Cheers for the chair!

October 17, 2021

Dr Ajaz Anwar contends that in order to design a chair one must understand human anatomy, its flexibility and proportions

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Made with the fine Burmese teak, the sofa chair is a tribute to the craftsmen of olden times. — Image: Supplied

Sitting on a chair we seldom realise that the comfort or discomfort we get from it is largely because of the proportions of the chair and not due to the material and/or the accompanying upholstery.

To design a chair one has to understand human anatomy, its flexibility and proportions. Incidentally, it is the most used piece of furniture. It is also the most moveable piece of furniture in one’s use. It might lie idle in the house, unused for decades, hence it stays undamaged. It is when you move out that the household items are sometimes ruthlessly dragged and suffer cracks, and their carefully crafted, dovetailed joints might suffer.

Even otherwise, you’d never sit still or idle in a chair. You keep swaying and swinging in different directions, subjecting the chair to unintended torture.

A chair has to serve various auxiliary functions. A dining chair, an easy chair, a lawn chair, a typist’s chair, or lately, one for a laptop — all entail a fair knowledge of human anatomy. Even a dentist’s chair, or that of a make-up artist, is primarily for the humans to settle into and later report its comfort and functionality.

A wheelchair may be a late entry but it also requires knowledge of human proportions and flexibility.

Femur, the largest bone in the human body, is the depth of all chairs. Fibula and tibula — that is, the bones of the lower extremity or the calf — equal the height of a chair. It is where the elbow touches the spatula that the height of the arms of the chair is determined.

The radius and ulna — that is, the human forearm — make up the arm of a chair without any hand. Any extended hands in various chairs or sofas are extra grips or decorations only.

Some fancy heavy chairs with their feet ending in the form of lion’s feet cut a sorry figure when dragged mercilessly, and are therefore bad pieces of design, certainly not by Ms Rehman.

Old heavy office chairs at the Mayo School of Arts had many such crafted pieces. The Freemasons’ furniture, stolen long ago, had some of the finest specimens.

Femur, the largest bone in the human body, is the depth of all chairs. Fibula and tibula — that is, the bones of the lower extremity or the calf — equal the height of a chair. It is where the elbow touches the spatula that the height of the arms of the chair is determined.

A chair may be simple and have few auxiliary joints; it need not be a heavy one. Its comfort lies in its design. It may be upholstered with expensive cloth or knitted with cane. Sofas are from the extended family of chairs, meant maybe to show off our purchasing power.

Earlier, all furniture pieces were made with the finest Burmese teak. The sofas involved another material forgotten by the later generations. It was before the arrival of plastic. Long, copper springs with proper tempering were used for shock absorbers. This tempering required heating the copper springs to a blue finish before being cooled down. Overheating could cause the springs to lose their flexibility.

Coconut husk was used to cover all the springs. It was in turn sealed with jute cloth. Occasionally, the sofas were stripped of their cloth, lovingly washed, ironed, and re-fixed with brass tacks. Our three-piece, mellow-green set even had rotating wheels and was wisely left behind by our previous (Parsi) tenants. Proudly and carelessly, my various uncles would rest over them with their feet mostly up. Then, suddenly, a certain arm and the back rest-pieces gave in. A postmortem examination revealed the dishonesty of carpenters. Ultimately, all the scavenged material was sold to some other sofa-maker who must have made quite a lot of profit out of it because he too would have used only the worst of the moth-eaten wood for its hidden skeletal framework. (The scavenged upholstery of thick green cloth was used for making cloth bags that we used for shopping for many years.)

The sofas could not be upholstered by the new generation of carpenters who are now more into plastics and foams. Yet, the coconut-husk-filled sofas were also vulnerable to careless cigarette sparks which slowly burned and smouldered it.

One sofa, a single piece with round, oval arms has survived in our family as a heritage piece. It has baffled all furniture designers including Mrs Ghazala Rehman. Made of Burmese teak (see the image), it really is a tribute to the craftsmen of olden times. Acquired second-hand, in immaculate condition, it appears to be a hundred years, if not older.

On a lighter note, I may add that the founder of the Mughal dynasty, Zaheeruddin Babar, once remarked that the people weren’t faithful to their ruler; they only liked his chair.

(This dispatch is dedicated to furniture designer Ghazala Rehman)


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at ajazartbrain.net.pk



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