We’re away until January 3, but we’re reposting some of our favorite pieces from 2016. Enjoy your holiday!
A brief history of chairs.
There is a pivotal early scene in David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia in which T. E. Lawrence and his superior, Colonel Brighton, visit the desert encampment of Prince Faisal, a leader of the Arab Revolt. The royal tent is spartan yet luxurious, patterned woven cloths hang from the low ceiling, a large brass samovar gleams in the candlelight, the ground is covered with a rich carpet. There is no furniture; the men sit on the carpet. Brighton, in his tailored uniform, polished Sam Browne belt, and riding boots, looks distinctly ill at ease with his legs awkwardly stretched out in front of him. Lawrence, a lieutenant and less formally dressed, appears slightly more comfortable, with his legs folded to one side. The prince, attired in a dark robe and a white ghutrah, reclines on a pile of sheepskins, while his colleague Sherif Ali leans casually against a tent pole. The various postures cinematically underline a central point: the relaxed Bedouins are at home in this place—the desert—while the stiff English colonel is an interloper. Lawrence is somewhere in between.
The world is divided into people who sit on the floor and those who sit on chairs. In a classic study of human posture around the world, the anthropologist Gordon W. Hewes identified no fewer than a hundred common sitting positions. “At least a fourth of mankind habitually takes the load off its feet by crouching in a deep squat, both at rest and at work,” he observed. Deep squatting is favored by people in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but sitting cross-legged on the floor is almost as common. Many South Asians cook, dine, work, and relax in that position. Certain Native American tribes in the Southwest, as well as Melanesians, customarily sit on the floor with legs stretched straight out or crossed at the ankles. Sitting with the legs folded to one side—Lawrence’s position above—is described by Hewes as a predominantly female posture in many tribal societies.