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Sit!

Photos by Larry Hirshowitz

“Do you think this is a stool?” asks Maira Kalman, a designer and illustrator of New Yorker covers, and one of five judges traversing the bridge at Art Center, evaluating entries from various SoCal design schools in the Santa Monica Design District’s spring competition. The theme is chairs — or, more appropriately, seating, hence the title “Seating of Some Sort.” Kalman adds: “I tremendously admire the idea.”

“I think it’s a little tired,” architect Greg Lynn says of entry No. 23, a 2- to 3-foot stack of approximately 12-by-12-inch egg crates. Don Chadwick, co-creator of the ergonomic office indulgence known as the Aeron chair, agrees: “This has been played so many times.” But Gregg Buchbinder, whose company manufactures the Emeco chair, a shiny, IKEA-looking piece made of aluminum, notes: “It’s the most affordable.”

After more than two hours of scrutinizing, the judges picked 12 out of 24 entries — chaises longues, benches, recliners, pods — for display in the slightly to thoroughly modern showrooms that make up the Design District. There the chairs met their toughest critics, the general public. Winners were announced last week at a reception hosted by the store Boffi.

Eames Demetrios, director of the Eames Office and grandson of Charles and Ray (they of the leather chair and ottoman), facilitated the judging and, along with Boffi owner Mark Robinson, coordinated the competition. Although chairs may not seem to present the greatest design challenge, Demetrios points out that “Seating is a primal thing. Architects and designers have always been drawn to the challenge of contributing new solutions to this primal act.” He also mentions “sit-ability” as critical, and practical issues such as a chair’s likelihood of being manufactured. “It’s easy to think of it as a style issue, but the pragmatics of it are important.”

Five Art Center students were awarded top honors. Joseph O’Brien won the $1,000 grand prize for My Chair, a rigid, industrial folding chair with giant aluminum teeth that looks good enough to showcase in a museum but is wont to buckle under just as one is getting cozy. Matthew Hollingsworth’s Roosting Bench, a group-seating unit connecting modular benches with humps, sets new boundaries for personal space. It split the most-innovative-chair award with Nate Lau’s Spot, a half-globe with urethane bumps, like warts, positioned on the bottom for traction. Shawn Ian-Bruce’s multifunctional Flip Chair, which contorts into four seating combinations, as well as a magazine rack, owned the form-and-function category.

However, it was Yoshi Saito’s (hug.), a canoe-shaped chair on which one can sit or lie, or wrap oneself in a cocoon to sleep, that was the big winner for the public. Instead of coming up with a “gadget piece,” Saito made a simple design that challenges the user’s imagination. The industrial-felt edamame shell, which was awarded a judges’ prize, puts us back in the womb, comfortably and safely at the beginning of everything — and way before Philippe Starck observed, “The last thing the world needs is another chair.” But clearly it can always use a (hug.).