ergonomics · family

Furniture free living and the case for active sitting?

rocksI’ve been thinking lots about furniture since I moved to a standing desk. I’m interested in how furniture shapes and contains the way we live our lives. It’s the sort of thing that seems neutral but isn’t. Assumptions about the ideal body, about ability, and about relationships shape our furniture choices.  But I confess it’s not just the standing desk that got me thinking in this direction.

When these stone pillows came through my newsfeed from the aptly named page “this is why I’m broke,” I confess to making that “squee” noise. Want!

I’m attracted to multi-purpose rooms,  buying less stuff that’s inevitably landfill bound, flexible housing arrangements, active sitting, and seeing how families around the world live and what their dwellings look like.

Our furniture is so specialized. There are desks for working, kitchen tables for casual meals, dining room tables (that get their own rarely used room) for formal meals, and large beds that say “this is the room in which you sleep” in a way that a rollable mat or futon does not). We’re not very flexible about it all. Heaven forbid you try to work at the dining room table or sit with your laptop in bed. Each activity has its own place, its own thing, and so we buy more stuff and cram it into ever larger homes.

If we’re friends on Facebook you know I have a bit of a soft spot for tiny houses. Mostly that’s because I live in a crowded, messy house full of teenagers and their stuff. Minimalism is a bit of fantasy. I also have a love of co-housing, intentional communities, shared cars, a communal library and living room, shared sporting stuff, and a roster for cooking meals.

It’s clear that most people don’t see things my way. Single family homes are just getting bigger and bigger and they’re filled with more and more individually owned, non-shared stuff.

In the United States, there are 300,000 items in the average American home (LA Times), the average size of the American home has nearly tripled in size over the past 50 years (NPR) and  still, 1 out of every 10 Americans rent offsite storage—the fastest growing segment of the commercial real estate industry over the past four decades. (New York Times Magazine). For more on this theme, see here.

What’s with all this stuff? I confess that when I first saw special pillows for different sex positions I thought “wow, that’s cool” but even sex positive me is still frugal me and I thought couldn’t you just scrunch up a regular pillow? Again does each activity have to have its own thing? (Okay, the sex pillows are cool. But still. Landfill? Pass them on to the grandchildren?)

But I’m way off track now. Back to chairs. Or at least back to furniture. Returning to the fitness angle.

I started thinking about furniture first when we were a young family, with small kids. And we were being marketed cribs, and toddler beds, and child size beds (all for people who we knew would be 6 ft or more in 16 years). I confess that as a parent of young children I had tastes and parenting preferences that ran against the grain. We didn’t buy swings, high chairs, and cribs. I had visions of them all ending in landfill and mostly our children were happiest co-sitting, co-sleeping etc with us. We had slings rather than automatic swings and our active squirmy children wouldn’t stay in high chairs or cribs anyway. They usually, when young, slept with us. When slightly older, slept on futons or mattresses on our floor, graduating to their own rooms at a slightly more advanced age than the typical North American child.

I might have been a bit preachy about it all and for that, I’m sorry. There are lots of different ways to be a good parent. Breast feeding and co-sleeping suited us. Luckily I didn’t blog then so there’s no self-righteous me coming back to haunt this blog. Phew.

And while we were definitely minimalist when it came to kid furniture, we still bought bookshelves, tables, sofas and chairs. We never took the big step of going furniture free. It never even occurred to me back then in the days before electronic book and music storage. It was the era of giant, wide TV screens that definitely required furniture.

Here’s this piece on parenting without furniture, which I loved, even if they went to extremes with it.

Why did this family choose to go furniture free?

Here’s the dad speaking:

As a biomechanist, I understand the relationship between musculoskeletal function and the immune system, bone robusticity (density and shape), and functions like digestion and breathing. Having furniture isn’t an option for us, in the same way a cupboard full of junk food isn’t an option for many others. Furniture creates a development-crippling environment in that the stuff literally shapes our body, both in the now and in the future. – See more at:

Here’s one room in their house:

Love it!

My point is that I’ve thinking about the politics of the family (see written work on this here) and about furniture for awhile. Lately it’s been my sore back that’s got me thinking about furniture design. And that’s been nudged along by all the health worries about sitting.

We all know the mantra, “Move more. Sit less.” See Chairs are evil (once again).

Yes, well, easier said than done. Even for me whose back hurts if I sit for very long at all.

We sit at desks all day, drive home in cars, and then sit at the dinner table and then sit on sofas at night. Hard not to sit though I’ve been bucking the trend and eating standing up if it’s just me alone. See It’s okay to eat while standing.

But that’s not comfy for Netflix watching. Or reading.

And surely all chairs aren’t evil. They’ve been around for awhile right? People all over the world use them don’t they?

(Turns out the answers to these questions are “no” and no.”)

See The chair conspiracy!

According to Colin McSwiggen, recent studies and reporting about sitting describe the problem in ways that mislead. He writes, “They make it look like the problem is just that we sit too much. The real problem is that sitting, in our society, usually means putting your body in a raised seat with back support — a chair. Sitting wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t sit on things that are bad for us.”

But you might wonder, what’s new about this? Weren’t there always chairs? How are we just learning now that they’re bad?

First, chairs aren’t universal. In lots of places people engage in what erognomics types call “active sitting.” Squatting, sitting cross legged, leaning….all of these postures are a bit like sitting but they aren’t bad for you the way chair sitting is. Indeed, if McSwiggen is right we should swap slogans. It’s not sitting that’s the new smoking. Rather, it’s chairs that are the new evil. New? Yes.

Second, according to McSwiggen’s fascinating history of the chair,Against Chairs, they’re also a relatively new thing. he dates the mass adoption of chairs to the Industrial Revolution.

“Suddenly chairs were being made cheaply in factories and more people could afford to sit like the rich. At the same time, labor was being sedentarized: as workers moved en masse from agriculture to factories and offices, laborers spent more and more time sitting in those newly mass-producible chairs. As usual, class aspirations determined what people bought: body-conscious innovations like patent chairs, which were adjustable, and rocking chairs, which encouraged movement, sadly received only marginal acceptance from the wealthy and saw limited use.

And so it was that from the turn of the twentieth century on, chairs had society in their clutches.”

Third, you might be tempted to think the answer lies in a better chair. But it’s not clear what a good chair would even be. You’ve all seen the many variations: the kneeling chair, the stability ball as chair, the wobbly stool as list just some examples.

Here’s McSwiggen again on the range of chairs out there:

“No one even knows what a “good” chair would have to do, hypothetically, let alone how to make one. Some ergonomists have argued that the spine should be allowed to round forward and down in a C-shaped position to prevent muscular strain, but this pressurizes the internal organs and can cause spinal discs to rupture over time. Others advocate for lumbar support, but the forced convexity that this creates is not much better in the short run and can be worse in the long: it weakens the musculature of the lumbar region, increasing the likelihood of the very injuries it’s meant to prevent. There are similar debates over seat height, angle and depth; head, foot and arm support; and padding.

Galen Cranz, a sociologist of architecture and perhaps the world’s preeminent chair scholar, has called ergonomics “confused and even silly.” For designers without a scientific background, it’s a clusterfuck.”

Children know how to sit comfortably without chairs. They squat and do it very well.

In traditional societies, without so many chairs, adults can do this too. (And don’t get me started on toilets. Right Shannon?)

Or you sit cross legged or kneel.

My point is that we have choices. It’s not just sitting too much. It’s how we sit. Active sitting, with lots of movement, is better for us. I’m not quite buying the whole “chair conspiracy” but I do think, for a whole host of reasons, we’d be better off with less furniture.

Could you sleep in a bed like this?

Would you like modular floor pillows as a sofa?

How about having dinner like this?

How about you? Could you live without furniture? Give up all the chairs and sofas?