"If, to the academic chair and the episcopal cathedra, we add the regal throne, the judicial bench, the congressional seat, it is clear that the chair itself occupies the place of pre-eminence in the community of pieces of basic furniture, each of which corresponds to the animal needs they transfigure and ritualise. This is because, so far as I know, none of the others - tables or beds, to take the obvious examples - are said to rule, or judge, or decide, or determine, as the chair, the throne, the bench are said and expected to do".18
This chapter will examine various social aspects of the chair, exploring its relevance as a significant social symbol. A distinction must be made at this point in terms of reference to the use of the word 'chair'. The dictionary definition states the chair as being for a single occupant. In the context of this chapter the term is used in a generic form to imply a seat which varies in size, style and number of occupants.
The threshold stands at the point of convergence where the public space of the street meets with the private space of the home. This hybridised space, between inside and outside, private and public, object and subject, is convoluted and empowered with meaning. In this threshold space sits the chair which is a metaphor for the embodiment of human elements, such as arms, legs, back and seat. This ergonomically designed symbolic form placed by the occupant in the threshold, projects out towards the public space. Positioned with its back to the private space, the chair looks away from the nest towards horizons of memories.
Historically the chair has a number of spiritual and social symbolic forms. The spiritual form of the chair is based on allowing the body to rest,19 so the mind can fully concentrate, without being disturbed by other bodily needs. The sitting position implies a unique state unlike standing with its relation to motion, or lying with its relation to sleep. In this context the chair signifies not only the resting of the body but also the focusing of the mind. The focusing of the mind is reflected in the spiritual context of the chair. Thus the chair as a throne, the bishop's cathedra, a seat of authority, is one of contemplative judgement: the seat of the soul. Therefore, in the threshold space, the chair is bestowed with the role of reflecting the religious or spiritual attitudes of the occupants of the house. The chair through its religious connection imparts a sense of serenity to the social space of the street. With an all knowing awareness, the chair can act as an immortal symbol of self-actualisation, anointing the social space with its presence. The spiritual nature of the chair is embedded in the way that, when kneeling to pray, we form the shape of a chair.
The chair in medieval times was immediately associated with authority and status. The earliest chairs were far from being easily movable and were made from an oak chest and then given high backs. This chair from which the occupant could make judgements requires certain distinctions that separates it from other chairs. The elaborateness and scale of the chair ensured that the occupant was imbued with a sense of authority. With this authority the occupant would be able to make and contemplate judgements. The scale of the chair had to be high enough for the occupant to have a clear view of left to right, so as to see all the issues. This position could also show the seer that the decisions were made impartially from that chair and not behind closed doors or in a fractional corner.
Arthur Danto suggests that the chair as a contemporary symbol has a position in the language of authority, as a mark of perquisite power.
"The chair has been available for human use and hence for philosophical metaphor for some five millennia, and I am struck that it is the sitting position that is spontaneously invoked in the philosophy of mind when one speaks of the seat of the soul, or of intelligence, or of a wisdom or reason. Descartes spoke of the pineal gland, a mysterious organ suspended like the seat of Breuer's Wassily chair midway between the cerebral hemisphere, as the seat of the thinking essence of man". 20
In this passage Danto relates the importance of sitting to the realm of intelligence and wisdom that the chair has come to symbolise. The modern chair of the chairman/chairwoman, (in which the occupant is the person chosen to preside over a meeting, a company or a corporate body) is placed in a position that designates the importance of the occupant. 'He who sat in the chair was the 'chairman' and the subordinates over whom he presided sat together on benches before him, constituting the board'.21 This importance is not only present when the occupant is seated but also by the relationship of the chair's position to the board room table. The metaphoric and metonymic use of the chair also reflects the chair's social role. The metonymic use of the throne as a signifier for royalty also reflects the use of language in the social role of the chair. The metaphoric use of the chair in universities, where its relationship with authority and knowledge are inextricably linked, the chair is seen not as an irrelevant object but part of our social institutional construct.
The threshold space is not occupied by chairs innocent of meaning nor is it occupied with chairs without style. A household ideation and personality can be reflected by the occupant's individual choice of a chair. This divergent mix can range from, the wooden chair, designed with its hard base as though sitting was associated with a form of penance, to the more comfortable bourgeois cushioned chairs. The social role of the chair as a signifier also has a relationship with comfort. The chair with the soft cushion of the courtiers might be seen in comparison with harder more base chairs of commoners. These chairs act as a status symbol, as shown by the painting of Vincent Van Gogh, Van Gogh's Chair, (1888), which reflects a form of social hierarchy in its design.22 Painting oneself as a peasant's chair to be sat on implies a sense of personal self-abasement. Van Gogh's process of morphing with a chair was not based on the metamorphosis of recognisable features but by the recognisable brush marks made to recreate the chair.
This concept of representing oneself as a chair creates the problem of how this projects the occupants into the social space. The projection of the occupant is also conveyed by the placement of a chair in the threshold. In these terms Van Gogh's self-abasement was shown through the status of the peasant's chair. Alternatively, by constructing a chair that would be fit for a judge, for example, the chair could be seen as a symbol that would pass down the occupants judgements onto the social space of the street. On a recent CD disc cover a contemporary rock band the Cranberries23 were photographed sitting on a battered sofa. After the huge success of this album, a second album was later released. The second album's cover re-used the original battered symbolic sofa, to say that money and stardom had not changed them since their original humble beginnings. This demonstrates how the chair has transitional meanings which change contextually.
The chair's transitional meanings can also be examined in an Australian context. Placed on the verandah these chairs are not as articulate as the human body but still powerful enough to carry significant meanings. The transference of the chair's social, political and spiritual meanings can be made when seen on the thresholds of Australian homes. The chair can be seen as a symbol of prime importance within the space of the Australian threshold. The Australian porch/verandah creates a transitional area for the occupier to move through before engaging with the land. The occupier on the verandah is symbolised in Russell Drysdale's painting Maria (1950). In this painting the woman stands under the verandah as though waiting. The barren landscape is all around her but she waits refusing to step forth onto the land. The Australian verandah can be seen as the metaphorical transition of an immigrant denoting a migration of meaning to the outside.
The chair placed in the threshold is positioned in part of the architecture of a house that might best reflect the environmental relationship with the climate and light of Australia. The architectural needs in Australia have been well documented by Robin Boyd.
"The universal visual art: the art of shaping the human environment, is an intellectual, ethical, and emotional exercise as well as a means of expression. It involves the strange sort of possessive love with which people have always regarded their shelters. The Australian ugliness begins with fear of reality, denial of the need for the everyday environment to reflect the heart of the human problem, satisfaction with veneer and cosmetic effects. It ends in betrayal of the element of love and a chill near the root of self-respect". 24
When looking at Boyd's passage in relation to what the chair can socially signify the chair can be seen as an expression of the occupant's cultural responses to Australia. This originally English colony is confronted by the chair when positioned on the porch/verandah. The chair's position is characteristically un-British and sets up a dichotomy of references. The threshold space of the porch/verandah seems to inadvertently confront a sense of denial which both Drysdale and Boyd imply. The threshold space not only architecturally links Australia to itself, but also uses the metaphor of the threshold as the symbolic area of transition. The chair's position on the threshold is made more poignant by the threshold's metaphorical relationship to engaging the occupant with the land.
Philip Drew states that:
It is only when we find novel forms that properly express our own experiences and discoveries that we can fully register the totality of meanings in our own lives. Meanings which truly reflect where we live and what life is like in the very deepest sense- meanings which affirm place instead of denying it. The verandah is an invitation and challenge (if somewhat belated) to explore the cultural significance of place, and the spatial catalyst which puts Australians in touch with their country25.
The threshold space of the porch/verandah embraces the fabric of the social environment unlike the inside of the home with its closed doors. The openness of the threshold allows for a continual surveillance, an ongoing dialogue26. The same dialogue cannot be entered into by examining the lounge or kitchen which have their own private domestic symbolic significance. The threshold with its exposure to the elements, forms a self-evident state of identification.
To conclude, there are a number of readings of the chair as a symbol with historical significance. The chair has been given various roles to play in social ceremonies. The chair with its wide range of metaphorical meanings is linked to history from its function as a throne to its function as an electric chair. The chair on the threshold also works as a metaphor for the occupant which form the basis for alternative readings of the chair's meaning.