Book Review: Now I Sit Me Down


Author: Witold Rybczynski (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
)

Following in the lineage of his acclaimed works Home: A Short History of an Idea (1986) and One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and Screw (2000), author and architect Witold Rybczynski’s Now I Sit Me Down takes readers on an unconventional and well-researched social history of design, told through the lens of the humble chair. “As much a chronicle of human behavior as of human artifacts,” Rybczynski explores the premise that the chair occupies a special position in the array of human-generated objects as both a utilitarian and aesthetic object.

Tracking the evolution of the chair prompts an examination of our evolving routines and rituals, from honouring monarchs to milking cows to working at a computer. And although chair design has responded to changes in activity, fashion, and material technology, the core functionality of the chair has remained largely unchanged in its link to the comfort and ergonomics of the human body, contributing to the tendency for chairs to outlive other artifacts—neither wearing out (as in clothing), being demolished (as in architecture) or becoming obsolete (as in technology).

Now I Sit Me Down gives a broad overview of the historical and contemporary circumstances in which we sit, starting with the modest stool. As is common in his writing, Rybczynski alternates frequently between anecdotal observations from his own life and thoughtfully considered research, which examines depictions of chairs in historical paintings and contemporary film, follows the historical lineage of various chair mechanics (for example linking the Roman curule seat to the renaissance scissors chair to the modern director’s chair) and looks at the role of production processes in chair manufacturing. The text also poses the question of why we sit in chairs, and how chair-sitting societies are different from those that sit on the floor.

The second section of the book takes a deeper dive into the historical narrative of chair design, tracking advances in material and production processes and, with them, charting aspects of modern history. Michael Thonet’s ubiquitous No. 14 Café Chair represented a major advance in bentwood technology, creating a system that was strong, lightweight, affordable and attractive. His business also marked a shift towards mass-production, global marketing and transcendent commercial success, the “Henry Ford of chairs”. By relaying his own experience of making a compromised purchase of eight still-used bentwood dining chairs 30 years ago, Rybczynski demonstrates the continuing relevance of the historical events he describes.

In 1963, Peter Collins observed that the “ultimate test of architectural genius became whether or not one could design a new kind of chair”. Tackled by many modernist designers—Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames, among them—chairs of the 20th century became highly specialized and crafted. In the third section, Now I Sit Me Down examines the ever-expanding array of special-purpose chairs, from swings and strollers to recliners and task chairs, positing that these last two recent and divergent forms are both specialized chairs for the purpose of looking at screens.

Witold Rybczynski’s writing is compelling without being challenging; well-researched but not academic. As is typical, the author conveys a genuine curiosity and interest in the subject, inviting you to join him in comprehensively studying the social history of the chair in a generously written and easily enjoyed new text.

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For more information on Now Sit Me Down, visit the Farrar, Straus and Giroux website

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Laura Kozak is a Vancouver-based designer, project coordinator and educator. A core interest in collaborative design of the urban environment informs her research and teaching practice. Laura holds a Master’s of Advanced Studies in Architecture from UBC and a BFA from Emily Carr. She is currently the Project Coordinator of Living Labs, one of four research centres at Emily Carr.

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