Skip to main content

Writer Witold Rybczynski is fascinated by the link between chairs and early modern architecture.JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

At this very moment, as you read this, the chances are fairly good that you're sitting down. Perhaps on a side chair, coffee in hand, the newspaper spread out across the kitchen table. Or you're wedged into a hard plastic seat on the subway during rush hour, reading on your phone. Or you're sitting in a sleek office chair, at your desk at work, staring at the computer screen. Or maybe it's evening, and you're relaxing in your favourite recliner, reading on a tablet, trying not to fall asleep.

Considering we spend a great deal of our waking hours sitting, especially if working in an office, people don't really think that much about chairs – at least I didn't before reading Witold Rybczynski's latest book, Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair – A Natural History. From timeless rockers, perfect for an evening on the porch, to elegant cantilevered designs by the likes of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, to the now-ubiquitous plastic patio chairs and build-it-yourself IKEA chairs, the book is a slim, insightful introduction to the piece of furniture that shapes not only the way we sit, but the way we live, too.

"The chair is an everyday object," writes Rybczynski, "but it's an everyday object with which the human body has an intimate relationship." An award-winning architect and writer – this is his 20th book – and long-time professor at McGill University, he is currently emeritus professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. He spoke to The Globe and Mail from his home in Philadelphia.

What sort of chair are you sitting in right now?

A wing chair. It's not an antique, but the design is antique. It's by a company in North Carolina that actually pioneered the idea of studying old chairs and reviving them. It's a funny story: When Home [his third book, and the one that established his reputation] came out, I got a call from the vice-president of this company, Hickory Chair. He said we would like to invite you to talk to our staff. We were going on a spring break, so we stopped in North Carolina, and I did that [talk] and they said we would like to offer you something in return. I said why don't you give me a couple of chairs? They were happy to do that.

It's a wonderful chair. It's the chair I sit in when I read. It surrounds you and creates this little space where you can read and go off into other places. And it's a very comfortable chair, I should say.

Speaking of reviving old designs, how does that work? Who owns the design? I noticed you can find cheap imitations of almost all the chairs in your book.

It's an interesting question, because a lot of furniture design is really interpretations of earlier models – there are millions of variations on the Windsor chair, which you could say are all copies. It's a little bit of a contradiction, I think, that the idea that copying furniture is somehow underhanded. That's how furniture evolved. People adapt and modify and interpret. Interpreting chairs from the past has a long history.

Where does your interest in chairs come from?

Like many architects, I've always been fascinated with chairs – I suppose because so many early modern architects designed chairs. And because chairs really are like little buildings. They have an important structural side, they're aesthetic objects, but they're also practical – you have to sit in them, and they have to be comfortable. So there's a kind of similarity and affinity between thinking of buildings and thinking of chairs, which attracts architects to the subject. It's also a kind of challenge, I suppose. I've never designed a chair, but so many famous architects have designed chairs – there's a sense of challenge, if you're an architect. Of measuring up to that.

You estimate that, in your lifetime, you've owned more than 60 chairs. Which one would you grab from your house in a fire?

Well, chairs are hard to move. My wing chairs would be much too clunky to get out. Probably the most expensive chairs I own are two studio chairs that were made for me by John Dunnigan, who's a furniture maker in Rhode Island. If I was trying to save things of value, those would be the chairs I would get out first. These are beautiful, but they never lose sight of the fact that they are chairs.

That's one of the interesting tensions in the history of chairs – this idea of the aesthetics of the chair versus the comfort. A designer chair might be a work of art, but you can fall asleep in a recliner. Which do you value more?

It's trite, but it is a balancing act. Ultimately it's all of those things. You do look at chairs. That's part of the pleasure of a chair – looking at it when you're not sitting in it, because, of course, when you're in it you can't see it. But I think there's an additional pleasure when it's also a chair that you enjoy sitting in. And, of course, if it's well made – I mean, a chair that falls apart is not pleasurable. I'm looking at an old office chair that I bought when we were still living in Canada – I think it's from Peterborough. They used to call them banker's chairs – they're sort of wooden swivel chairs that lean back. I've used it a long time, but somebody used it before I bought it at a flea market. The wood is worn down where the arms are. Whereas I have an Aeron chair, which is what I actually sit in when I'm writing, but it looks exactly the same as it did when I got it about 20 years ago. It hasn't changed a bit, because it's all rubber and metal and plastic. And that actually takes away from the pleasure a little bit.

This book forced me to reappraise some of the simpler chairs I've owned. For instance, the folding aluminum chair that everyone has in their garage. There's actually something beautiful in the simplicity of the design.

I'm glad you mentioned that, because I had the same experience. I built a summer cottage for my parents, and they had these aluminum chairs. I was always very insulted by them, because they weren't design-y and they felt like an intrusion. But they are actually very good chairs. They are very light, they're easy to repair, they're reasonably comfortable and for a summer cottage they are actually a perfect chair. You can leave it out in the rain and nothing happens. I was just too much of a constipated designer at that point, fresh out of school, to see all that.

You write that "the history of the chair is not evolutionary." And one of the more fascinating aspects of the chair's history, to me, is that many of the early innovations are still relevant today. When you look at a stool, it's basically what the Egyptians used 4,000 years ago. So what's the biggest innovation in design you've seen in your lifetime?

In some ways it's the plastic chair, which, as a chair designer I quote in the book said, "It gets rid of all the joints." The fact that you get rid of the joints is really a revolutionary moment. The one-piece plastic chair represents, for better or worse, our contribution to this evolution.

You say that the golden age of sitting furniture was Louis XV's France. What made that era so special for chairs?

It was this combination of people willing – and having the means – to pay a lot of money for chairs, which meant that you could get really good craftsmen building chairs. The quality of the chairs, in terms of aesthetics, and in terms of how they were made and how comfortable they are, it all sort of comes together at that point. The French developed many models of chairs. They had chairs for relaxing in, they had more formal chairs, they had chairs for game playing, they had women's chairs and men's chairs and big chairs – there's an incredible range of types of furniture, which sort of shows you the richness of that time.

Not only are there many different types of chairs, a chair has many different types of uses. It can serve as a bookcase, a clothes rack, a ladder – a chair is not just a chair. They seem to be the most versatile piece of furniture we have.

I think the chair is the furniture which has the most character. Tables are actually very versatile – you can eat on them, work on them, write on them and so on, but they seem to lack the character of a chair. Probably because we don't have the same intimate relationship to a table. It's just a surface with legs. It doesn't envelope us the way a chair does. When you look at a table, just sitting there in a room, it doesn't really tell you very much. Whereas a chair actually has a character – it can look fleshy and inviting, it can look strict and severe. It actually becomes like a person. Especially an empty chair – it looks like a person waiting for somebody. Of course, once somebody's in a chair, you kind of lose the chair and you focus on whoever's sitting in it.

A number of my colleagues are now using standing desks, eschewing chairs completely. What do you make of the war on the chair?

I think it's a fad, so I'm not saddened in that sense. But I do think it's true that the computer has made us sit much more than we used to. On the other hand, the smaller the computer, the less we're tied to desks and chairs. Whereas the PC really meant people were sitting, with a tablet or a small computer you can lie in bed, you can sit on the ground, you can walk around. That changes the length of time people sit. Human bodies are designed to walk and run and lie down. Sitting is really not a great position for the body. We lean back, we slump – all sorts of things go wrong. Sitting is a compromise, always. The answer is probably too much sitting is a bad thing. Standing up, walking around, changing positions, all of those things are beneficial if you're sitting for long periods of time. Lots of famous people have had standing desks. Hemingway used to type standing.

Yeah, he put his typewriter on the bookshelf.

He just improvised. But I suspect the current fad for standup desks seems to me forced. And I suspect that it's not going to be around forever. The truth is simply getting up once in a while, if you have to sit for a long period, is all you need to do.

The Globe's office is moving in a few months and so we're getting new chairs. Earlier this year, they brought in a range of chairs for us to try out, and then asked us to choose which ones we liked best. I think it was the most contentious part of the whole process.

That's not surprising. Chairs are very personal, which is, of course, the attraction. When we have a favourite chair, we have a real, personal connection to it. But that personal connection means it varies from person to person, and finding an absolute right chair is impossible. What seems comfortable for one person will not be comfortable for the other. The answer, really, is that you should always have a variety of chairs.

Looking at contemporary chair designers, who's doing interesting work?

I don't find most of the contemporary work very interesting. I tended to ignore it in the book. We're not in a period of great furniture. If you were drawing a graph of furniture, it would go up and down, because there are periods when it seems everything comes together – either because you've got creative furniture makers or demanding clients or enough prosperity. And so you get a moment like the invention of bentwood furniture in the late 19th century. It was a wonderful moment. [Michael] Thonet builds this industry from zero and becomes the biggest furniture maker in the world. There's nobody like Thonet today. There's nobody that innovative. I'm struck by the fact that, if you like modern furniture, most of the best modern furniture was designed 50 or 60 years ago, and it's still being made and still being successfully used because nothing better has come along. You were talking about your new offices – I remember visiting the new New York Times building a few years ago. The chairs in the cafeteria are all Eames chairs, which were designed in 1940-something. It's just a great chair. There's nothing on the market that's better. It's a beautiful chair. It's a comfortable chair. So Renzo Piano just used that chair. I suspect, in another 50 years, the Eames chairs will still be around.

This interview has been condensed and edited.