From the Los Angeles Review of Books:
FOR YEARS AND YEARS architects and designers all over the world have been designing thousands of chairs," the Milanese artist and designer Bruno Munari remarked in his 1966 essay collection, Design as Art: "Upright chairs and armchairs, all different and all the fruit of infinite inventiveness." Recounting the dizzying permutations of material and purpose available at "mid-century," Munari wryly wondered if we had not already exhausted the possibilities of the ubiquitous chair. But, he concluded, "it seems that the problem has not yet been altogether solved, because architects and designers all over the world are still going on designing chairs, just as if all their efforts up till now had been wrong."
A boulder, an upside-down milk crate, the hood of a car: anything capable of supporting your body weight might fulfill the function of a chair. But the history of this most basic furnishing of everyday life reveals countless innovations that have been as subtle in appearance as they have been radical in effect. Designer and researcher Jonathan Olivares's A Taxonomy of Office Chairs is a strangely absorbing inventory of a specific kind of seating technology: chairs mass-produced for the workplace, where culture, hierarchy, and the needs of the economy are laid bare in the curvature of a backrest or the degree of a pivot; where the fantasy of social mobility meets the unfreedom of the cubicle. Why not make yourself comfortable while you're working your way to the top?
A Taxonomy of Office Chairs is the product of Olivares's own fascination with office chairs, years spent digging through the archives of design museums and manufacturers' warehouses, collecting old catalogs and schematics, and interviewing engineers and designers. While his book arrives at a moment when interest in the cultural history of objects (and, in the case of furniture, the mid-century period in particular) is at a fever pitch, Olivares's Taxonomy isn't a tastefully curated parade of gorgeous chairs. It is, as the post-Linnaean title suggests, a serious attempt to visualize the evolutionary breakthroughs and mutations often taken for granted when considering the various industrialized objects that "make up our predominant reality."
I am writing this sentence while sitting on a Steelcase office chair. I inherited it from whoever used this office before me. I nearly lost a toe flipping it on its side to see the underside, "where," according to Olivares, "all the action happens." Its model number has faded over the years, and a web search for "Steelcase" has delivered me to a website devoted to "retro office furniture." When I am at home, I alternate between an old, luxuriously wide auditorium chair "liberated" from John Jay College and a lightweight wooden chair from Ikea that cost about as much as a fancy sandwich.
Neither of these latter two objects are, technically speaking, office chairs; to qualify, as Olivares tells us, they must have a movement mechanism, adjustable features, and casters. These elements emerged organically, appearing sporadically at different times in different designs until, over time, they joined together and became standard. Olivares traces the first movement mechanisms to the United States in the 1840s and '50s; around the same time, in Britain, Charles Darwin replaced the legs of his armchair with "cast-iron bed legs mounted on casters" so that he could glide freely throughout his office. (It is unknown whether Darwin was the first to conceive of a chair on wheels, but his remains the earliest example.)...MORE