The artist Rochelle Udell paints chairs and lectures on their symbolism in design, business and life. They’re beautiful works of art as well as thought provoking still lifes. I bought one of Rochelle’s works. I leaned it against the wall, next to my desk. It sits there, just like a chair. This artwork is a gold-leaf rendition of what is known as the Frances Elkins Loop chair. It was designed in the 1930’s by Elkins, one of the 20th Century’s pre-eminent female interior and product designers. Rochelle, I learned, is not the only one to be fascinated by the topic of chairs.
The chair itself has a 5,000-year history that began in Egypt. There are books written about centuries of chair design, their meaning, function and connection beyond function. Chairs, according to scholars, were one of the first signs of civilized life – they got ancient humans off the ground. In a book on chairs titled, Now I Sit Me Down, the author says, “The way we choose to sit, and what we choose to sit on, says a lot about us: our values, our tastes, the things we hold dear.”
At one point in early history there were two types of people – those who sat on a chair and those who sat on the floor. Chairs were reserved for royalty, the wealthy and the powerful.
Now, as I sit here in my desk chair at home, writing this piece, I can’t help but think about the idea of this chair being more than a place to rest my behind! When I sit in this chair, I’m here to write and work. It’s a comfortable chair, but it’s definitely not a relaxing one. When my children come in my house and find me sitting in my chair, behind my desk, they almost always excuse themselves for interrupting and back out of the room, closing the door behind them. We all know that when I’m in this chair, I mean business!
I think back to when I was a child living with my grandparents. Everyone had his or her seat at the table. The head of the table was always reserved for my grandfather. No one ever sat in that chair except for him. It was the traditional place for the head of the family and our fearless leader. His seat at the table was one of respect as well as position.
But what happens in life and work when we aren’t in our usual chair anymore? What happens when circumstances change and we’re no longer at the head of the dining table or the boardroom table? When we no longer sit in the chair, behind a desk, in an office that signifies status and position, are we still treated as a former occupant or are we back on the floor? Are we still defined by where we used to sit or does that honor now get passed along to the next sitter in the seat?
The answers, I believe, are up to the sitter, and not the seat. The chair we sit on – whether it’s a throne, a wingback or a stool, gets its ultimate meaning from the person sitting on it. No matter where you sit, make sure that people respect you for the person you are, not the seat you are in. Where you sit at work or home is not an indication of where you sit in life. Let your values, attitude and kindness to others define your power seat and let a chair, be just a chair.