Edge Of Your Seat

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
A chair is a difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. Those are the words of Mies van der Rohe, one of many architects who have also designed chairs. Eames, Gehry, Hadid, Libeskind, Corbusier, Breuer. If they’ve designed a big building, chances are they’ve designed a thing on which to sit.

Avery Trufelman:
And this makes sense that chairs would be signature design pieces for architects because chairs are almost like teeny tiny buildings for one person.

Roman Mars:
Producer Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
And of course, it’s not just architects. Designers of all stripes have this love affair with chairs.

Bruce Hannah:
Well, I think every designer really would love to design a chair. I mean, there’s so many interesting things about chairs.

Avery Trufelman:
This is designer Bruce Hannah.

Bruce Hannah:
I’m a teacher at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and design things for Knoll for years.

Avery Trufelman:
Including plenty of chairs. For the office, for the home. Everything.

Bruce Hannah:
Chairs exist. They kind of are like placeholders for human beings. You know, you go into a restaurant that’s empty and there’s all these little placeholders, you know. Yet when the people sit in the chair, it disappears. The person replaces the chair.

Avery Trufelman:
And so there’s this distinct challenge for chair designers to make this thing look fantastic when empty and remain comfortably invisible when in use.

Roman Mars:
And Hannah’s pursuit of seating innovation actually led to something else. When he was experimenting with foam cushioning, Hannah accidentally invented the NERF ball.

Bruce Hannah:
Well, actually it’s called the foam football.

Avery Trufelman:
Still, really cool.

Bruce Hannah:
It did come out of designing the chair. I mean we’re much more interested in the chair.

Roman Mars:
Yes, those designers, sure do love chairs. Love them. They keep turning out new ones all the time. Which brings me to one of my favorite headlines from ‘The Onion’: “Report Confirms No Need To Make New Chairs For The Time Being.” Because yeah, there are already a lot.

Bruce Hannah:
I think you could say that about anything. When we have enough cars, let’s stop making cars.

Avery Trufelman:
Personally, I wouldn’t be against that, but new chairs are always coming out, Hannah says, to fit our ever-changing needs because chairs determine how we use a space. Hannah brought up this great example of seating and cafes. Cafes used to be places for talking and now they’re places for working, so people are sitting and interacting differently.

Bruce Hannah:
And so the furniture evolves along with the space and the activities.

Avery Trufelman:
Throughout our lives, we have been told to sit down. In school, in the office, and the polite company of a dinner party. In a car or a plane or a bus or a movie theater, sitting is the default. We spend a lot of time in chairs.

Roman Mars:
But I’m sure you heard all the talk lately about how unhealthy chairs are, especially if you listen to public radio, which I bet you do, you beautiful nerd.

Radio Clip:
“First we’ll talk about chronic sitting.”
“Are you sitting down? Well, you might want to stand up.”
“It turns out that sitting down can be bad for your health.”
“And those who were sitting more, were substantially more likely to die.”

Roman Mars:
Jeez.

Avery Trufelman:
I think I found like five articles with the headline: “Sitting is the new smoking.”

Galen Cranz:
The absolute number of hours that you sit is directly correlated with mortality from all causes – cancer, heart attack, and stroke. And it doesn’t matter how many hours you spend in the gym as compensation.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Professor Galen Cranz.

Galen Cranz:
You come in and the secretary says, “Have a seat.” She doesn’t know she’s wishing you death. You know, it’s a death wish. (laughs)

Roman Mars:
This research, along with those scary headlines, has led to a new market for medicine ball chairs, adjustable chairs, standing desks, treadmill desks. The chair backlash is upon us. And Berkeley architecture professor Galen Cranz totally nailed it way before anyone else.

Galen Cranz:
Yes, yes. It is nice. So that people are, you know, saying that I was prescient and I wasn’t prescient. Everybody else was just behind.

Avery Trufelman:
In 1998, Cranz published a book called “The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design.”

Roman Mars:
And the argument of “The Chair” is that we should stop sitting in chairs. At least we should stop sitting in them for so long.

Galen Cranz:
Up to three hours doesn’t seem to have much consequence.

Roman Mars:
But Professor Cranz takes innovative chair sitting to another level.

Galen Cranz:
I try to eliminate all conventional chairs in my own life.

Avery Trufelman:
Which presented a challenge when I went to go interview her.

Galen Cranz:
I wonder, let’s see, how shall we sit?

Avery Trufelman:
Professor Cranz’s house was full of floor cushions, tatami mats and lots and lots of unconventional hybrid chairs. Like a medicine ball on an office chair chassis and one that looked like a sleek pared down horse saddle.

Roman Mars:
And when she’s not in her home seating oasis and out in public, Professor Cranz does a lot of standing. Instead of sitting, when she gets tired, she opts to kneel, or squat, or lie down.

Galen Cranz:
I laid down in a bank and somebody came up and asked me if I was having a heart attack, which was kind of them. You know, I understand. But I said, “No, I’m fine. I’m just resting because the line is so long.”

Avery Trufelman:
You’ve got to be gutsy to actually avoid the chairs everywhere. So how do the rest of us get suckered into the seated position?

Roman Mars:
Well, it all started when we got off the farm.

Galen Cranz:
In the 20th century, we moved from being an agricultural economy where most people worked on farms. And then we moved into a manufacturing economy where a lot of people worked in factories. And some sat, some stood to work the machines along the conveyor belts.

Roman Mars:
Not to over-romanticize life on the farm. They were still doing back-breaking work. They just probably had better posture and less carpal tunnel syndrome.

Galen Cranz:
And then we moved into a service economy, and that seems to be where the chair really took off and became the dominant apparatus for our lives.

Avery Trufelman:
And then when we settled into the service economy, sitting became the way to type, and file, and fill out paperwork.

Galen Cranz:
You could do that standing. But for reasons I don’t fully understand, we did it sitting.

Avery Trufelman:
And so office chairs become the chairs, the chairs that people spend most of their day in. And until very recent history, they were not made to fit your body. They were made to fit your job.

Bruce Hannah:
So you had a managerial one. You had a middle managerial one. You had a secretary one. You had a task chair.

Avery Trufelman:
Bruce Hannah had to design a few of these kinds of office chairs.

Roman Mars:
This status-oriented chair design meant then in some cases-

Bruce Hannah:
You had the 120-pound executive sitting in a gigantic chair because it really was about his presence when he wasn’t there. Or her presence when she wasn’t there. And then you had the 160-pound assistant secretary sitting in this tiny little chair.

Roman Mars:
For the most part, status trumped ergonomics.

Bruce Hannah:
And then along comes 1992, the Aeron chair. Where it’s the same chair, it just comes in three sizes.

Bruce Hannah:
It’s a T-shirt: a small one, a medium one, and a big one. But everybody gets all of the adjustments. They get arms. They get everything they need to work because everyone is working equally hard in the office.

Avery Trufelman:
The Herman Miller Aeron chair. You’ve seen an Aeron chair. It’s got this mesh looking back.

Roman Mars:
And you’ve probably heard it mentioned on public radio, you beautiful nerd.

NPR Ad Spot:
“Support for NPR comes from Sit For Life and Herman Miller, featuring the Aeron chair, including the true black color.”

Avery Trufelman:
They’re usually black or true black.

Bruce Hannah:
There’s one of them everywhere. I was surprised when I walked into the studio today. You don’t have a couple here. You know, because they’re everywhere. They’re ubiquitous. They’re the ubiquitous chair.

Avery Trufelman:
And the Aeron chair brought on this age of ergonomic office chairs that look like little robots. They display their technology as a selling point. And they show off their swivels, and their adjustments, and their ergonomic technology. The Aeron chair defined what an office chair ought to look like.

Bruce Hannah:
Right now I think it’s what society says, “That will make me comfortable.” That piece of machinery.

Roman Mars:
And no one guessed that these expensive pieces of machinery would sell like hotcakes.

Avery Trufelman:
No one except Galen Cranz.

Galen Cranz:
When my book first came out, people said, “Well, you know, nobody’s going to pay for an ordinary clerk to have an adjustable chair with all the bells and whistles. Oh, that’s way too expensive. That’ll never happen.” Well, then there were repetitive strain injuries in a whole lot of lawsuits, and insurance companies suddenly thought it was a lot cheaper to buy those fancy adjustable chairs then to pay for medical bills.

Roman Mars:
Cranz is a fan of what she calls body-conscious design and considers any chair that takes the human figure into account is a vast improvement over say a beanbag chair.

Avery Trufelman:
But Cranz argues that some of those bells and whistles on office chairs actually don’t help that much. Specifically, those ergonomic chair backs, because in all likelihood you are probably sitting in this chair while working at a desk. And the desk, it turns out, is the chair’s devious accomplice.

Roman Mars:
The true villain is the table. Flat surfaces force you to lean over so you never really take advantage of the chair back.

Galen Cranz:
The chair, in particular, asks us to sit at this right angle position, but most of our work is forward-oriented: clerical work, reading, writing checks, and eating even. Oh, drinking tea and coffee and all that. Everything’s forward.

Roman Mars:
So you bend forward or more likely slump. Even if you have excellent posture, it’s hard to avoid leaning over your keyboard or your dinner or your book.

Galen Cranz:
So the head gets seduced into coming forward and then the spine turns into a big C shape.

Avery Trufelman:
And Galen Cranz says that when you curve your spine into the C shape, it’s bad for the spine of course, but it also compresses your organs, which is really bad. Especially for hours on end, throughout the day, in an office chair. And because of this horrible chair desk, dynamic chair designers can’t solve much by adding ergonomic elements to the chair backs.

Roman Mars:
Actually, Professor Cranz thinks we should do away with back support entirely.

Galen Cranz:
I think back support is a big mistake and that it’s weakened our backs. If you support something, you usually weaken it.

Avery Trufelman:
So if you’re in a situation where you must, must sit in a chair, Cranz says it’s best to ignore the chair back and sit yourself right at the edge of your seat.

Galen Cranz:
Right out to the edge, that way you don’t get seduced to using the chair back. You have your own torso strength to keep you upright. With this strategy of getting your sit bones out to the edge of the chair, you’re turning it into a stool.

Roman Mars:
Stools, Cranz says, are a good alternative to chairs because they don’t have back support and they get your body out of the C shape. It positions the body halfway between sitting and standing.

Avery Trufelman:
And if you take that body position and lean it backwards…

Galen Cranz:
What do you get? A lounge chair. And that’s how I’m positioned right now.

Avery Trufelman:
Yeah. Galen Cranz was reclining in a lounge chair for this interview.

Galen Cranz:
I’ll be in the lounge and I’ll have you in the rocking chair facing me.

Avery Trufelman:
And she put me in a rocking chair because unlike a normal chair, it allows for more fluidity and movement. And this all sounds great and healthy and fun. But in practice I was sitting all the way forward, rocking right to the very front, stretching my microphone out to Cranz, who was lying back in her lounge chair. And it hurt. I just wanted two chairs and a flat desk to rest my arm on. But I don’t know, maybe I just wasn’t used to this alternative world yet. Maybe I need to get acclimated. I don’t know. I mean, Professor Cranz looked pretty comfortable in her lounge chair.

Roman Mars:
Before people got so into standing desks and treadmill desks. Professor Cranz was sure that lounge chairs and lounge chair desks, would replace chair sitting. Of all solutions to the seating problem, the lounge chair is the solution that requires the least physical effort while still supporting the human body in a healthy way.

Avery Trufelman:
But it’s not like there’s one single piece of furniture that will correct all the problems of chair sitting.

Galen Cranz:
No. Lounge chair is not the answer. There’s no ‘the answer’. What we need is variety. The best posture is the next posture.

Roman Mars:
Bruce Hannah agrees.

Bruce Hannah:
The more variation in your day, the better off.

Avery Trufelman:
But he’s not chair avoidant.

Bruce Hannah:
Sitting is the new smoking. Really? We should be up and running every day. Oh run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run. Does that mean that all restaurants will be, we’ll be running in place at restaurants? There’ll be treadmills, right? Will nothing be sacred? I like to sit. I want to sit down.

Avery Trufelman:
An ideal space to live or to work could be full of unconventional, mismatched chairs for you to try out and cycle through, like in Galen Cranz’s dining room.

Galen Cranz:
People say, “Oh wow, you have a lot of chairs.” I say, “Oh, yeah, it’s a chair museum.” And I say, “Oh, be sure to try them all.” And people do. They like, they say, “Well I’ve sat in that one, can I go try that one?”, halfway through the dinner, you know. The middle-class thing is you want everything to match and it’s fun that these don’t match. Everybody loves it, trying out all the different attitudes towards seating reform.

Avery Trufelman:
But the solution isn’t just an only-in-Berkeley kind of thing.

Roman Mars:
So maybe in this one case, this one exception, ‘The Onion’ is wrong. We don’t need fewer things to sit on. It turns out we need more and all different kinds. Stools, perches, lounge chairs, and hell, throw in some desk redesigns while you’re at it. Ones that rise up to meet us, like drafting tables. Design more, much, much more! Bring me more chairs! All the chairs!

  1. Great to see a chair feature. I’ve been studying the history, design, and implications of chairs for the past two years through a self-directed master’s program, and I’m glad one of society’s more ubiquitous (not necessarily beneficial!) artifacts are being represented by this great podcast.

  2. biting you in the eye

    I’ve heard that Ernest Hemingway wrote everything standing up. And someone told me Lewis Carroll also stood. When someone asked Hemingway why he stood while writing he said “Because i’m working”
    great episode.

  3. Juozas

    Thanks for inspiring me to finally change my sitting habits. I’ve sat on the edge of my chair for two whole days now. My back is tired, but I think this change is for the good.

  4. K. Mutt

    I’ve heard of the push for standing desks and have wondered how that would work in my office. I sit for 7+ hours of my 10 hour days and standing would be a nice change of pace. Redesigning the workspace could be challenging: I’m a truck driver.

  5. KP

    This is the first time I was legitimately upset at 99pi for sloppy work. For goodness’ sake, correlation isn’t causation. Yes, sitting a lot is correlated with all sorts of mortality factors, but that doesn’t mean it causes them. Cranz must know this, but to acknowledge it would steal her rhetorical thunder, not to mention her moral superiority. Give more time to the guy who says it’s ridiculous to think that sitting is as bad as smoking.

    1. Hea

      You are absolutely right KP – I am a furniture design student and I literally cringed every time Cranz spoke. Her analysis of the act of sitting is extreme – it’s pretty obvious to the general public that sitting for long periods of time is a no no, so her rationale was to remove all conventional chairs… How is that at all rationale?

      But she is right in that lounge chairs are the best furniture to handle the natural curvature of the body. It’s all about the pitch of the back posts and the seat!

      I was initially excited to listen to this episode, but now I am disappointed. Sloppy work indeed.

  6. TA

    This story reminded me of A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander, et al., Oxford University Press 1977. In particular, pattern 251 “Different Chairs”.
    There are several other patterns in the book refer to seats and seating.

  7. apm

    Hi 99% Invisible! I really appreciated the show! I was a little surprised that you didn’t mention that Galen Cranz is a prominent Alexander Technique teacher and that her view that designers should keep the body in mind comes in part from her study of the Alexander Technique. She writes in The Chair, ““We need better objects and we need to take responsibility for how we use ourselves while using them.” In my experience, bad movement and posture habits will frustrate even the best design, whereas as skilled movement can (up to a point) overcome bad design. If you feel like it, you can follow up here (http://www.alexanderand.com/blog/2014/11/11/yzaft3le0n4t80k2ua4h7pqllhrsjc).

    At any rate, great show. Maybe consider recording a part 2? Something like Great Design + Movement Education = Winning?

  8. JAChism

    Thanks for the episode! As a person with back issues I am very picky about my chairs/couch/bed etc… A chair may look attractive but if it kills your back it’s not a well designed chair at all.
    At work I use my standing desk and when I sit I use this cushion – http://gokhalemethod.com/stretchsit-cushion – I can’t make it through the day without this thing. It counteracts the effects of gravity on your spine. She makes a chair too!

  9. I’m really wondering why kneeling chairs have not been mentioned. They were first developed in the 70’s and are very helpful regarding posture and back pain issues, and they have no back! Norwegian designer Peter Opsvik did a great job at designing comfortable chairs yet stylish – Variable balans, Capisco to name those two. Aeron is the most famous one but not the most comfortable or practical in my sense, armrests still get in the way and the body doesn’t support itself. What’s important is indeed variation and movement!

  10. Humble negro printer

    Most of the world’s population work in a squatting position. Could the western world have it ALL wrong?

  11. Filipe

    wow!, The first time I hear Avery Trufelman voice, and now I am in LOVE :)))) congrats what a style

  12. Inspired by the nomadic Ayoreo Indians of Paraguay, Vitra introduced “Chairless” in 2010. Its basically an adjustable strap that wraps around torso and legs when you sit on the ground. Since then, other ‘sitting/standing revolutions’ from office furniture manufacturers have included height-adjustable surfaces, treadmill desks, and most recently sit/stand chairs from designer of Keen’s [sport sandals], Martin Keen’s office furniture company called Focal Upright. All of these product developments sound gimmicky on one level, but on the other hand, an early-childhood teacher might find Chairless supports floor-level activities, while an office-worker might find that a sit/stand chair encourages an active perching posture, which may even work for a truck driver or any operator of sorts. After I discovered active sitting on an exercise ball, my office-mates promptly banned me from coffee, root beer, and energy drinks, as the enhanced level of enthusiasm translated into hyper-active sitting–read: bouncing. Hey you reading this–sit-up!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist