Review by Gerald W. R. Ward
Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History

Witold Rybczynski. Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. 256 pp.; 66 line drawings, bibliography, index. $25.00.

Sitting is the new smoking, as the health-police pundits are fond of saying. Although he doesn’t quote that phrase, Witold Rybczynski eventually gets around to the potentially negative health aspects of too much sitting, a behavior made possible by chairs, the subject matter of Now I Sit Me Down, his entertaining and conversational study of a single class of furniture. Prior to that discussion, Rybczynski leads us on a wide-ranging survey of chairs from ancient times to the present, with sections on specific forms—stools, the klismos chair, Windsors, easy chairs, rocking chairs, folding chairs—and individual designers—the brothers Thonet (the “Henry Ford” of chairs), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Hans Wegner (the “Great Dane” receives his own chapter), Charles and Ray Eames, and many others.

Every few years, it seems, the history of chairs writ large attracts the attention of scholars and writers, perhaps because of their universality, their venerable history, or their anthropomorphic qualities of feet, legs, knees, seats, arms, and backs. One of the first books I read in this field was John Gloag’s The Chair: Its Origins, Design, and Social History, first published in the United States in 1967; there have been many additions to the literature since then. Rybczynski, like many of these earlier authors, is attracted by the multivalent aspects of chairs: “they address both physiology and fashion. They represent an effort to balance multiple concerns: artistry, status, gravity, construction, function, and—not least—comfort. Chairs can be whimsical or blandly practical, luxurious or simple, a frill or a necessity” (p. 4). He has an ability to capture the interesting details about this vast subject, which, as he notes, is a case study in the variants and replicas in a long “chain of solutions” articulated by George Kubler in his “shape of time” model. I did know, for example, as I think we all do, that an uncomfortable chair causes undue pressure on the sitting bones at the base of the pelvis, but did not know they are called the ischial tuberosities (p. 54). Nor did I perhaps fully understand the importance of the Greek’s development of the klismos chair, which he pinpoints as a crucial step in chair design starting in the middle of the fifth century BCE and as relevant today as it was then.

A professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, Rybczynski is well known for his thoughtful, elegantly written musings on architecture and the home. An amateur woodworker himself, Rybczynski can also draw, and his text is supplemented by sixty-six line illustrations by his own hand of important chairs. He is something of a chair aficionado (as one might have guessed), and he shares recollections about his own home and office chairs and his experiences of using them as he weaves his way through his narrative. He deftly intertwines social history, design theory, ergonomic considerations, and technical woodworking points into his text. He often creates word-pictures of paintings and prints that illuminate his points, although none of them are illustrated.

“Chairs” is an enormous topic, of course, and Rybczynski gratefully acknowledges the help of many people along the way. Readers of American Furniture will recognize the names of several scholars, conservators, and furniture makers included among the numerous individuals who assisted him in his research. For example, Michael Podmanizcky provided help with information about Samuel Gragg, the Boston maker of patented “elastic” chairs in the early nineteenth century, and Christopher Wilk of the Victoria and Albert Museum discussed Anton Lorenz, a little known “inventor-entrepreneur” in Berlin in the 1930s, with the author. John Dunnigan, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design and a well-known studio furniture maker (Rybczynski owns a couple of his chairs, illustrated on p. 36), contributed some eloquent thoughts on the nature of the creative process.

Rybczynski ends his meditation on chairs by referencing a satirical article in The Onion suggesting that the nation has enough chairs already and that no more need to be produced. But he notes that of course the ongoing evolution of chairs is going to continue, because of changes in technology and materials, in social conditions, changes in posture, and because of their continuing and significant function as powerful symbols.

He ponders what might, in the future, be considered the “emblematic” chair of our own time. After examining several candidates, he raises the somewhat depressing possibility that the best candidate is the ubiquitous “monobloc plastic patio chair,” made of cheap polypropylene and fashioned in less than a minute in an injection-molding machine. The light-weight, one-piece, inexpensive product is the kind with “arms that extend around the seat to form a backrest and support back splats. In most chairs, these splats—fan-shaped, or otherwise patterned—are the chair’s only ornamental feature” (p. 212). (We have four on our deck.) But even this “universal” chair, a modern equivalent of the Windsor, can be improved, and the British designer Jasper Morrison designed in 1999 an “Air-Chair” that Rybczynski sees as a more refined version of the standard monobloc.

John Updike once observed, “. . . I find my greatest reading luxury is a small book, between one and two hundred pages, which treats, in moderately technical language, a subject of which I was previously ignorant.”[1] Now I Sit Me Down, in my opinion, may provide this sort of pleasure for many readers. It certainly did for me, even though, while far from a specialist, I can’t claim to be previously ignorant of the subject in general. This small book can be held comfortably, can be read in a couple of sittings (pun intended), and offers flashes of insight and enjoyment throughout.

Now I Sit Me Down thus raises a question in my mind. Why don’t curators write more books of this type—short, readable, essentially extended essays that might appeal to a wider audience outside of the increasingly shrinking world of collectors and dealers? There are many good and practical reasons why this doesn’t happen more often, of course, but curators, with their specialized knowledge and first-hand familiarity with the objects, are presumably perfectly positioned to prepare such entertaining yet reliable studies of furniture forms and of all kinds of objects. Our massive coffee-table catalogues and exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) monographs are, without question, the necessary underpinnings of any short study, and curators indeed have the institutional resources and platforms to undertake those hefty tomes. But, as attention spans become shorter in the population at large and as movable goods of all types are often perceived as excess baggage and thus of less importance to younger generations, it seems imperative to help keep our field relevant and to engage more people by producing on occasion such slim, graceful essays as Now I Sit Me Down.

Gerald W. R. Ward
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

American Furniture 2016

  • [1]

    From an article in the New York Times, July 4, 1965, as reprinted in John Updike, Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), p. 659.