NEWS RELEASE, 09/10/98

Our love affair with the chair is subject of new book by UC Berkeley architecture professor

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs

BERKELEY -- While as much as half the world eats, works, relaxes and entertains without them, why are we in the West so committed to chairs - from La-Z-Boys to prison electric chairs, from strollers to rockers?

In her new book, "The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design," Galen Cranz, a University of California, Berkeley, architecture professor explores the history, politics and physiology of how and why we sit on chairs - often to the detriment of our health. She also analyzes a variety of chairs and proposes a new chair design that is easier on the body.

The book traces the story of the chair from its crudest beginnings in the Neolithic Age to today's modern office, drawing on social science, design history, modern ergonomics, literature, anecdotes and personal experience.

A sociologist by training and a certified teacher of the type of body work known as the Alexander Method, Cranz argues that the chair was "created, modified and nurtured" not in response to the requirements of the human body but as a means of indicating differences in status - between lord and subject, man and woman, boss and employee, adult and child.

This history, she said, is preserved even in our language, where such terms as chair persons, county seats, and seats on the stock exchange are all metaphors for position, social role and power.

"The chair comes to represent a role," wrote Cranz, "so that people are careful not to sit in others' chairs."

Not every culture shares our devotion to the chair. Turkish homes feature raised platforms. Indian divans, Japanese tatami mats and Chinese heated k'ang are but a few of the other alternatives whose virtues, Cranz said, should not be overlooked.

Ergonomic research, she said, suggests that making chapatis while squatting on the floor is aerobic. The Muslim practice of bending and stretching ritually five times daily, she added, is excellent for the spine.

Yet typical of Western attitudes toward such postures are the complaints of an English colonialist in India, in 1852, who thought the local laborers' fondness for squatting suggested "indolence and inefficiency....especially irritating to an Englishman" and who referred to raised seats as "one of those natural steps toward a higher civilization."

Ironically, Cranz said, it is we who pay a high price for choosing chairsitting over squatting, kneeling, sitting cross-legged or other postures common outside the West. Our increase in back problems over the last century, she wrote, "correlates directly with the increasing number of hours we spend seated."

One study found chair-sitting to be as great a health risk as lifting weights and excessive vibration. According to Cranz, in the U.S., back pain is second only to the common cold as a reason for missing work, costing an estimated $70 billion annually.

Attempts to address this epidemic have spawned a small industry, as designers and back specialists seek to create back-friendly chairs.

But the quest for the perfect chair design has remained elusive, Cranz said, because right-angled seating is inherently stressful, and cumulatively deforming, to the human body.

From a purist point of view, Cranz said she might argue that chairs should be abandoned. But from a pragmatic point of view, "we need to explore how they can be fixed or at least improved," she wrote.

In chapters on "The Chair Reformed" and "Beyond Interior Design," Cranz advocates a design movement, already in nascent form as "the new ergonomics," that would potentially change workplace, home and urban environments, as well as social relations, in fundamental ways.

Offices should be designed like exercise par courses, she said, offering postural variety and more freedom for workers to move around and alternate tasks.

If the implications of what Cranz calls "body-conscious design" are daunting, she believes they are also exciting. "There hasn't been anything original in furniture design since the early 20th century, when modernists started fooling around with materials," she said.

The book has its origin in her own physical problems, Cranz said. She has successfully addressed scoliosis, without surgery, through body work and modifications to her home and office.

"But I think I found something of universal significance," she said.

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