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Seating Revisited

07/14/2014

When Teshia Treuhaft MFA 14 FD spoke as RISD’s representative at the 2014 Design Indaba Conference, a major international gathering for design leaders in Cape Town, South Africa, she focused on her ongoing research into a seemingly simple yet complex question: What does a chair need to be?

In her talk last February – and the recently released video summarizing it – the recent graduate of the master’s program in Furniture Design spoke about how and why she turned to a classically trained dancer to better understand our physical relationship with seating.

“Furniture designers understand their bodies in a very particular way,” Treuhaft says, noting that she chose to work with a dancer in order to push beyond her own assumptions about the human need to sit. “I gave her [the dancer] different verbs, phrases and adverbs, which she used to create gestures that dealt with motion and posture,” the designer explains. 

Given the dancer’s heightened awareness of expressive movement and the body’s relationship to space, Treuhaft was inspired to “use her body and create an object around it” rather than focus on designing a particular object first. In other words, in a departure from her usual methodology of starting with a concept that gets refined through the design process, she began by mapping out a series of gestures and movements proposed by the dancer. This provided a provocative means of rethinking the way humans interact with objects like chairs.

Although Treuhaft was initially drawn to furniture design as an exploration of form and materials, she says she quickly realized that her interests go beyond aesthetics. It’s the exploration of ergonomics and anthropometrics – the study of the human body and its movement – that now drives her practice. And thanks to support from the RISD 2050 Fund, this summer she’s in Berlin exploring alternative educational paradigms as she researched a project called Hacking Our Educational Spaces.

At RISD Treuhaft co-developed a course called Rethinking Seating in which students are urged to go beyond the traditional formula of combining a seat plus back plus three or four legs. What happens, for example, when you design a chair without a seat? Can you design a comfortable, useful chair that supports people in a standing position or seated on the floor?

Among the assignments in the course is one in which students sit in various chairs and draw their experience of it at full scale. They then swap chairs and sketch over each others’ drawings to see if any patterns emerge.

“There is this divergence between what you understand as the volumes, shapes and components of the object and the realm of embodied knowledge,” Treuhaft explains.  And going beyond the traditional components to really rethink what a chair needs to be can be thoroughly liberating, she points out. 

“We start rebuilding knowledge about how you can incorporate a social interaction or an emotional relationship to add another layer to the concept,” Treuhaft says. And that, she believes, is key to creating meaningful objects of value to contemporary life.

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tags: Furniture Design, graduate, global, Graduate Studies, research, students

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A figure modeling class from 1916.