This is somewhat of an autobiography of my design career and summarieses how over decades I was directed to certain rare pieces of history/information that kept rounding out my basic hypothesis. I was trying to understand why society developed into such a crazy mess with regards to how we have designed our spaces, furniture, shoes, movement, body awareness and connection to nature.
When I was in high school (early 1980s) 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 or WHY 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.
I 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 Barefoot Office Kit #1 (a.k.a. Zen Office™)
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:
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”. Somehow I had become unyoked from the Matrix Mentality or Group Think of Western Culture which I had been born into.
The modern movement has 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 and body friendly movement (a.k.a. Rewilding) often collides. It’s basic premise is: consider the effect the building materials have on the human body and the environment. Consider the way the human body is being used in conjunction with the design and the effect on vitality. Consider this FIRST—before beginning a project. The available materials which are SAFE and life enhancing will guide the outcome of 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.
Our aesthetics has been warped by the ‘modern’ mentality that ‘anything new is good’. The Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 19th Century 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 that time is over and we no longer need to be ashamed of the farm and being connected with the land and the dirt. Now the danger lies in losing our connection with the past, becoming ungrounded as a culture, losing our sense of direction and meaning, creating a false sense of reality or a bubble of delusion and denial.
The evolution of furniture in ancient China shows the profound influence that design can have on a culture–not at all dissimilar to the way the Industrial Revolution eroded rural values in America.
It was approximately 1000 years ago when a widespread acceptance of tall furniture became established. For thousands of years before that, floor furniture was the norm—that is, low tables and mats and seats for sitting and sleeping, cooking and writing, painting calligraphy, etc. on the floor. During the Sui and Tang Dynasties, both short and tall furniture existed together. Mostly the upper class adopted tall furniture. By the Song Dynasty (960-1279 a.d.), long-legged beds, tables, towel racks, chairs and stools had become trendy among the peasants too.
At first glance this may not appear like anything more than primitive people discovering technology. But this is far from the case. The Chinese were by far the most technologically advanced culture in the world. The movement to adopt tall furniture (and not use the floor as a base of activity) was based on some other criteria than comfort and convenience. The Chinese people did not suddenly realize they could sit on stools.
The rise of tall furniture actually correlates with the fall of a society of ‘cultivation’. Huang Di (The Yellow Emperor ruled from 2697-2597 B.C. This legendary Emperor invented among other things, a chariot with a compass that could navigate even in dense fog. Huang Di was a “cultivator of the Tao” and under his influence Chinese culture became a culture of cultivation.
At the time, all scholars were required to sit cross-legged and regulate their breathing and Qi before picking up their brush pen to write. Men of all walks of life valued a peaceful mind and regulated breathing before conducting any activity. In fact the whole of society was an environment of cultivation.
Correlation between cultivation and the development of high furniture
Si Ma Yang, Association for Asian Research
The Song Dynasty (960-1279 a.d.) marks the fall of Chinese mainstream practice and acceptance of cultivation. At the time Chinese society adopted the widespread use of tall furniture, it also became confused about meaning and direction, confusing three philosophies (Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism) into one jumbled school of philosophy and then abandoning that altogether. The rulers did not value cultivation and society fell into chaos with materialism and war resulting. All schools of cultivation retreated to the mountains to continue their study.
It appears the CHAIR was perceived as a THRONE to lift the nobility higher than others and feed EGO. It was not about comfort or ergonomics but pride and vanity. Everyone wanted to be a ruler.
This period could be considered akin to the Fall of the Tower of Babel. According to the biblical account, a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating from the east, participated in the building. The people decided their city should have a tower so immense that it would have “its top in the heavens.” However, the Tower of Babel was not built for the worship and praise of God, but was instead dedicated to the glory of man, to “make a name” for the builders: “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.'” (Genesis 11:4). The Book of Genesis then relates how God, displeased with the builders’ intent, came down and confused their languages and scattered the people throughout the earth. Similarities between The Tower of Babel myth, which was later confirmed by archaeological evidence, and the loss of a society of cultivation in China are obvious. All of these events resulted in loss of connection, coherence, and meaning.
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.
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.
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.
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 (Seems magical that things can be exactly the same). 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.
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.