House & Garden | Diary of a Somebody

Ilse Crawford

The big ’designer chairs’ controversy is a hot topic in the design studio

Ilse Crawford

February 05 2011
Ilse Crawford

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They’re terrible chairs, we all agree, but not for the same reasons as the local government minister. We had a heated discussion in the studio around the controversy of the Audit Commission’s overpriced chairs. The witch-hunt against “designer” chairs is missing the point. It’s not the price tag that’s the issue here. Good office furniture is built to last. Being used eight hours a day every day for years requires a certain quality. And it’s sensible to give your staff the tools they need to function well. It increases productivity. Especially today, when so much work is done sitting in front of a screen. Bad chairs give bad backs, and don’t help people focus. Which is why good office chairs cost money. And cheap chairs are expensive. These, however, just look like a poor choice and bad value for money.

Furniture (and buildings) affect the way we behave, for better or for worse. Think of Heathrow Airport versus Copenhagen, for example; a plastic cup versus a glass. We behave differently. Our environment can bring out the best or the worst in us. In the studio when we design furniture we focus on the human reality, and then make it work. We designed a low-energy task light, for example, that does much more than save energy; in its shape and materiality it feels like a friend, and makes those late nights working feel slightly less brutal. Anything that nudges up the quota of human happiness can’t be bad, and as a by-product they sell well. Tables need to be the right proportions to encourage human interactions, for example. The wrong width, and people find it hard to talk. Right now we are working on a bed, one that works for reading, working, eating, and gives proper back support.

Even developers are becoming much more interested in the human factor these days. Perhaps because it’s not about a quick buck any more, many of them are building with a view to owning in the long term. We have been approached many times in recent months to look at how people live today and then translate that first into new living modules and then how that connects to the way we live and to public space – for a project in Glasgow and another in Hong Kong. In short, the private sector is beginning to look at what used to be the domain of the public realm and take on what essentially is city planning. Ultimately every building built contributes to or detracts from the life in a city, but it’s definitely a change of tone.

Of course, in other parts of the world this is not new. Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, is eloquent on the subject of pavements as the parks of the city, and how all development must start with children’s needs. It’s so obvious, but when developments only aim at young professionals, you create ghettos, not neighbourhoods.

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