Society

What Makes A Comfortable Chair? Ergonomics Isn't Everything

A highly subjective concept, the notion of comfort has evolved over time and place — but what does it mean today?

What Makes A Comfortable Chair? Ergonomics Isn't Everything

Patrick Norguet says his Dan chair adapts to the body and provides extreme comfort

Christian Simenc

PARIS — Bruno Munari was a genius. This visionary Italian designer was the author of an influential essay around comfort, published in a 1944 edition of the architecture review Domus with the ironic title: "Coming home tired after working all day only to find an uncomfortable armchair."

In his uncompromising way — and with a hint of provocation toward his peers — Munari was already harshly criticizing the overproduction of furniture as well as the ensuing lack of comfort.


Imagine trying your best to find a position that is pleasant enough in the aforementioned armchair — to read a newspaper, and why not doze off while holding it. But try as you might, the hard backrest and weirdly-shaped headrest just won't let do. You end up falling asleep with your head twisted and one leg tucked under, in a deeply uncomfortable position.

If there is one factor that's difficult to pinpoint in the furniture department, it's comfort. It's a highly fluctuating concept that's much more based on subjectivity than reason. It's a challenge, therefore, for designers to be able to predict our future well-being by tackling the mysterious experience of "feeling at ease."

No recipe or rule

"There is no recipe or rule," says high-end furniture designer Patrick Norguet. Norguet says comfort is a complex set of features that take into account not only use, shape, color, material, functionality and ergonomics but also health issues and more subjective notions like pleasure: "Providing comfort is relieving the body."

Nantes-born designer Patrick Jouin, who uses technology to create new shapes adds that, "On the one hand, there is a battery of standards like length, width or height. On the other is this more sensitive register of feelings. It's always up to us to find the right balance between the two." He admits that nothing will ever be perfectly comfortable for everyone, but it's like a pair of shoes: "There is a noticeable difference between the ones you buy in the store and the ones made to measure."

Each period cultivates its own idea of comfort that also varies depending on where you live.

Some have tried to list factors that could contribute to this comfort. One is Soizick Berthelot, an ergonomist and manager of the Ergonomics Studio in Paris: "Defining comfort is not easy," she says. "In order to quantify this notion, we have to bear in mind around 10 criteria, besides functionality."

These include: contact, which refers to the firmness or flexibility of the product; the posture of the body; the thermal traits of temperature exchange between the product and the individual; the materials, bearing in mind they are non-allergenic; the sensorial experience like touch and the surrounding environment, which means light, temperature, noise and air humidity.

Design shifts over time

An example of a Bauhaus-era design

Album/Zuma


But the right balance can be hard to find, because comfort also varies according to time and space. Thus, some seats from the Bauhaus era are not deemed comfortable nowadays, although they may have been so at the beginning of last century. Just as a seat made with a metal tube or molded in fiberglass would certainly have seemed out of place in an 18th-century home with padded furniture.

Conversely, a "soft" armchair — one thinks of the famous P100 baseball glove style of the Lomazzi-D'Urbino-De Pas trio for Poltronova — would have seemed strange to previous generations. The same goes for current examples of furniture which, for sure, will appear curious, even uncomfortable in a few decades.

Each period cultivates its own idea of comfort that also varies depending on where you live: Westerners still raise an eyebrow at the sight of wooden headrests from sub-Saharan Africa, or have a hard time adopting the Japanese way of sitting cross-legged on a tatami mat.

"Take, for example, bedding," says Soizick Berthelot: "In Japan, a mattress will rarely exceed 15 centimeters in thickness, while in the United States, it will be at least 40 centimeters."

"Apart from the concept of price, there is no universal truth. So there is not 'one' comfort, but 'some' comforts," says Michel Roset, president of the Roset group, which owns the French Cinna and Ligne Roset furniture brands. For example, Ligne Roset exports 70% of its products, and therefore take into account the socio-cultural parameters specific to each country: A European living in an urban area will be less able today to accommodate large furniture; in contrast, China, Russia and the United States are constantly looking for greater variety.

Adapting to changing body types

The comfortable Ligne Roset Togo sofa is still popular today

ligneroset/Instagram

Apart from the socio-cultural aspect, the human body, too, has its own requirements.

"With regard to dimensional comfort, we work from anthropometric databases and scientific studies and we can see today that the population has grown taller, but also fatter," says Soizick Berthelot. In June, France's League Against Obesity published the results of a national survey which showed that approximately 8.5 million adults the country (17% of the population) have a body mass index greater than 30 (above which one is considered obese), compared to 15% in 2012.

In total, nearly one in two French people is either overweight or obese. However, the standard width of a double bed is still 140 centimeters, completely insufficient when It should have increased to 160 centimeters or 180 centimeters. Berthelot says, "Just look at how uncomfortable the armchairs of Paris' Opéra Garnier are — they're so small!"

Clearly, comfort means something different for each individual. If the minimalism of the 1980s had put aside comfort in favor of form, the "hippie" period of the 1960s and '70s and the "sprawling generation" produced a few gems. Patrick Jouin says, "For me, the two icons of comfort remain the Togo sofa by Michel Ducaroy at Ligne Roset and the Maralunga sofa by Vico Magistretti at Cassina," two huge successes, both released in 1973 and still produced. "Of course they're a bit dated, but I'll choose them anytime I want to have a rest, period!"

Another bestseller of that era was the Gao sofa bed by Laloy and Ponthus for Cinna: "[French President] François Mitterrand bought two, one for rue de Bièvre [his apartment], another for Latché [his second home]," says Michel Roset. "But we were then overwhelmed by the large production demand, which flooded the market with models of a lesser quality."

Determining the ideal posture

Matali Crasset forwent comfort to create a versatile chair with a temporary shelf

matali crasset/Twitter


No matter personal preferences, there is such a thing as the ideal posture: when the angle between the bust and the legs is 127 °, give or take 2 °, says Soizick Berthelot. This angle generates the least spinal compression and ligament stretching. Berthelot recommended it to Air France for its Premium class seats; French astronaut Thomas Pesquet even adopted it for weightless conditions at the International Space Station.

"I do not work on the scale of the object, but all around," says designer Matali Crasset. "Feeling too comfortable is a problem for me." Crasset explains that with multiple pandemic-related lockdowns, we realized the limits of the "home-cocoon." She argues it led us to "passive comfort," while what we need is "active comfort."

Having options, being able to reconfigure your space according to the time of day and modifying it to your preferences in order to remain active at home are key to comfort. According to Crasset, "the house must be an ecosystem, a safe zone, but it must not stagnate — it should help us project ourselves into the future."

How does an aesthetically remarkable but uncomfortable seat compare to an ugly comfortable one?

Crasset mentions the Double Side chair she designed for Danese: Its backrest can be transformed into a temporary shelf. Resembling a stool, it doesn't seem like the ideal seat when it comes to physical comfort. But the idea Crasset promotes is to have enough structure flexibility to accommodate what could happen in a given space: "I am not advocating for discomfort, but for another type of comfort. Concretely, I removed some of the comfort brought by the seat but instead brought another kind of comfort: the possibility of activities like eating or checking your emails on your computer, from a new 'place' where you can concentrate for a few moments in the midst of other activities."

In the end, could comfort be simply a construct of the mind? How does an aesthetically remarkable but uncomfortable seat, like the red and blue chair by Gerrit Rietveld, compare to a fundamentally ugly yet highly comfortable armchair? It's impossible to say.

"Last year, I designed the Dan chair for the Italian firm Zanotta," says Patrick Norguet. "At first glance, with its metal structure and straps, it could appear rigid, even hard. However, once seated, it adapts perfectly to your body and provides extreme comfort."

In short, the mystery of comfort remains unresolved.

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Pro-life and Pro-abortion Rights Protests in Washington

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Håfa adai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where new Omicron findings arrive from South Africa, abortion rights are at risk at the U.S. Supreme Court and Tyrannosaurus rex has got some new competition. From Germany, we share the story of a landmark pharmacy turned sex toy museum.

[*Chamorro - Guam]

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• COVID update: South Africa reports a higher rate of reinfections from the Omicron variant than has been registered with the Beta and Delta variants, though researchers await further findings on the effects of the new strain. Meanwhile, the UK approves the use of a monoclonal therapy, known as sotrovimab, to treat those at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.The approval comes as the British pharmaceutical company, GSK, separately announced the treatment has shown to “retain activity” against the Omicron variant. Down under, New Zealand’s reopening, slated for tomorrow is being criticized as posing risks to its under-vaccinated indigenous Maori.

• Supreme Court poised to gut abortion rights: The U.S. Supreme Court signaled a willingness to accept a Republican-backed Mississippi law that would bar abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. A ruling, expected in June, may see millions of women lose abortion access, 50 years after it was recognized as a constitutional right in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

• Macri charged in Argentine spying case: Argentina’s former president Mauricio Macri has been charged with ordering the secret services to spy on the family members of 44 sailors who died in a navy submarine sinking in 2017. The charge carries a sentence of three to ten years in prison. Macri, now an opposition leader, says the charges are politically motivated.

• WTA suspends China tournaments over Peng Shuai: The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns about the well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, and the safety of other players. Peng disappeared from public view after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault.

• Michigan school shooting suspect to be charged as an adult: The 15-year-old student accused of killing four of his classmates and wounding seven other people in a Michigan High School will face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder. Authorities say the suspect had described wanting to attack the school in cellphone videos and a journal.

• Turkey replaces finance minister amid economic turmoil: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan appointed a strong supporter of his low-interest rate drive, Nureddin Nebati, as Turkey’s new finance minister.

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🗞️  FRONT PAGE

South Korean daily Joong-ang Ilbo reports on the discovery of five Omicron cases in South Korea. The Asian nation has broken its daily record for overall coronavirus infections for a second day in a row with more than 5,200 new cases. The variant cases were linked to arrivals from Nigeria and prompted the government to tighten border controls.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

¥10,000

In the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, a reward of 10,000 yuan ($1,570) will be given to anyone who volunteers to take a COVID-19 test and get a positive result, local authorities announced on Thursday on the social network app WeChat.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Why an iconic pharmacy is turning into a sex toy museum

The "New Pharmacy" was famous throughout the St. Pauli district of Hamburg for its history and its long-serving owner. Now the owner’s daughter is transforming it into a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys, linking it with the past "curing" purpose of the shop, reports Eva Eusterhus in German daily Die Welt.

💊 The story begins in autumn 2018, when 83-year-old Regis Genger stood at the counter of her pharmacy and realized that the time had come for her to retire. At least that is the first thing her daughter Anna Genger tells us when we meet, describing the turning point that has also shaped her life and that of her business partner Bianca Müllner. The two women want to create something new here, something that reflects the pharmacy's history and Hamburg's eclectic St. Pauli quarter (it houses both a red light district and the iconic Reeperbahn entertainment area) as well as their own interests.

🚨 Over the last few months, the pharmacy has been transformed into L'Apotheque, a venture that brings together art and business in St. Pauli's red light district. The back rooms will be used for art exhibitions, while the old pharmacy space will house a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys. Genger and Müllner want to show that desire has always existed and that people have always found inventive ways of maximizing pleasure, even in times when self-gratification was seen as unnatural and immoral, as a cause of deformities.

🏩 Genger and Müllner want the museum to show how the history of desire has changed over time. The art exhibitions, which will also center on the themes of physicality and sexuality, are intended to complement the exhibits. They are planning to put on window displays to give passers-by a taste of what is to come, for example, British artist Bronwen Parker-Rhodes's film Lovers, which offers a portrait of sex workers during lockdown.

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📣 VERBATIM

"I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never."

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