And, according to Galen Cranz, a Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, such traditional chair designs just don’t cut. out to be miserably uncomfortable? Not an uncommon experience, as it turns out. The reason, if we read between the lines of Galen Cranz’s gently radical book. Galen Cranz was on last week’s episode of 99% Invisible, the radio Cranz published The Chair, Rethinking Culture, Body and Design in.

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Besides buildings obviouslychairs are probably architects favorite things to design. Today, the tradition continues, with architects from David Adjaye to Rem Koolhaas to Zaha Hadid all designing places to perch. Yet, for all their formal grace and beauty, these chairs rarely break the mold. Invariably, they are designed falen an upright individual sitting at a right angle. Experts increasingly argue for new ways to sit and work, hence the rise of bouncing balls crnaz standing desks in office spaces.

Still, by and large, ergonomic design remains subjugated by formalism and tradition. After all, the two tend to go together more often than not.

She holds a Ph. Cran in sociology from the University of Chicago and is the author of the field-defining work, The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design. Certified instructor in the mind-body and movement based therapeutic practice, the Alexander Technique, Cranz is a founding member of the Association for Body Conscious Design.

Nothing is set in stone yet. It really began because I decided to train as a teacher in the Alexander Technique mid-career, and that was a three-year, half-time commitment.

So, I thought, galne do the two topics meet? Furniture seemed more architectonic, and the chair crnaz like the quintessential piece of furniture. Every architect has tried their hand at designing one.

So, I just set out to find out what was known about chairs academically. You make a statement that it must not be the body but the chair, since the body was here first. But, how pervasive do you feel that idea was, that the body was at fault for failures in chair design?

The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design by Galen Cranz

Well, it was very pervasive. The right angle straightens and flattens that lumbar curve, and if you sit at a perch rather than a right angle then suddenly your lumbar curve comes right back in by itself.

The conversation on support in general is really interesting, and the struggle within ergonomics to release the idea that we need support, or that support is a solution. The contradiction cfanz support as both solution and problem. It seems to be a point with implications far beyond the chair in terms of how we design in general. You talk about a shift in early postmodernism away from the application of pure geometries and clear intention in chair design and the coincident development of ergonomic applications as producing a design environment which failed to unite the formal and aesthetic ambitions of the designed chair with emerging ergonomic approaches to office furniture and culture.

Do you feel like that disunion has resolved at all in the intervening years? Well, to some extent. So there is still galej basic split, but there are hints at coming together in that, as I said, people aesthetically like the Aeron chair. You document a significant disconnect between the scientific aspirations of the field of ergonomics and its limited ability to properly evaluate itself due to a lack of reliable observational methods, be those electromagnetic, reportage, or otherwise.


I found the apparent unwillingness within the field to accept and respond to the largely negative correlations that were coming back, regarding relationships of static comfort and either productivity or support, pretty startling. It seems a similar disconnect persists regarding the relationship between passive comfort, and overall human health and longevity, in common architectural application of ergonomics.

Well, chair-sitting is now correlated with premature death from heart attack, stroke, and cancer. Without muscular firing, the pancreas no longer produces an important enzyme.

Without lipase, undigested fats go into the chaur, setting us up for earlier cancers, heart attacks, and stroke than we would get otherwise. By table to you mean work surface, more generically, or do you mean only what we know as a dining room table.

Do you mean desk? Primarily, the conversation is focused on what we more traditionally think of as a hcair, be that a dining table or a desk, but yes, the work surface.

The consequence of the epidemiological studies about the association between mortality and number of hours seated—the consequence of that is that you need to stand, but we know standing is tiring to the legs. The real solution is that you need chqir, so you enter the world of hydraulic, or electric, or mechanical, adjustability. Instead, what people do is round their spine to get down to the work surface. So the table needs to be redesigned just as much as the chair needs to be redesigned.

The table needs to be of adjustable height, and the work surface should be able to slant for reading and for writing. And then the keyboard, some people say should thhe be quite far down: The hands should be at more of an open angle, and maybe the keyboard is even split. Maybe ideally, the chair and the work surface should cooperate in some kind of slow moving transformation, undulation. You know, I think of it as a sort of tai-chi work station.

This kind of really slow moving change would mean that the joints have different stresses on them in the course of an hour and in the course of a day. I guess my question regarding the misapplication of ergonomic logics in sustainable design and furniture design is also tied to the point you raise, that to get change in furniture design, due to status-based factors in furniture choice as well as capital flows, one fundamentally has to induce the stylistic acceptance of the more monied class first.

It seems that the opportunity for change to occur through that mechanism lies in producing designs that make it both intelligent and sexy to have these things.

On the one hand, creating high consumer appeal for a body-centered design, or for sustainable architecture, or other environmental aids that contribute to our galsn physical and cultural health. But also giving more weight to chalr fact that the need for aesthetic pleasure in these designs is a real determinant of their capacity to enact reform.

Screen/Print #54: Galen Cranz on Why We Need to Rethink the Chair

It has to look good. But it will only look good to people who already know the advantages of the new system. So education, and not only verbal education, but of course, showing new imagery.


Showing the hip person chhair work in this comfortable, flexible, changeable environment. Image is very important.

Your book speaks broadly and in significant historical detail to the communicative quality of furniture in general, and chairs specifically. In architecture, chair design seems to have taken on a largely rhetorical dimension, which is perhaps somewhat hermetic to the field. Because architects are very influenced by how they imagine their peers respecting them. Yeah, so architects have chakr be persuaded that this is cool.

Internal to the professional culture, they have to be persuaded, and then you can work on the public. Or maybe you need two campaigns, one for the public and one for design culture simultaneously, so that architects have support culturally, with clients.

Clients have to understand, or they ask: Digital delirium, a friend has started to call it: Yeah, so the social has taken a back seat, and it will have to come back.

It will just have to, otherwise the profession will die of irrelevance. Do you see any particularly promising developments in terms of body-conscious design in architecture?

Galeb people are fiddling around with more humanistic, body-centered, democratic office design. In local grade schools here, parents are setting up schools with little standing desks for kids. So, in some ways, real estate value is making people rethink office space and make it less sedentary. And then urban design people have figured out that because people need to walk for health means cnair have a justification for making streets more beautiful, more interesting.

So urban design, school design, office design—these are positives that are happening despite the architectural profession. It seems that developments in real estate and the economic motivations for standing might be the most likely to succeed of all of those.

I have to say that halfway through reading your book, I had to sit on the ground. It really gets under your skin. There is a warning at the front of the book. Want to find out more about Cranz’s work?

Take a listen to our podcast interview with her for Archinect Sessions One-to-One. Divorcing content from chai physical page, the series lends a new perspective to nuanced architectural thought.

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