Rybczynski’s chairs – on architectural layers in social design

One of my favorite pieces of writing on design is the section in Witold Rybczinski’s Home on the history of the chair. Comfortable, cushioned sitting tools are a relatively recent development in human history. Chairs didn’t start with the goal of comfort. In ancient times, rulers sat upon thrones, and “during the middle ages, the prime function of the chair was ceremonial. The man who sat was important – hence the term chairman.”

Comfortable chairs, says Rybczinski, as well as other elements of furniture design and layout for comfort and relaxation, were pioneered in eighteenth century France. “Sitting was no longer only ritualistic or functional, but became a form of relaxation. People sat together to listen to music, to have conversations, to play cards. A new sense of leisure was reflected in their sitting positions: gentlemen leaned back and sat with their legs crossed–a new posture– and ladies reclined.” To support these social practices, movable chairs and tables were developed to support varying “informal groupings, around a tea table, or in groups for conversations.” (This is the root of the French word for furniture, “meubles” or “movables”; contrasting with earlier fixed-design seating that was chosen and located by the architect).

In How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand elaborates on the notion of different layers of physical design that have different levels of flexibility. Decorations like pictures and lamps and pillows are easiest to modify, followed by furniture, then things like paint and wallpaper and rugs, then doors, indoor walls, windows, then outdoor walls and foundations. Some layers change very slowly (over decades, or even centuries), while other layers may change every 5 years, and some every year or two, or even months depending on the decorating zeal of residents. Buildings evolve to keep up with the needs of their inhabitants, and are designed with these different layers that are relatively more or less easy to change. (The materials vary depending on economic circumstance but not the fact of changeability, for example, used milk-crates are at the low-cost level of modular design).

Physical social design has come up recently in a few social contexts. A set of people was seeking a space for an enjoyable group discussion. The place we chose had comfy chairs, a long, low table, several little movable stools, and a mid-volume level of background noise. It was clear from the physical design that there would be conversational clumps at either end of the long table, and there were going to be several conversations, rather wasn’t going to be one conversation. As people gathered, I moved the little stools around the long table so there could be a few clusters of conversation, at each end and in the middle. The decorators of the room created a space that would be easier to use for some purposes than others. Then, as a facilitator of conversation, I moved chairs around to help foster interchange.

A few weeks ago, I facilitated a public session that was structured as a panel – but I wanted a very high degree of interactivity. I set up the open space as a broken circle – the “panel” as an shorter arc in the front, and the “audience” as three longer arcs completing the circular form. This supported the format I wanted to set up, with the panel “privileged” to get first crack at the discussion topics, but the overall group facing each other, for back-and-forth interchange, in which “audience” members, including individuals who were steeped in the topic, were expected to be providing alternative answers and points of view, not just asking questions of panelists as the designated experts in the room.

The social experience of the get-togethers I just described is influenced, but not determined by the furniture and the layout of the furniture.

The first get-together had congenial, slowly-shifting conversations, shaped by existing connections, interpersonal discovery knitting together new relations among people linked by multiple-second-degree connections, sets of common interests, and shared patterns of conversation. As a co-host I tried to very lightly encourage the formation of new connections by introducing people and gradually getting out of the way, and focusing myself on newer connections. But the same furniture layout would also support more animated, mobile conversation among a group of students at one-stop in a several-stop social evening, or conversation that is more personal, but more formal among a set of couples where some of the partners know each other barely; or intimate coded exchanges and intermittent high-voltage friction among family members gathering at a ritual time; or any number of other possible social patterns in the same set.

The second get-together successfully achieved a highly interactive, back-and-forth group discussion in a group of about 40 people. People were quite eager to contribute; as a facilitator, I tried to draw out the connections between different comments, and to help get people expand on the ideas and feelings they expressed in their comments. Other possible outcomes with that same format might have been a passive audience, with facilitators striving to draw out participation; or contentious group exchanging highly argumentative opinions; or a situation where anti-social members attempted to dominate speaking time or attack other participants. A more traditional panel format would have had brief presentations from each speaker, then panelists responding serially to questions by a moderator, then short time remaining for questions, where the audience addresses their questions to the panelists as designated experts.

Above the layer of the physical design, there are layers of social circumstance, of the temperaments and interests of participants, of cultural and subcultural social norms, of shared social practices such as social-host introductions, panel structure and meeting facilitation, practices for handling disputes and social boundaries. And then there is the conversation itself, that combination of ritual and small-talk gestures, interpersonal dynamics, and complex improvisational exchange of thoughts and feelings that creates the one-time and irreduceable experience.

Conversations about design; whether physical design or online design sometimes short-circuit the role of the designer, making assumptions that the design itself determines the social experiences within the constraints of the physical or virtual space. My recent post on platforms for change is only one example of the argument that architecture and design determine experience. This is a fallacy – there are layers of context, social practice, and social interchange above the physical or virtual design that create the experience.

Design, whether physical or virtual, influences social experience, but doesn’t determine it.

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