Putting Meaning, Roots and Connection into Modern

Jeah Kessha (formerly Patrick Clark)

The period of rejecting the past is over. We no longer need to be ashamed of the farm or the tipi and being associated with the land and the dirt. Now the danger lies in loosing our connection with the past, becoming ungrounded as a culture, loosing our sense of direction and meaning, creating a false sense of reality or a bubble of delusion and denial which keeps us from fully living.


Men making tatamit mats. ca 1860-1900 Smithsonian

Men making tatamit mats. ca 1860-1900 Smithsonian

When I was in high school I saw a funny looking stool at the Kansas Zen Center which was used for sitting kneeling style on the floor. I was fascinated as I had never seen anything like it, and this floor chair communicated the idea that sitting on the floor was possible. I had no one to tell me anything about HOW to sit on this floor kneeling bench or any instructions. But I found it pretty self explanatory. I sat on it and I seemed to stay up, without any support on any side. This floor kneeling stool changed something about my body that made sitting more powerful and I found I could meditate with more focus and intensity.

Take your office outside.

Take your office outside.

annazenoffice2I could not find any information at the time (pre-internet) and was curious where it came from. I didn’t know if it was some kind of new invention or something from some past culture. I went home and put some pieces of scrap wood together to build one for myself. Little did I know that many years later my life would be shaped by this idea and practice of floor sitting, and I would go on to improve the design into what is today the take-apart ‘Peace Bench™’ (see www.footlooseandchairfree.com)

Several decades later, the answers are revealed, the world goes crazy over active sitting and standing at work and yoga integrates with furniture. Major scientists and health and fitness teachers promote the same ideas that our ancestors practiced even before modern offices. Here is an excerpt from a typical blog describing what I was experiencing:


From the oldest yoga poses: diamond posture. Vajrasana (diamond posture) in Sanskrit has two parts. Vajra means ‘Thunderbolt’ or ‘Diamond’, and Asana means posture. Diamond posture looks much like the posture encouraged by an ergonomic kneeling chair. The seat slants down along with a part of weight is based on the knees which rest inside a kneeling position. The rear and neck are vertically stacked. This seated position promotes vertical spinal alignment and takes a large part of the load burden from the back, as the shins support a amount of the load. The advantages of diamond posture, as well as an ergonomic kneeling chair, are significant:

Excerpted from this blog.



However, at the time, I found it almost impossible to convince anyone this thing had any value. What I found out the hard way was, there is a very tiny percentage of population who will adopt a new lifestyle practice. The problem is, we flat out don’t recognize something we haven’t seen–there isn’t a place in the brain to hold that kind of information. And as it turns out, the design of our built environment is literally almost set in stone by previous generations.

What makes a ‘good’ design (accepted, popular) is predetermined by cultural norms. What was happening was that  I was drawn to ancient designs from various world cultures that were at least a thousand years out of style, depending on what part of the world we are talking about.  And I was up against an insurmountable momentum of the Industrial Revolution, Modernism and Post-modernism eras which I wasn’t aware of at the time, that promoted the ‘Desk and Chair Culture”.

I somehow needed to find a way to connect the riff between my understanding and the rest of the world’s. I went on a research quest that has now spanned over twenty years. It was such a difficult and tedious task. I didn’t even have a language and words to use because the concept was vague. Something about ‘why we use chairs’ but of course you will find nothing relevant under the words ‘chair’ and ‘sitting’ because that is a cultural icon that is so taken for granted nothing is written about it–or at least, wasn’t at the time I started my research quest.

In the study of design, the body is all but left out. In the study of the body, the furniture is left out. And the field of ergonomics is a joke. Ergonomics has no concept of ‘chi’, ‘prana’, ‘breath’, ‘life energy’ and it has a warped, inaccurate concept of how the human body works. My best bet was the Chinese study of Feng Shui (how the energy of a space is effected by placement and design). But most of that was written in a different language that I couldn’t access. How could I bring those concepts into the modern world so people could understand and apply them?

I kept hearing the word ‘modern’ or ‘mod’ used to indicate anything that is good. The implication here is that the design is a break from the past, is ‘slick’. Something didn’t click for me. How could ‘modern’ or ‘in style’ be the only determinant for whether something is good or not? In style for whom? At the time I took it personally. How could my designs ever get a compliment because they were ancient, vernacular, traditional…anything BUT modern.

I kept at it until something else changed and people started looking for meaning and roots and connection. The ‘modern’ movement had taken us as far as it could. It seemed to happen shortly after 9/11 and the Fall of Wall Street. The emptiness and aimlessness of ‘modern’ and endless expansion left people looking for something old and fundamental instead of new and shiny.

Perhaps starting at that time– a new era was born. Some people call this the ‘eco’ era. Several movements such as the ‘Farm to Table’ or ‘Slow Foods’ movement show our desire to reconnect with tradition and roots. And ‘eco’ can be new or old or a combination.

Some ‘eco’ designs look more space age and others take us back to times past with an earthy, vernacular feel. Contradictions and confusion rein, such as the fact that ‘modern’ often uses chemically based materials, the same materials that the ‘organic’ and ‘eco’ movement has condemned. The same materials that have created a virtual continent of plastic in the North Pacific and put the term ‘indoor air pollution’ on the map. In fact, the ‘organic’ or ‘eco’ movement–take your pick–is trying to clean up the damage the ‘modern’ movement has caused, and yet you will see these terms used interchangeably in media, design and everyday language.

The modern movement had a good point: use available technology to rethink and reinvent the way we design and build things so we are improving efficiency and functionality and have limitless options. But the organic movement often collides. It’s basic premis is: consider the effect the materials have on the human body and the environment. Consider this FIRST—before beginning a project. The available materials which are SAFE and life enhancing will guide the design. When it comes down to it, ‘modern’ has often been derived out of synthetic materials. ‘organic’ is almost always derived from ‘vernacular’ materials, that is, materials which have been used for centuries. Vernacular materials can’t usually be melted down and poured into a caste to come out with smooth lines.

A basic ideological RIFF exists between two movements which contain some overlapping elements and some opposite and non-compatible elements. Modern’s basic premise is that it is a break from the past and that its very lack of a NEED FOR A STORY is something to be admired. Eco and Organic’s basic premise is that it is connected to a greater whole. It is connected to the past and to the earth and there are limits and guidelines dictated by Nature.

Our aesthetics has been warped by the ‘modern’ mentality that ‘anything new is good’. The Industrial Revolution in America saw a mass exodus of population in America from the farm to the city. Then, people didn’t want to be associated with ‘rural’ because ‘modern’ was where it was at.

But consider this account of the Native American tipi and tipi furnishings. Their concerns were: 1) portability (weight, size, ease of travel, 2) multi-function 3) space saving.

indian tipi

In an exquisite entry in Touch the Earth, a volume of American Indian wisdom, Chief Luther-Standing-Bear outlines the Dakota Indian’s love of the earth: The old people literally loved the soil. When they sat or reclined on the ground, they had a feeling of being close to a mothering power. It was good for the skin to touch the earth, and the old people liked to remove their moccasins and walk with bare feet on the sacred earth. Their teepees were built upon the earth, and their altars were made of earth…The soil was soothing, strengthening, cleansing and healing. That’s why the old Indians still sit upon the earth instead of propping themselves up and away from its life-giving forces. For them to sit or lie upon the ground is to be able to think more deeply, to feel more keenly, to see more clearly into the mysteries of life.

The Crow, like many of the Great Plains tribes, were nomadic. They migrated regularly across the Yellowstone and Bighorn country in southern Montana and northern Wyoming in search of buffalo and other game. They call themselves the Absaroka, which means “the bird people” in their language.

Due to their lifestyle, their camps were never permanent. They preferred the tipi because the women could erect or disassemble it whenever necessary. It was essential that their furniture have the same functionality. Also, space inside the tipi was precious. None of it was wasted. Backrests, which could be rolled up for travel, were both small enough to use inside the confines of the tipi and manageable enough to carry from campsite to campsite.

These designs from a Paleolithic (pre-civilization) culture were easily following the same design criteria as the future ‘modern’ movement. In fact they were way ahead of the ‘modern’ movement.


Native Americans used willow chairs in their tipis as a backrest. The Native American would also take two 6″ poles that are 3″–4″ around, lay them down and stake them wide enough apart to lay the backrest on full length and use it as their bed by laying furs on it for cushion and it would keep them off the damp ground. This also got rid of any little rock spots that can cause micery when trying to sleep. Materials: Willow sticks, muslin, seed beads, tube beads, leather and string Read more: http://www.aurora.edu/museum/artifact-month/10-04.html#ixzz1xxL4gtIy

The period of rejecting the past needs to end. We no longer need to be ashamed of the farm or the tipi and being associated with the land and the dirt. Now the danger lies in loosing our connection with the past, becoming ungrounded as a culture, loosing our sense of direction and meaning, creating a false sense of reality or a bubble of delusion and denial which keeps us living a lie…killing the planet by not loving her.

Modern can be said to lack soul. What is ‘soul’ in a design? Some words that come to mind are: intrinsic meaning, connection to something greater than itself, a statement about where we come from and where we go, a sense of place.

How can a simple object, building or item of furniture contain these elements or have ‘soul’ when they aren’t living beings? Some people would argue even living beings lack soul. That’s the very point being made. Reducing everything down to separate parts has left us with a ‘soul-less’ environment. Our centuries of reductionism have left a blight on the landscape. Modern has thrown the baby out with the bathwater when it accepted ‘newer is better’, when it became divorced from it’s surroundings and stopped considering it’s effect on the environment, human body, or human spirit. When it makes no statement about it’s connection to it’s place in the world. When it doesn’t respect and honor it’s elders because it says ‘anything new is good. Anything old is bad.’ When it doesn’t provide people with orientation but just becomes a curiosity of shapes or stacking pieces.

ecobackrest is a modern tipi chair

Our Ecobackrest™ is a modern version of the ancient tipi chair willow reed backrest.

Perhaps our vocabulary is lacking a word for what current designers sometimes call ‘modern’. Maybe some new word needs to be coined. Perhaps ‘eco modern’. Some word that combines the vernacular with the modern on equal footing. Something that celebrates the incredible breakthroughs in technology and science and architecture making full use of it, but also considers life on the planet and helps us remember the past with all it’s struggle and virtue. And perhaps something that instead of reflecting status and anthropomorphism reflects something about the uniqueness of the place–or something personal to the designer.

Modern is clean, streamline, has smooth lines and a feeling like it just rolled off the assembly line. Modern has the exact replica mystique But–yawn! It can be taken to the point of boredom. Variation and uniqueness are the spice of life! Vernacular has a story. Vernacular gives us an idea about our place in the universe. Vernacular design ties us to the past and connects us to the earth. The best design in today’s diverse landscape combines vernacular with modern to create a new aesthetic which includes the old and the new and mind/body/spirit as a design criterion.