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Review by Philip D. Zimmerman
The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design

Myrna Kaye. There’s a Bed in the Piano: The Inside Story of the American Home. Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1998. 276 pp.; 160 bw illus., index. $38.50.

Galen Cranz. The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998. 288 pp.; 85 bw illus., bibliography, index. $27.50.

Most furniture scholarship addresses issues of identification. Monographs refine our knowledge of how, when, where, and by and for whom an object or group of objects was made. Collection catalogues distill and augment this kind of work. Even most exhibition and topical catalogues pursue similar objectives. Vocabulary and other technical aspects often assume an existing and significant level of interest in and knowledge of the general subject on the part of the reader. Two new books from commercial presses may broaden the intellectual horizons of furniture scholars as well as attract new readers to the field. Drawing on conventional scholarship, There’s a Bed in the Piano: The Inside Story of the American Home by Myrna Kaye provides a sweeping historical view of furniture and its domestic settings. The book assumes little familiarity with the subject yet exposes knowledgeable readers to more broadly conceived interpretations than usual. Galen Cranz’s The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design represents the work of an architecture professor interested in ergonomics—the study of the relationship between a person and the workplace environment. This work is a persuasive example of how someone writing from the perspective of one discipline can inform and energize another.

Myrna Kaye is well known as a scholar of early New England furniture, with a special interest in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and as a writer and lecturer on fakes and forgeries. In There’s a Bed in the Piano, a book that has more substance than its title suggests, she takes a broader view of American furniture and houses from the time of European settlement through the present. By inviting readers to “cross American thresholds, survey the rooms, and look at the furniture,” the author places herself in a tradition that includes certain valuable studies by early antiquarians as well as more recent academic treatments such as Alan Gowans’s Images of American Living (1964), books by John Gloag, and Eric Mercer’s Furniture, 700–1700 (1969).

Arranged by subjects treated chronologically, the book begins with furniture, shifts to architectural features, and closes with general subjects. The opening chapters address case furniture and joinery followed by chairs (with special emphasis on turnery), rocking chairs, and upholstered chairs. Kaye then discusses certain architectural features, namely porches, windows and lighting, and floor plans and room uses. Concluding chapters address regional design, trade with China, and “reading” the object. Along the way, Kaye dares to tackle some meaty topics: the porch and its relationship to African prototypes, Chinese sources of the cabriole leg, and a shift from male- to female-dominated consumer patterns, to name a few.

The author assimilates a lot of information and presents it in logical sequences. Her perspective conveys to specific topics a richer explanation of use and context than is often found in more focused studies. The reader learns about the role of early bedhangings and their gradual disappearance as bedchambers lost their public function (pp. 130–32). Similarly, notions of privacy influence placement of porches, which move from street fronts to back yards as living patterns changed during the twentieth century. For another example, Kaye discusses light fixtures in the context of the size and placement of windows, mirrors, wall coverings, and other things that affect the quality and levels of light within a room. Much of the rest of the book is a capable and engaging re-presentation of familiar and often conventional interpretations of furniture and architecture. Clear illustrations, many of which are familiar images from publications of the last two decades, supplement the text.

Kaye personalizes furniture history by organizing it as a series of stories and narratives, including a testimonial to her parents. Throughout the book, she assumes an informal, almost conversational tone, weaving into her text some welcome humor as well as anecdotes of her family history and research experiences. The tone is one of an entertaining lecture, full of workable images and easy references to modern life and culture. A writing device that this reviewer found extraneous and somewhat irritating, however, is Kaye’s scattered examples of “fawbits,” her acronym for “fictional account without basis in truth.” Such pleasant fictions, such as “low chairs were designed to allow women to put on their slippers easily” (p. 40), should be left alone. There are too many “fawbits” to attack, and repeating them may do more to keep them alive than merely ignoring them.

New England is Kaye’s frame of reference. Although anecdotal references comfortably follow her regional interests, other preferential treatment is less palatable. She dismisses the antebellum South as a place where “rude log cabins were commonplace” (p. 16) and equates the “major ports” of Philadelphia and Wethersfield (p. 171). Readers must also treat some of Kaye’s generalizations with care. The author tends to combine oversimplifications with a somewhat hyper-dramatic voice: Kaye emphasizes the value of certain craft skills by citing American supply of pine logs for British ship masts, which undermined the mastwright’s trade. During the Revolution, trade stopped, British masts broke, and “the weakened Royal Navy was unable to re-supply Cornwallis at Yorktown, and the Americans won” (p. 14). Elsewhere, in an otherwise delightful narrative, Kaye presents the rocking chair as a proximate cause of fundamental shifts in American culture: It “brought a new freedom to American women” and “revolutionized the arrangement of furniture in the [parlor]” (p. 53).

In the search for patterns in furniture history, the author sometimes oversimplifies to the point that her observations partially obscure the past. True, the seventeenth-century back stool evolved from the simple stool and “dominated fashionable seating in the 1660s and 1670s,” but it did not supersede nor substitute for “that most common humble seat” (p. 42); rather, it was an addition that signaled an increasingly complex material world. Stools remained. Similarly, her description of the evolution of trunks over hundreds of years from round- to flat-sided is simplistic and misleading (pp. 8–9).

Although arranged chronologically within the several topics, There’s a Bed in the Piano does not necessarily treat subjects historically. Instead, the author links certain events with inadequate analysis or recognition of broader patterns resulting in a kind of pseudo-history. Acceptance of the sofa and the relaxed postures and “cushiness” it implies, for example, is linked to independence from Britain (p. 72). As for the bed in the piano, an 1866 creation of Charles Hess of Cincinnati, the author claims that it responds to a “drive to maximize space through convertibility [that] is peculiarly American” (p. 1). Surely space-saving is a by-product (and perhaps a justification for the consumer); but larger, more compelling forces seem to be at work. This bed and related patent furniture take pains to organize and control space and minute functions by mechanical means in ways that glorify technology. Space did not enclose or constrain Americans. After all, their homes were large enough to make room for that ultimate gadget, the automobile (p. 106).

Galen Cranz’s The Chair is about what makes a good chair, although “good” is not defined by the usual means. Cranz ignores conventional standards of style, status and image, cost, and other culture-based measures and expressions in favor of a definition of good based on the impact of seating on the human body. Up front, she cues readers where she stands by stating: “Let’s face the considerable evidence that all chair sitting is, actually, harmful” (p. 18). To find out why so many chairs are uncomfortable, the author considers the chair culturally, historically, aesthetically, and scientifically. Part 1, “Why Do We Use Chairs?” sets the stage with chapters on how chairs evolved and on the elements of style. Part 2 asks what is wrong with the chair from an ergonomic perspective. The last part presents the author’s solutions for better chair design and for reforms in workplace interiors. Because we all use and complain about chairs and because Cranz writes in a clear, engaging manner, there is something here for everyone.

By citing other cultures in which Western-style chairs play little or no role, Cranz argues persuasively that chair evolution is based primarily on cultural values and circumstances, not physiological ones. There is no optimal or correct sitting posture or chair design. That Western-style seating and posture has recently been introduced to cultures that have knelt, squatted, sat on backless stools or directly on the floor is not evidence of inevitable progress; rather, it tracks Western dominance in the marketplace.

Cranz makes numerous observations about chair types and postures that stimulate new thoughts and interpretations. Single chairs, for example, emphasize the importance of the individual. Chair backs establish orientation and can display decoration that may telegraph the sitter’s social rank. In contrast, backless stools, benches, and even elaborate sofas dilute this focused perspective in favor of more group-related and egalitarian functions and messages. Early chairs were symbols of power. Such “thrones” imposed a formal, upright posture that in turn implied social rank and self-awareness. Exhibiting some of her own interests, Cranz also alludes to “transhuman consciousness” cultivated by erect meditative postures in religions of China, India, and the Middle East (p. 34).

Readers less familiar with the Buddha will be able to envision differences between the “upright authority” of enthroned early kings and pharaohs and the “recumbent ease” of chairs with sling seats and/or curved backs. “The Greek clismos,” says Cranz,” “is an elegant expression of the age-old behavior of slumping” (p. 35), a posture duplicated for all intents and purposes by the famous Barcelona chair designed in 1925 by Mies van der Rohe. This gentle allusion to modern design presages a systematic critique of twentieth-century classics that distinguishes famous design from ergonomic success. Exploration of new materials and technologies, resulting in arresting shapes, textures, and colors, tracked into fresh aesthetic territory—“much to our anatomical detriment” (p. 82). Only Gerrit Rietveld’s “Red and Blue” armchair survives the author’s evaluation. This unpadded construction of plywood boards intersecting at an angle of greater than 90 degrees provides broad planes to support the body and head. The open angle reduces discomfort and damage caused by C-shape curvature of the spine and accompanying inward collapse of the rib cage and lower torso.

Comfort, the author explains, is part physical and part mental. We develop an expectation of comfort when we look at a finely upholstered and shaped chair. Our expectations may be fulfilled—for a while. This reviewer will never again sit in an “ergonomically designed” car seat without recalling Cranz’s observations: such seats are designed to maximize the sitter’s comfort for 8.5 minutes, the average time a prospective car buyer sits in the seat. But so much else about a car “may feel so right” that physical discomfort is pushed out of our minds: “This raises the unsettling possibility that comfort has become so detached from our human experience that it has become fashion” (p. 113). Cranz aims to reconnect it.

Good chair design is body-conscious, a careful study of posture and movement as well as a willingness to embrace new ideas, many of which conflict with fashion and cultural patterns. Cranz asserts her belief in the tenets of the Alexander Technique, a holistic mind-body perspective that holds in part that the human body is designed for movement rather than specific postures and positions. Aching bodies are not the problem; chair design is. Height of work surfaces, “perching” in which weight is more evenly divided between feet and the “sit bones,” and substantially more freedom of movement so as to vary posture regularly are just some of the possibilities she suggests. Cranz notes that the workplace rather than the home is where most innovation occurs and is the better place for reform of living habits.

The campaign for change, Cranz acknowledges, is less about information than it is about attitudes. The Norwegian Balans (balance) chair, designed so that the sitter actually kneels with an angled seat propping the butt, is but one example of an ergonomically successful object that seems to be too radical for broad application. Not welcomed in the tradition-bound home, the balance chair finds a major outlet instead as a computer chair, a workplace zone that thrives on the new and different. Deep resistance to change in furniture intended for most other environments leads Cranz to encourage “guerrilla ergonomics” tactics, in which “the hapless sitter” alters furniture with a variety of body-conscious products such as neck pillows, footstools, boards, and cushions. Although much of the author’s effort and detail regarding interior re-design may seem tedious to some readers, the lengths to which she must go demonstrate just how culturally bound chair design is. From her perspective, all of the freedoms and innovations that modern chair designers exercise lie within a relatively narrow band defined largely by architectural aesthetics and emphasis upon materials and technology.

Given the focused agenda of The Chair, it takes a remarkably broad view and enlightens the reader with insight and clarity. Nonetheless, some readers will be profoundly disappointed with the author’s misunderstanding of historical furniture styles. For example, she illustrates an archetypal neoclassical armchair as rococo (fig. 16) and presents one of the important Philadelphia rococo side chairs made in 1770 by Thomas Affleck for John Cadwalader as “a classic English Chippendale-style chair” (fig. 19). One wonders how the author could have acquired the photograph from the Metropolitan Museum of Art without realizing this error. But she also identifies a 1760s English Gothic-backed Windsor chair as an example of nineteenth-century mass production (fig. 21). Obviously, these descriptive facts and the elaborate system of style analysis of which they are a part simply don’t matter much to her, nor are they critical to the book. Style for Cranz is but a steppingstone toward other objectives.

Inquiring students of American furniture will want to consider Kaye’s and Cranz’s books. Although much of Kaye’s work will be familiar, its scope is a good test of anyone’s grasp of the basic interpretive strategies of the field. Along the way, readers will be challenged to consider, or reconsider, presently held assumptions and explanations and to seek out broader implications of the issues she addresses. Cranz’s book will expand readers’ perceptions rather than test their knowledge of content. Regardless of whether her book makes them feel better or worse about the chairs they inhabit, her many insightful observations should inspire them to try out new intellectual positions. There is more than a bed hiding in the piano.

Philip D. Zimmerman
Lancaster, Pennsylvania

American Furniture 1999

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