The desk is beautiful with thick see-through glass that makes it float in the office corner in my apartment. It almost disappears because the glass has provided a dimension I wanted; “invisibility.” For sure, it’s not invisible, but it doesn’t stick out like wooden desks, and that’s why I bought it.
Next came the chair. Comfortable with thick cushions, a high back and well-proportioned armrests plus I can raise or lower it. Little did I suspect that all of it was not designed with me in mind. Not a thought had been given to my “petite” arm length that necessitates my pulling myself cheek-by-jowl with the desk. It’s discouraging.
As so often in furniture designs to accommodate the human form, the templates, data sets, and models were meant to please and pamper anyone who was male, and that’s not me.
Furniture design, especially for use in office environments, has always assumed that there is a separate need for men and women. Few, however, have looked at what these designs truly represent; it was sexism.
How can a chair be a sexist symbol? A glance in any office suite where there are secretaries (sometimes known as executive assistants) and executives will provide sufficient evidence. Whether seeking sexist designs or not, the form is undeniably tending to a division of importance.
As noted in a recent article in the Journal of Design History, Kaufmann-Buhler stated, “…the various classes of chairs — executive, lounge and secretarial — are recognizably different from each other. Both the executive and lounge chairs feature a wide and deep square or rectangular seat with connected back and arms. By contrast, the secretarial chairs are composed of a small gently rounded trapezoidal seat with a bare sliver of a back hovering just above the seat, but disconnected as if the seat and the back are floating. For a contemporary viewer of these plans, there would be no mistaking the executive workspaces from the secretarial ones.”
Researching the design of office furniture, and it’s a subliminal message of gender discrimination, brought back another memory for me. At one time, I agreed to write a pamphlet for a nearly indestructible new bicycle. To prepare myself, I began researching bikes and discovered, much to my dismay, that they, too, had a sexist aspect.
Bicycles, which were at one time referred to as a device of the devil, were a cheap form of transport for young couples. The fact that couples could quickly leave the careful attention of the woman’s family was of great concern.
Parents were particularly interested in maintaining their daughters’ virginity, and the bicycle was decidedly counter to that objective. One other aspect of the bike, however, is not known to many individuals who do not have an excessive interest in bicycle history.
There was a belief in Victorian times that a woman’s anatomy was so fragile that any bumps on a carriage or a bicycle would result in severe damage to her reproductive organs. Remember, they also believed that women had “wandering wombs.” Women were not to ride bikes for fear of losing their reproductive ability. Horseback riding was also a danger to a woman’s virginity and fertility.
A solution to part of the problem had to be found if women insisted on riding bikes. One aspect of design, which may have been intended to protect this feminine fragility, was in the bicycle seat or saddle. Men’s saddles are traditionally narrow, but the female form does not comfortably fit in that shape. One has to wonder why no one was thinking of men’s fertility.
A woman, wishing to have a bicycle of her own, would go to a bicycle maker’s shop. There she would mount a clay template of a bicycle seat and impress upon it her delicate bits. Once accomplished, the bicycle maker would complete the seat with appropriate layers of padding and leather.
Bicycles also played a roll in women’s rights, as described in this article. “Bicycling didn’t just give women a way to get around freely; it also, surprisingly, played a role in women’s sexual liberation — purely because some people believed that if women went around straddling something, they would start having orgasms all over the place (which, needless to say, these people thought was a bad thing).”
The chair or the saddle all show who’s boss
The office chair wasn’t fit for women it seems. Necessary, practical, and cheap, it was almost an afterthought.
The data used to determine the dimensions of office furnishings, such as desk height and chair type, are all based on a limited set of criteria. In some instances, they rely on limited numbers of persons in specific jobs, such as in the military.
As noted by one author, “on average, women are 7% shorter than men or on average women are 65% as strong as men.” Therefore, when designing a desk, and you know that an executive will use it, is it taller or shorter? Of course, the answer is obvious, taller. Desks, seemingly without exception, are designed for those taller creatures, men.
Gender discrimination, from as far back as the 1960s, also supports this sexual dichotomy in the life of office furniture. Furniture stamped discrimination into office environments for decades and it continues to do so.
Chairs and desks are not discarded but are passed around or put into the second-hand market where they will go on to provide blatant discrimination for those who use them. True, Eames now has a “petite” chair for women in two sizes, but what office buys them for women employees? The paltry few women executives might have an Eames, but is that what she wants? Her desk will probably still be too high for her, anyway. So, do away with the desk.
Even a TV show, Shark Tank, has incorporated Eames chairs into their new set decor. What could be the reason? Of course, they’re the ones who’ve made it, and the chair is another symbol of it.
When the major office furniture designers were preparing initial plans for chairs and desks, there were common patterns that they used. The names of Knoll, Herman Miller, Steelcase, Westinghouse, All-steel, and Haworth are all well-known. A 1956 Eames chair has earned its place in furniture design history and is now in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
But who sat in the Eames chair and who sat in the somewhat fragile and uncomfortable secretarial chair? Few women ever had an Eames or an Aeron chair in their office, and, in fact, few women ever had an office. Of course, the Eames is immediately eliminated from a choice for a woman because it is a lounge chair suited for an executive suite.
Walk into any office, look around and note the furnishings. It’s a quick way to determine not just who works there and what they do, but how the pecking order is established and demonstrated.
Suppose, as an experiment, a woman brought in her own Aeron chair and set it up in her office (if she had one in today’s open office)? What would happen? It might be an interesting sociological experiment, especially in the go-go world of hi-tech. How would the beer-and-pizza crowd react to it?
Who’s up for trying this out?