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Designing Ophelia's Chair


The rationale behind ‘a chair for engagement’ came because

during interviews on the estate, we would often settle in the living room, the sofa or armchair, or kitchen chairs. I noticed that ‘settling into’, or ‘moving-off from’ the chair was bound up in lots of other associations. It might mean pain, or comfort, or courtesy, or a cue for something else (like time to leave). Sometimes discussions would orientate around the act of sitting or the chair itself. ‘I’ve been sitting here all day’ or ‘I’ve put feet on the chair to raise me up because of my back.’

After a period of interviews with Ophelia (73 years) in her living-room, we began speculating on more comfortable sitting positions given her restricted mobility. A brief, was starting to shape up in practical terms; to create a chair to allow Ophelia to sit comfortably on her knees. Note: It is recognised that sitting ‘in balance’ has long-term health benefits, strengthening the muscles in the back, shoulder, and neck, and secures an optimum flow of oxygen.

Whilst our investigation was ergonomic in design, the specificity of user-requirements as seen through the design of a chair represented wider ideas of the workings of the home and, ultimately the estate. Our enquiry asked, on a basic level, does it provide comfort? stability? convenience? aesthetic pride? A ‘successfully’ designed chair, in this sense, is defined as much through its desirability, and its basic function as an accessible place to rest, as it is a device for acquiring knowledge about the building user.

Prototypes of the chair were tested quickly using MDF; it went backwards and forwards like this, between the architecture studio and the estate, each time trying a slightly improved version of itself. Our proposed changes to the chair were premised on interaction, questioning utility, stability and comfort through open feedback and sharing ideas - ‘If it had non-slip then it wouldn’t move at all … it needs to be more stable and I’ll try it that way’ explains Ophelia during one testing session.

The degree of participation was completely fortuitous but powerful; both Ophelia’s knowledge of tapestry and her husband’s knowledge in carpentry ensured a shared production and an equal right in its production. Likewise, the course of a gradual and reflective process - of going back again, and again, to understand how it functions with Ophelia - produced a profoundly better outcome; evaluating [the design] through a continuation of relationships, and asking, What if…?

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