Society can be so fickle. Just when we begin to get comfortable, comfort seems to go out of fashion. Do you really enjoy making love under the neon light you hung over your bed in 1987? Are you tired of kicking back on your concrete sofa to watch a game? Do you get pissed off when you can’t find your slippers and have to walk barefoot on your sisal rug at 3 a.m. to let the dog out?
Early in the 20th century, the great Modernist manifesto — form follows function — set out to drastically change the way we live. The marriage of aesthetics and the human condition enabled artists, designers and manufacturers to serve up a new reality based on physical, visual and emotional comfort. Truly, every action caused a reaction. Boned girdles gave way to nylon panties, and now that women could breathe, fainting couches instead became luxurious sofas for lounging. Cobblestone streets were paved with smooth new surfaces so that automobiles with big rubber tires could move about more easily. Comfort became inherent in all things.
There was, however, a dark side, a parallel movement suggesting that anything, including discomfort, could be rationalized if one called it art. Under the guise of fashion, this notion, based on ego, personal accomplishment, idiosyncrasy, tunnel vision and gall, began to develop an audience of its own. Late in the 19th century, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a popular Modernist visionary of the era, first disguised discomfort as art with the mass production of his breathtakingly beautiful but notoriously uncomfortable Ladder Back chair. Art does not heal all wounds, although it may have wounded a few heels. While the Mackintosh chair may have risen to new levels of aesthetic perfection, it still hurts to sit on it.
A client of mine was the proud owner of one such chair, lit by a light worthy of the Holy Grail. I suggested that in designing his new home we relegate his chair to an outdoor spot under palm trees by a beautiful reflecting pond and let mother nature morph it into the landscape. “How could I? It’s a Mackintosh,” he screamed with dumbfounded horror. “How could you not?” I responded, suggesting that as kindling it might be useful in trying out the new fireplace flue.
The client, a man of generally acute style, had been sidetracked by a fashion-driven adoration of an object that doesn’t quite succeed in being what it sets out to be — in this case, a chair. Chairs, no matter what their style, share a common mission: to maintain us in a semi-erect state of composed comfort, whether used for dining, traveling, board meetings, lectures, watching movies or peeling potatoes.
That’s not to say that artful pieces don’t work. Mackintosh’s chair of tortured beauty was inspired by a political reaction to Victorian decadence; Danish designer Jens Risom’s, on the other hand, was inspired by need. During WWII, when all raw materials were sopped up by the war effort, Risom combined scrap wood with surplus military webbing to create his great web chair, which became the basis for Knoll’s first line of furniture in 1942 — virtually the only modern furniture available in the U.S. during the war, and still a miracle to look at and be in. Early in the 1960s, French designer Pierre Paulin, using bentwood framing and foam, created the Ribbon chair, an object of such astonishing beauty that one is all the more surprised at its comfort. Perched formally in its center, or with legs thrown over its side, we become one with its art. It says “Sit in me” and “I love you” all at the same time.
The Mackintosh dark side didn’t really have too much effect until the baby-boomer generation, with its exploration of self-discovery fired by Warhol’s promise of 15 minutes of fame, came into its own and “do your own thing” devotees began dishing out a lot of questionable stuff called art. Lately we’ve been bobbing around in a world of provocatively uncomfortable furniture, brilliantly unflattering lighting and awesomely useless architecture.
In a time when everything from beds to ballpoint pens are being designed to within an inch of their lives, it is the responsibility of the designer to address the human condition. Cavemen did when they lined caves with furry pelts, but what are the fashionably responsible animal skins of the 21st century? Herman Miller’s beautiful and adjustable Aeron chair has raised the comfort consciousness of deskbound white-collar workers. Kids and junior executives have replaced cumbersome briefcases with space-age backpacks that comfortably transport computers, calculators and iPods for the geek on the go. Pablo Pardo’s Cortina lamps, a series of glowing polycarbonate monoliths, add a new dimension to the art of lighting, and unlike a lot of other “art” lamps, his don’t make you feel like a deer caught in the headlights.
’Fess up, people. Whether you’re sipping brandy and enjoying an opera, or guzzling down a six-pack while watching an NFL game, nothing does it like a La-Z-Boy, and La-Z-Boys are looking better and better — in part due to Todd Oldham’s new line. These days, smart money is on comfort. Auto manufacturers, movie theaters, restaurants, shoe designers and lighting fabricators are spinning comfort as the next big thing — the ideal combination of form and function.
Diller & Scofidio’s Blur Building, a media pavilion designed for Swiss Expo 2002, addressed architecture, comfort and sensory perception in a novel way: with climate control. Prior to entering an open platform covered by fog, visitors fill out a questionnaire and then receive a “braincoat.” This smart coat protects from the environment as well as stores data and communicates with a computer network. As visitors pass one another, their coats compare profiles and change color indicating the degree of attraction or repulsion, much like an involuntary blush — red for affinity, green for antipathy. Beats hanging out at the mall.