Saturday, January 4, 2014

Making new chairs Part 2

My own interest in seating began with the interaction between player and instrument as a truly dreadful pianist. Not simply because I'm not brimful of prodigal skill, but also because I lack the years, decades, of rigorous practice necessary to play anything of complexity with anything like grace.

There are many ideas floating about that relate to expertise and its' gaining - the now famous 10,000 hour rule for one. I can be very certain that I did not do either enough practice or training to even approach a quarter of that required sum. So when I attempted to play something I was manifestly unfit to attempt, I could not only not make my fingers, hands, wrists, arms and shoulders move and function so as to play the necessary keys in the necessary order and timing, I couldn't even imagine how to do it.

And imagining is a very significant part of the process of creating.

So apart from setting me off on the path of wondering about skill, rigour, training, muscle memory and all other parts of that puzzle, I also paid attention to how I was sitting. There was I perched on the very front lip of very uncomfortable piano stool. This is a pose you'll see most pianists adopt - it allows them to work the peddles, to drive down through the keys, and also maintains access to the full length of the keyboard.

And whilst it is tempting to blame the stool for my inability to play Schubert's D960, that would require a particular form of self delusion. But I was sure that it was very uncomfortable and a pose I could only hold for 10 minutes or so.

The stool lip was solid wood, not upholstered as say a concert bench might be, so some of the pain was due to the lack of upholstery but nevertheless here began the investigation of seating; ergonomic seating for musicians.

After a few years of faffing about, I finally got around to doing a Grad Dip at ANU where I focused on this issue. I set off on my initial literature review, expecting to find solid evidence based physiological guidelines for seating and its form which then informed ergonomics and then of course seating design.What I discovered was very curious.

Firstly, there is still enormous debate about what causes the type of injuries we see in musicians which are usually repetitive strain injuries. Physiologists are not at all in consensus as to causation and therefore treatment. Have a look at the work of Shrawan Kumar for a good overview of the current state of play. What is even more perplexing are the most oft-cited studies which seemed to me to have significant problems with their methodologies. My favourite was the work on flexing movement within the vertebrae done by two Americans in the 1950s. Their measurements were taken up by ergonomics in relation to seating adjustment, but I'm still not entirely sure that using bovine spinal specimens that had been frozen at about 40 degrees below Celsius for 18 months in a abattoir cold store is likely to provide the best figures to use in ergonomic design.

The other thing that became very apparent very quickly is that notions of seating and the correct way of doing it are almost entirely socially and culturally driven, with very little regard to clinical evidence. Dr Jenny Pynt has published a terrific history of seating which provides incredible detail but a couple of examples will lay out the sort of cultural determinism that drives seating design.

Depictions of Ancient Greeks seated are found on objects such as pottery and bas-reliefs. Postural positions aren't homogeneous but the klismos is the most frequently depicted seating form. A 400BCE loutrophorus held at The Louvre depicts a woman involved in some sort of discourse - the essence of Grecian demos. In this moment, her sitting pose indicates rank, wealth and privilege - she fills the foreground, dwarfing her servant or slave beside her. In addition women were not allowed full participation within any of the Greek states, so for this woman to engaged in dialogue indicates she is of very high rank indeed.

Whilst the klismos and its sabre leg design would reappear in neoclassical furniture of the Enlightenment, the posture that the klismos causes was evoked by the post war designers of California, who saw the slumped pose of kyphosis as worthy of emulation as visible confirmations of the victory of American democracy and the upholding of egalitarianism - seating between equals. What little consideration of the physiological consequences of prolonged kyphosis there was, it was assumed to be beneficial, given its lineage.

But my favourite example of cultural determinations affecting design outcomes came from the work of the most modernist of architects and designers - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In 1928 he won the commission to design the Barcelona Pavilion for the following year's Expo. The opening of the pavilion was to be attended by King Alfonso XIII and his wife, Queen Victoria. In this building of stark planes, sumptuous materials and uncompromising modernist intent, Rohe also designed the seats for the Spanish monarchs - the Barcelona Chair. Commissioned by the Weimar government, Mies van der Rohe offered the Spanish monarch a throne that paid no heed to privilege; a thoroughly democratic seat for a king who was supporting the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. It is for anyone of average height also not very comfortable. Here, form did follow function but the function was to depict German democracy in its most modern guise, contrasted with the reactionary pomposity of the Spanish monarch. Its role was emphatically symbolic.

Seating for musicians introduces additional problems, but there are two principal concerns.

Firstly musicians are very highly trained, rigorously schooled in particular techniques relevant to their repertoire and the instrument(s) they play. Unfortunately most musical instruments involve grips, postures and playing techniques which are not biomechanically comfortable or healthy for most people. With some instruments, particularly violin, one's ability to hold the required posture and play the instrument in a very schooled manner exerts a quite cruel process of selection as many players have to give up the instrument, suffering injuries so severe as to make a professional career untenable.

Radically changing the manner in which a musician sits is therefore often not going to be accepted by the musician - changing how they play changes who they are as a musician. In addition it may introduce the risk of new injuries.

Secondly the performance environment, particularly for classical musicians, is aesthetically very conservative. This is certainly the case for pianists who were the focus of my research work - the concert stage with a grand piano is not accommodating of a seat form radically visually different from the usual upholstered bench.

The final piano bench that came out of that research was both a response to physiological evidence from published studies and earlier ergonomic seating designs and feedback from students at the Canberra School of Music who used various iterations of the bench.

I provided a PDF flyer for the exhibition which lays out the ergonomic advantages of using a convex seating platform, but in summary, the sitter is balanced on their ischial tuberosities (colloquially the sit bones).This means that your pelvis is kept in horizontal alignment, and in combination with the seating platform at the correct height for each person, your feet are firmly in contact with the ground. This opens the angle between the top of the thigh and the torso to between 110° and 130° degrees. It also means that your feet are actively pushing the ground away in order to keep you balanced on the platform. For most people, this will ensure that your lumber area is in mild lordosis – the lumbar vertebrae section is subtlety curved inward.

In addition, the coccyx and sacrum are free, positioned past the top of the convex form. This, in combination with the push from your feet means that your lower vertebrae are not compressed by the weight of an unsupported upper body. You are using the main muscle sets in your legs in combination with the push from your feet to keep the spine open, which in turn reduces the compression on your intervertebral discs (IVDs).

For the exhibition at Manning Clark House, I wanted to make a couple of seating forms that took the convex seating form and applied it to general seats with potential for manufacture.

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