Don't think it's just a run-of-the-mill chair

Sunday, October 11, 1998

The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design
by Galen Cranz. Norton. 288 pages. $27.50.

     If you read this book, you'll never look at or sit in a chair the same way again. Galen Cranz, a professor of architecture at Berkeley, points out, "Chairs have become second nature to us - virtually indivisible to us - and therefore invisible to us."
     In "The Chair," she strives to prevent the reader from ignoring this very basic but, as it turns out, very important part of everyday life.
     Cranz takes a holistic approach to her subject, drawing on history, architecture, social science, biology, art history and ergonomics. The breadth of knowledge makes what might appear to be a dull book (an entire book about chairs?) lively and engaging. One learns that "pressure on the spinal discs is 30 percent greater when sitting than when standing"; and that chairs became common office furniture after 1900 (in the preceding century, "office workers sat on high stools or stood," making it easier for them to adjust their posture).
     To those who blanch at the thought of reading more than 200 pages about chairs, at least read the practical recommendations from the book's final section.
     Though chairs that render us horizontal connote sloth in our culture (hence the "La-Z-Boy" name), Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain and Winston Churchill all preferred to work while lying on a chaise lounge. The uncomfortable chair-sitter also will want to know that people aren't "designed to hold any single posture for long periods of time," so it's OK - even healthy - to move about, adjusting your posture. Should Cranz's ideas about chairs catch on, perhaps one day we, too, will be able to lie down at work without being accused of lying down on the job.
     For readers who enjoy a scholarly study that speaks clearly while it leaps disciplinary boundaries - books such as Mike Davis's "City of Quartz" or Edward Tenner's "Why Things Bite Back" come to mind - Cranz's "Chair" is for you. This is a smart book that refuses to talk down to the non-expert and yet manages to convey the depth and breadth of the author's expertise.
(Phil Nel is an adjunct professor of English at The College of Charleston.)




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