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?
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
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
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
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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