By Robert Nelson, Monash University
Since Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair of 1925 the formula for comfortable seating has been known: create a right-angle, open it up a tad, and tip it backward, so that the seat places the bottom lower than the knees. Your weight is thrown back into the angle and your thighs lock your back firmly into the backrest.
Too few armchairs and fewer couches have adopted this simple template, which keeps you comfortable for hours, even though it’s been argued that all chairs are bad for you. You’re much likelier to find Breuer’s reliable comfy formula in somebody’s car than in his or her home. Instead, even in an age of ergonomics, fashion has generated an endless supply of sleek flat-bottomed chairs and couches that you slip out of.
If you don’t have a resented example at home, open your junk mail. An IKEA catalogue will do. Check out Stockholm, Skogaby, Karlstad and Ekerö (before going to sofa-bed hybrids such as Nockeby, Hagalund, Moheda, Knopparp, Friheten). IKEA is far from the worst, because at least it produces Poäng and the exemplary Villstad, which follow the tilted formula for comfort.
If it were only a pain in the back, the perverse box-configurations of contemporary seating furniture might not be so bad. But in my mind, the snazzy designs that now flood the market have a negative effect on contentment, which in turn has a powerful influence on lifestyle and hence patterns of consumption.
We normally speak of the ecological impact of furniture in relation to materials and assembly: are the components recycled or reusable and how much energy or sacrifice of animals is needed for their manufacture? But furniture has a much greater impact on global emissions if you consider that it also conditions the way we lead our lives.
It is difficult to calibrate and prove but I begin with the assumption that the energy that we consume in goods and services (especially services of mobility) is inversely proportional to our contentment as individuals. If we lead a rich domestic and imaginary life, we are less inclined to dissatisfaction, and to make up for it by restless or greedy patterns of consumerism and travel, with their terrible environmental consequences.
To lessen our dependence on travel for psychological wellbeing requires other things to fill the void: conversation, reading, music, walking and so on. Having a poetic relationship with your immediate surroundings is one of the elements that makes for contentment and hence sustainability.
It seems unlikely that the character of our interiors would not have an effect on our contentedness. Just think of bald apartments, digs and hotel rooms that you’ve stayed in, where no item resonates with anything in your experience. The prospect of reading a book in the room seems unappealing. You have to get out.
The argument is not that an evocative interior will magically make you immune from travel temptation. You ought to be dissuaded from travel by ecological arguments. But as you absorb the pointed cue that environmentalists have told you for decades, you might well look around for aspects of your domestic life that make it easier to follow.
What will make you more contented? What atmospheric appointments make our domestic environments a haven that we want to repair to rather that a place to escape from?
In some categories, such as chairs and couches, furniture has a direct impact on our comfort. But all pieces of furniture, even shelves or wardrobes, are capable of either contributing to our contentment or not. The difference is not necessarily how well the pieces serve us physically – though that is important – but how their function serves us imaginatively, to the point that we relish contemplating their presence.
The stylish chairs and couches with flat or near flat bottoms are uncomfortable for the same reason that they don’t reward contemplation. Their form aspires to abstraction. They figuratively and metaphorically throw you off. They don’t tell stories and aren’t the repository of long traditions. The abstract language of form may have an ancestry in modernist design but the geometric exclusivity that it aspires to refuses to be a vessel for associations or narrative.
Furniture that gives you a toehold on its history and function acts like company: you have a historical interlocutor in the room who reminds you of the growth of conversation, etiquette, dedicated rooms, electric lighting, erotic ritual, reading, gastronomy, music and storage.
The quality and date of the furniture are less important than the imagination that you bring to it. Furniture from an expensive shop may have no greater enticements to rapture than furniture from an op shop. But nor is new furniture excluded, just as second-hand furniture is not necessarily more resonant just by its vintage.
The key criterion in identifying what makes furniture yield contentment is poetic. Is the furniture suggestive? Does it propose a symbolic life or does it recede semantically behind its own formalism, like Schiavello’s Kayt Lounge?
The link between furniture and contentment, and then contentment and sustainability, is the subject of my new book, Instruments of contentment: furniture and poetic sustainability, available as a free download from Craft Victoria.
Furniture is only one category of craft and design that yields contentment by poetic means. The long tradition of craft has generated any number of counterparts in tableware, ceramic, glass and metal that provide similar cues to aesthetic wonder. Any jug or glass or platter can potentially resonate with ancient pitchers, goblets or chargers.
By pondering their design, construction and function, you’re poetically brought into contact with beliefs, rituals and mores that are also explicated, say, by the formidable collection of decorative arts in the National Gallery of Victoria.
Arguably, however, furniture plays a key role in the management of your life and mobile assets: it keeps your shirts and papers in place as much as your bottom, allowing you to organise your spaces by your ideal domestic vision.
Without contact and sympathetic insight into this realm – a world that is either inflected and reassuring or abstract and desolate – sustainability will be harder to reach in our daily lives and impossible to achieve for the planet.
Unseating the chair
Robert Nelson is the author of Instruments of contentment: furniture and poetic sustainability.