above the sea of loud school children.
That morning, 19 years ago, I was taken by surprise as he stopped next to my desk and straightened me up with his hands, shaping me like I was a piece of dough waiting to become a dumpling. Stunned by that action, I completely lost track of all the Russian grammar rules I was busy applying at the moment and sat frozen still, unblinking, until he left the room. I was filled with anger, but also, quite strangely — with pride. Pride because I finally felt like I was seen by the powerful, by this godly mysterious figure. Once he was gone, I bounced back to my original twisted shape and continued crunching my test.
I am not sure why I so vividly remember this act of someone physically adjusting the way I sat. After all, we were accustomed to being told what to do and how to do it from day one. Perhaps, that is the reason why I am still searching for a good chair — so that the silent authorities of this world have no need to instruct me on how to sit.