Fibion Blog • The story of a seat: from a sign of authority to a sign of equality • Arto Pesola
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The story of a seat: from a sign of authority to a sign of equality

The story of a seat: from a sign of authority to a sign of equality

Sitting is not only an “action”. Historically sitting has been associated with power. In many languages, the verb “to sit” is even used as part of references to positions of power. The “sitting president”, “chairman”, or “chairman of the meeting” describe positions and power rather than the actual act of sitting. These examples also describe how the act and tradition of sitting have been associated with social status as well as the physical act of supporting our bodies. At the same time as the chair has developed as something to sit on, so has its role in signifying social or societal power.

Historically sitting has been associated with power.

Sitting as a sign of authority

The first signs of constructed places to sit date back to the Stone Age. Nomadic tribes probably did not have the opportunity to gather all sorts of furniture. Sitting occurred naturally, on the ground or on nature’s own chairs. From a raised seat, a tribal chief might have even given instructions to his tribesmen/women that were sitting on the ground. This raised seat signified his/her authority.

The most famous chair in ancient history may be that of Faro Tutankhamo’s tomb, a four-legged chair with a reclined back. The young leader’ chair was supported by four legs that were molded to look like a lion’s paws while the armrests were carved from a beautiful wood. It has been said that the Faro’s chair was the first that was made for the purpose of pleasure and to symbolize a leaders’ power and his position “above” his subjects rather than for simply practical reasons.

From a raised seat, a tribal chief might have given instructions to his tribesmen/women that were sitting on the ground.

The leaders of the kingdoms of the 1600s were also very powerful and their chairs (or thrones) were both large and elegantly decorated. In particular, the hierarchy of chairs in the court of the ruler of France and Navarra, the sunshine King Ludvig XIV, was extremely important. The 1600s are also known as the century of recliners, which in the king’s court were followed by backed chairs, stools, and footstools. Despite this spectrum of chairs, in the presence of the King, everyone was required to stand. The permission to sit in front of His Majesty was a coveted privilege even though the only chair available was typically just a simple stool. Throughout history, chairs have typically been owned by the wealthy. Less wealthy individuals used stools that had no elaborate backs to express their societal value.

In the presence of the King, everyone was required to stand

Sitting as a sign of equality

In the 1800s chairs became more common and every member of the family was typically allowed a chair, at the very least, at the dinner table. As abilities to speed up the manufacturing of chairs improved, everyone had access to chairs. The improvement in manufacturing capabilities was not the only reason for the spread of the use of chairs, but it also increased the number of people who were able to work while sitting. An action that was previously reserved only for the elite had become a common right for an entire population, and slowly but surely, it also became somewhat of a requirement. At the same time, the social value of sitting began to fade.

Offering someone a chair is a way to express approval and equal standing.

Despite the quick evolution of the chair, in the back of our heads is still a strong sense of what the traditional chair and its hierarchical meaning still exist. For example, in the United States, a rather expensive office chair is called the “executive chair”. If you examine the “executive chair” and compare it with the more typical “task chair” you might notice that the only difference are that it is bigger and, more importantly, has a higher backrest. The chair is still affiliated with social relationships, equality, and accessibility. Offering someone a chair is a way to express approval and equal standing because we do not want to create the image that we rule like the Sun God.

A seat offers a place in our society

At present, all of the important elements of our daily lives – school, work, daily errands, food, friends, and even keeping up with current events are available approximately 1 meter off the floor, sitting. The chair offers everyone intrinsic value and a place in our society. A place that is relaxing and that also opens doors to other opportunities. Our society that values tolerance and accessibility creates a good market for the chair as a tool for developing relationships and equality. This smart tactic has achieved an exceptionally strong status in our daily lives.

 

Arto Pesola
Arto Pesola

Everyday Activity Scientist

Partner

Fibion Inc.

PhD in Exercise Physiology, Author of the 'Revolution of Natural Exercise' book

Some years ago, I was asked about my future plans. Without much of thinking I replied: “I want to make the world a better place where people don’t need to sit so much”. This spontaneous answer was the leading light to finish my PhD degree and forward to new business opportunities in health technology aiming at making life healthier – with less sitting. For my blog posts, I have used material from my book “Luomuliikunnan vallankumous” (engl. The revolution of everyday activity) (Fitra 2014).



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