The Best Chair Is No Chair At All

How chairs ruin our posture—and our spines

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In the scant hour I spent in the home of Galen Cranz, two things became hopelessly clear: One, 99 percent of chairs are terrible; and two, so is my posture. The good news: There are better ways to sit. The bad news: There is no such thing as a perfect chair. The really bad news is that most of us spend half our waking hours in chairs. And the really, really bad news is that the problem isn't my posture but a world that is not tall, sloped, adjustable, or active enough.

Galen Cranz wants to change all that. In The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design (Norton, 1998), this architecture professor takes us on a journey that begins with slouching pharaohs and ends in an ideal world that encourages no less than six postures in which to work: standing, sitting, lying, perching, squatting, and “autonomous sitting” (on a stool). Along the way, Cranz explains why the ubiquitous canvas stroller makes babies spit up, why a soft, comfortable chair has nothing to do with real comfort, why the Last Supper took place lying down, why Northern Europeans call squat toilets Italian toilets (and why Italians call them Turkish), why one of the most famous modern chairs is actually awful to sit on, and why a secretary who uses a recliner threatens to upset entrenched power relationships in corporate America.

“We design them; once built, they shape us,” Cranz says of chairs. So important is the image of the right chair that aficionados have appropriated a Freudian phrase to describe the difficulty of choosing one: “chair anxiety,” a common malady.

Like a tattoo for the middle classes, the chair reveals its owner through visual, sensual clues. The solid mission chair: permanence, warmth, and an implicit critique of mass production. And the sleek Barcelona chair: minimalism, transparency, disdain for tradition. Nothing wrong with transforming utility into art, of course, but Cranz says the aesthetic pleasure of the right angle and the pomp of the gilded throne have overshadowed the chair as sitting machine. The Barcelona chair collapses spines, promotes slipped disks, and is about as easy to get out of as a Kafka short story. Most chairs, Cranz laments, are four-legged monsters responsible for back problems, neck problems, and $70 billion annually in lost productivity.

But Cranz concedes the chair's seductive charms. Unlike the more egalitarian bench, couch, or floor, the chair emphasizes the individual. Make its back tall enough and you've got a billboard perfect for a coat of arms or a rococo flourish. A business tycoon is a chairman, not a sofaman; professors hold chairs, not stools.

Clearly, chairs do matter. Providing one for a guest conveys compassion. Throwing one conveys anger. In nursery school we all learned that what really pissed off Papa Bear wasn't Goldilocks' intrusion into his cozy lair but a more specific affront: She sat in his chair.

In ancient Egyptian art, pharaohs were usually depicted sitting upright, stiffly, in an attempt to convey a perfected geometry, a disciplined posture that might convince the gods to flood the Nile at the right time. It makes intuitive sense: Slouching connotes ease and relaxation, while sitting up suggests aspiration. Stone carvings depict the pharaoh Akhenaton—a controversial, much-despised figure who tried to convert his countrymen to monotheism—slumped in his throne. He's the only pharaoh depicted as a slouch.

Cranz argues that this prejudice against slouching has become a particularly Western and somewhat male phenomenon. In the earliest surviving depiction of the Last Supper, a sixth-century mosaic from Ravenna, Christ and the apostles are shown lying on a U-shaped couch around a low table, propped up on their elbows. In the intervening 14 centuries, artists have revised the image, incorporating upright chairs.

Our current disdain for sitting without a chair explains the debate over whether squat toilets should be called Italian or Turkish, never mind that they are actually better for us than the porcelain throne. Squatting is also easier for women giving birth, but it's uncomfortable for their (mostly male) doctors. And consider this: Reclining office chair prototypes have been built for executives and secretaries, but only executive models are being produced.

Cranz uses such anecdotes to convince readers that the chair is a brilliantly articulated cultural artifact but an irrefutable failure when it comes to sitting. And the problem, as I discovered when I visited her, is bigger than that.

No matter how “ergonomic” the chair, it will always be flawed because there's something intrinsically wrong with sitting. “We weren't born with ankle supports, we weren't born with corsets, and we weren't born with chairs. Holding any position is stressful, and once you try to sedate people by getting them to hold still, you're setting up pain,” Cranz says.

Like most passionate crusades, hers is highly personal. Stricken with severe rotatory scoliosis, she was told 20 years ago to expect the curvature of her spine to worsen. Chairs exacerbated her problem. Remarkably, she improved her spine through the Alexander technique, a holistic therapy that aligns the head-neck joint correctly. Her success, and a chance perusal of snapshots a friend took in Upper Volta, inspired her to write her book. In the photos Cranz noticed two men with fabulous posture: spines erect, heads balanced, necks relaxed. Not coincidentally, they were the only people in the village who had not attended missionary school. For Cranz, this was an epiphany: The problem wasn't poorly designed chairs; the problem was chairs, period. The body is designed to move. As she put it: “What's the best posture? The next one.”

Looking at these pictures, I felt self-conscious; my own posture, in profile, conjures a banana more than it does Homo erectus. Cranz pulled out a stool. I sat down.

“Well,” she said, assessing me from all sides, “you may be sitting wrong in the sense that you might not really be up on your sit bones, those two little bones in your butt. Then of course your muscles have become weak from years of leaning on chair backs. When we use the chair back, our backs become weaker, so we need the chair back more. There's the vicious cycle.” Dramatic pause. “But there's a third thing, and that is that you, a tall man, are probably sitting on a stool that's too short for you.” Before I could protest, she was stacking books on my stool and sitting me back down. “See, already, to me, it looks like that's better for you . . . you're getting more 135-ish.”

For Cranz, 135 is a magic number. With our knees bent at 135 degrees rather than the conventional 90, we distribute our weight in a way that takes stress off the neck and lower back, and keeps our torso from collapsing in on itself. To get there, we need a recliner or a tall chair with a forward-sloping seat. Nicknamed a “perch,” the latter has been adopted by the Danish elementary school system, along with a taller, sloped desk. It keeps the knees open and balances the pelvic muscles.

While Cranz would love to see just such a postural awakening in the United States, she knows it won't be easy. One study showed that kindergartners always chose the biggest chair, no matter how uncomfortable, because they pictured God sitting on a throne. To encourage turnover, restaurants buy “15-minute chairs,” deliberately designed to grow uncomfortable in that time. Car seat manufacturers evaluate prototypes by test-sitting them for precisely 8.5 minutes—the average time a potential buyer sits in a car in the showroom.

Cranz hopes readers “will be inspired to make changes in their own lives, to not be cowed by convention. And I suppose I'd like them to make at least one place where it's comfortable for them to read. And that would mean they'd have to get a place where the book is not sitting flat and they'd have to find a way to sit, ideally in a perch position.”

A not-so-awful traditional chair has a seat height no greater than the top of your knee minus two inches, has a firm-textured surface, is upholstered but no more than an inch deep, and allows a concave butt space between seat and back. If you can't get to a Danish furniture store or can't afford its wares, Cranz advocates “guerrilla ergonomics”: phone books stacked for a footstool, a book wrapped in a towel as a car-seat back.

After all our talk about lousy posture and doomed seats, I stood up, pulled back my shoulders, and told myself that hunching, slouching, dull aches, and numb butts don't have to be. As we said good-bye, Cranz looked me over and handed me a business card—for a local Alexander practitioner. Her message was clear: Decades of bad sitting can't be undone in an hour. But they can be undone.

From East Bay Monthly (Nov. 1998). Subscriptions: $12/yr. (12 issues) from 1301 59th St., Emeryville, CA 94608.