Scholarship Student Blog: Sophie Simpson shares 'The Art of Taking a Seat'
Picture someone asking you to take a seat. Where are you? At graduation, a wedding, an in-terview, a restaurant, a doctor’s office, a police station, a friends house? What is the location of the seat you have taken? Are you an important guest on the front row? Have you been placed next to your annoying uncle at a family party? Are you flying first class? Are you at the head of the family table? Are you chairing a business meeting or like most of us, sitting on an uncomfort-able chair trying to work from home? Even more challenging, are you trying to arrange a seating plan without causing any offence? Where does the predicted offence come from? Are you insult-ing someone’s social status? Are you planning according to the status quo or do you want to create a sense of disruption. What are the specifics of where you’ve been asked to sit? Has the object been ergonomically designed, mass produced or handmade by a master crafts(wo)man? Is it soft, hard, sustainable, portable? Is it old, new, a family heirloom or part of the design canon, not to be sat on but admired from afar?
When I got accepted to study at KLC I did indeed find myself taking a seat. I sunk into my sofa and allowed my mind to imagine a different life. Having a seat that supported me physically meant I wasn’t worried about any pain or discomfort. My attention could be on thought and imagination rather than my physical self needing to move. Having a ‘good’ seat helps with creativity and pro-ductivity. Imagine being on the cusp of a lightbulb moment only to have to press pause to shake off your pins and needles.
Fast forward to September and I was taking my allocated seat within Studio 3. This was strategi-cally distanced from other seats to ensure Covid-19 compliance. Sitting and navigating social spaces has become intrinsically linked to government legislation and public health. Taking a seat therefore reflects so much more than the physical support of the human body but here tells a sto-ry about society at any given moment. It was fascinating to see how a group of students navi-gated interactions in the first couple of weeks. It is always challenging to be part of a new group, but social distancing highlighted how your physical network (even in a small space) becomes re-duced, instinctively keeping most interactions to an immediate circle. You have to work even harder to connect with those outside the end of a stretched arm. The allocated seating simulta-neously restricts social interaction whilst forcing you to make an extra effort with those slightly further away. It provides a sense of consciousness and intention with social interaction that was perhaps taken for granted before. Having an allocated seat really encouraged my design thinking with regards to use of space and how the study of human behaviour is essential when considering planning and interior design.
Term 1 consisted of lectures on the Evolution of Style, a whistle stop tour of interior design from Baroque to the modern day. Chairs were discussed as key items to infer and invoke a period, taste or status. They are clear signifiers of science, technology, history and wealth. I then experi-enced the serendipity of stumbling across a history of chairs collection at Brighton Museum and was fortunate to see chairs by Frank Gehry, Alvar Aalto, Voysey, Yinka Ilori, Salvador Dali, Shiro Kuramata, David Colwell and Thonet (some of my drawings are below).
Seeing these chairs presented within a linear timeline really consolidated my understanding of how chair design implies the movement of time. When referring to an era in a scheme, I now have a better understanding of how chairs can act as a navigation tool to orient the user to a period or design reference. Seeing these chairs in a museum setting also forced me to think about viewing these pieces as art alongside as pieces of design. It supported me in a really practical way to think about the importance of form and function. These two notions do not sit in contrast to each other and are not finite notions in themselves. Each notion consists of a multitude of contexts that thinking of them as binary does not do an item any justice.
I then visited the Ron Arad 69 exhibition at Newlands House Gallery in Petworth. It is hard to single out a piece however ‘Brexit Chair 2020’ (handmade from a mould using fibreglass, polyester and gelcoat) makes a political statement by using the front cover of newspapers from 31st January 2020 and asks the viewer, now what? The chair captures a moment in time and forces you to consider the vote to leave outcome. It is positioned in front of a floor to ceiling mirror, the physical reflection inviting you to reflect internally (the gelcoat finish adds to the notion of reflection). Who else stood in front of that mirror with very different views to my own. Perhaps you could argue it creates an invisible dialogue. What I can’t answer on a personal level is if this led to increased toler-ance or further division. In spite of this, it shows the power of a chair and its ability to promote conversation.
I also had the good fortune of meeting the gallery manager who allowed me to sit on the Gomli chair (2009) which was co-designed with Anthony Gormley. This metal chair looked beautiful but was made of seemingly hard material. Howev-er the attention to designing around the human form meant the chair perfectly supported my body and provided ultimate comfort. Having this experience allowed me to connect di-rectly with the artists’ hands and reinforced how important it is for a user to have a connection to objects within a design scheme.
This all inspired me to play with the idea of literally taking a seat for a Regency Chinoiserie project. I decided to take a Chinese garden seat and deconstruct its layers to produce a dado, wall panel, frieze, cornice and ceiling rose. This was a fun, alternative way of ‘taking a seat’ and using it as inspiration for a design scheme rather than just as inclusion within that scheme.
My first term at KLC has encouraged me to think about design items such as chairs in a way that take into account their historical, cultural and social importance. Materials and techniques can evoke abstract concepts such as hierarchy, power and status. They can be used to support prof-it, an uncomfortable chair at a cafe means you don’t stay long therefore turnover is higher. They can enhance health and wellbeing through the study of the human body. They can promote sus-tainability through appropriate sourcing. Choosing items and suggesting layouts should all be done under the umbrella of design as storytelling. So next time you chose an item, ask yourself what story is being told and is it a chapter your clients want people to read?