Oct. 2 2013 01:04 PM

Exhibition showcases the best seat design across cultures and eras

Zoomorphic Ritual Seat (Osa-Osa), 19th century; Nias Island, Indonesia
Photo by Lynton Gardiner
From the moment we humans began to walk upright (roughly 6 million years ago), we've been looking for a place to sit down.

Yes, sitting has been a thing for a while. And right now, a gallery space inside Balboa Park's Mingei International Museum is undergoing some impressive seating arrangements. Chairs of all shapes and sizes are everywhere. Old theater seats salvaged from the North Park Theater have their tickets ready. Rich, espresso-colored chairs from Shaker times hang from the walls (common practice for them). Delicately woven Japanese mats lie in glass cases. Quite a few pieces in here lack legs (legs being mostly a Western thing). Here's what they all do have: as much personality as the people who sat in them.

On Saturday, Oct. 5, the Mingei will open Please Be Seated, a thoughtful and at times quirky exhibit spanning several eras and cultures and showcasing the very best of chair design. Celebrating what the museum calls our "never-ending quest to seat people comfortably, appropriately and fashionably," the exhibit—which Mingei director Rob Sidner has been curating in his head for a decade—features more than 90 pieces, mostly 19th- and 20th-century European and American-style chairs (think thrones, rocking chairs and anything with a back and four legs) and also traditional seats from Eastern and tribal societies (think hand-stitched mats and intricately carved stools for African chieftains).

Carl Ekstrom chair, 1971; San Diego
Photo by Steve Oliver

Chairs "really evoke things for people," says Sidner, a man whose fondness of the chair as a design element is really quite endearing. "They are endlessly expressive of the human imagination. They have been designed and thought about over centuries, and they continue to fascinate designers."

Relax. This is not a history lesson in seating throughout the ages. ("This is an art exhibit, after all," Signer says.) Each piece is there because of its notable design and aesthetic value.

Take the tulip stool, for instance. Eero Saarinen's simple, contemporary design features a round, upholstered seat atop a single aluminum leg with a wide base. It was made popular by the original Star Trek TV series (seriously) and has been copied the world over ever since. Saarinen was once quoted as saying his creation stemmed from a need to eliminate what he called the "slum of legs" that existed underneath most dining sets.

Other pieces are all legs, like Sam Maloof's riff on the classic deacon's bench. A man People magazine once called the "Hemingway of Hardwood," the late Maloof was known for creating a signature style of gently curving the wood. Here, this technique, applied to the rails and legs, turns a simple bench with thin black leather cushions into an elegant, stately centerpiece.

If you haven't already felt an undeniable urge to sit down, you will. Resist. (It's not allowed, sorry.) But do let your mind wander. It shouldn't be that hard; the chairs in Please Be Seated are more than just interesting designs or places to pause. These pieces have stories. Case in point: the kantha, a mat made from recycled saris (what Indian women wear) and dhotis (what Indian men wear). Much like the Egyptians depicted messages in hieroglyphs, the Indians wove their lives into these real-life magic carpets. Tigers, locomotion scenes, workers—it's all there.

Really, can you think of another piece of furniture that has so much to say? Sidner can't.

"You don't see people doing the same thing with beds," he offers.

Well, maybe not. But then again, most beds are inherently comfortable. The chair is a little trickier. Luckily for us, there are some designers who have our best interests at heart. That office chair you sit in— odds are, it's somewhat suitable for your daily desk duties (read: sitting for long periods of time). You can thank Charles and Ray Eames for that. The masters of workplace comfort, the husband-andwife team are credited for revolutionizing domestic and office seating in the 20th century. Their piece in the show, a black leather lounge chair and ottoman, is both stylish and professional. Maybe it's time you upgraded.

Chief's Stool, 20th century; Cameroon
Photo by Lynton Gardiner

Speaking of work, not everyone puts the chair in such high esteem. In the last five to 10 years, reports have found that chairs wreak havoc on our spines and generally foster laziness. We might even live longer if we stopped sitting down so much. Certainly, no one's going to argue that saddle-soreness is less than desirable. But if the chair is the office worker's worst enemy, it is also the designer's best friend.

"Perhaps we should all sit less, and I'm all for it," Sidner says. "Standing at a cocktail party is fine; but standing at a dinner table for a long evening of food, drink and conversation—banish the thought! The chair will not go out of fashion so long as face-to-face social conversation survives."

Mingei hopes you'll join the conversation through social media. In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum is inviting would-be visitors to @plsbeseated on Twitter to submit photos of chairs they like. It's a curatorial experiment gone right; pictures of infinity hammocks, a stained tractor seat and bizarre abstract sculptures are a whole lot of fun to click through. There's a certain level of familiarity here, what with all the snapshots of ratty office swivel chairs and other everyday seating solutions. If you like what you see here, Please Be Seated will not disappoint.

So, assuming we are not abandoning our penchant for sitting anytime soon, it's safe to say the chair has, well, a seat at the table. 

Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.


See all events on Friday, Dec 2