Randomography: Aeron Chair + Karin Brownlee

2 Mar

From Desktop Objective, a recently launched web project:

This blog idea stems from a writing challenge of Jason Theodor. The rules are mostly his (you can see his here), except broadened to incorporate disciplines outside of just writing.

The challenge: Using the Random Article link on Wikipedia, find two articles to incorporate into your exercise. You’ve got to use the two you find, no matter how miserable they appear. After versing yourself with them to whatever extent you deem necessary, force yourself to come up with something that ties them together. Be it a written analysis, illustration, or design project, you’ve got to use ‘em.

RANDOMOGRAPHY: Aeron Chair + Karin Brownlee

1. Office Chair

In 1994, Herman Miller designed a chair that now holds a spot in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. It was an office chair. It had arm rests. And wheels. But it was more than the sum of its humdrum parts.

Before the green movement, in the midst of the dot-com bubble, the Aeron chair was a visionary diversion from the growing number of manufacturers who cobbled crap and subsequently destroyed entire ecosystems. Two men—Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf—understood how bad desk jobs were for human beings and wanted to distinguish themselves and the desk job from the run-of-the-mill office products that had become necessities since the time of Charles Eames and his chairs.

Ergonomic, anthropometric, functional, environmental—these are words used to describe the Aeron chair. From the mouths of the designers:

“The human form has no straight lines; it is biomorphic. We designed the chair to be…curvilinear, as a metaphor of human form in the visual as well as the tactile sense. There is not one straight line to be found on an Aeron chair.”

Not many people can afford a piece of this ergonomic art, and those who can—doctors, politicians, and well-to-do businesspeople—no doubt buy them simply because they can, marking a corruption of the chair’s intended goodness.

Lower-level politicians, however, probably cannot afford—or afford to care about—such a chair. Karin Brownlee, of the Kansas Senate, has no time to think about her body’s needs. Her constituents’ needs take up all her time. They call her up and write her letters and attend important meetings and lobby for greater representation.

Actually, they probably do not do these things. They probably call the parents of their children’s friends. And write letters to the editor to the Kansas City Star. And attend PTO meetings. And go to Hobby Lobby.

2. Rocking Chair

This is because the average American is disconnected from politics—Kansans especially, as dramatically proven by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, a scathing expose on how the uninformed, hard-headed, over-religionized morons of the Nation’s Breadbasket are ruining the country. That wasn’t quite his point. He actually made several thought-provoking cases for what happens when tradition trumps the truth. He just did so in an insult-riddled style that, in the end, only perpetuated the rift.

But Karin—whose name is much too cool (or at least spelled much too coolly) for her fake-blonde, news-caster hair (and who presumably has more in common with fellow Kansas Republican Sam Brownback than a colorful last name)—can’t be held responsible for the disconnect. Neither can Frank.

It’s the Aeron chair. “The chair’s exclusivity became a symbol of the dot-com bubble in the late 1990s,” Wikipedia states in its introductory paragraph. With every bubble, comes a big ol’ burst, and we find ourselves in a sticky, pink mess. It was no different this time; the housing bubble popped for the same reasons the dot-com bubble did. People take too much risk for the sake of getting rich.

But come now, the Aeron chair is no accomplice here. A chair was never going to save the world, and it could never destroy it. Even the most classic chairs will at some point falter:

* The throne is too narrow-minded. It can’t see the problems inherent in monarchies, because it’s blinded by the luxury of having its gilded arms polished each morning by unpaid, shaggy-haired serfs.
* The wingback chair is egotistical. Its history is riddled with tyrants, sociopaths, and wigged-out super villains. The world of the wingback is cruelly short. Nuclear holocaust within minutes.

The rocking chair, however—it may have a shot. Picture its humble simplicity. Its timelessness. It would rule as the world’s grandmother, setting pies on the windowsill to cool, reigning over us with the wisdom of the ages. It would be a long, graceful sovereignty.

But many grandmothers are scared to sit on their porches today. Gun violence runs rampant both in low-income ghettos and upper-class grottos.

They have no reason to. They are separated from their children and grandchildren by hundreds of miles and are isolated from their neighbors.

They wouldn’t want to. Building methods are now so bottom-line driven that beautifully crafted wrap-arounds are the luxuries of refurbished Victorians sold only to the ultra-rich.

And then there’s this: for a growing number of grandmothers, their porches are no longer their porches. They are the bank’s. The rocking chair too.

Blame a bubble.

3. Nonintrusive Chair

When Herman Miller’s design duo took to making a chair that had no straight lines, they couldn’t have been further from the mode of thinking employed by most politicians. Senators, representatives, mayors, governors, presidents—they all represent an unwavering ideological path from the past to the future, with no diversions, squiggles, or (indeed) options.

The political system as we know it is a man-made channel—unnatural and largely ineffective. A naturally formed stream serpentines, cutting an ever-changing, ever-deepening, snake-like groove in the Earth’s contours. It responds to other forces of nature.

The American political system is a canal, a drainage ditch.

It flows straight ahead, tepid and increasingly toxic. It shares almost nothing with the majesty of the river, which courses toward the ocean, simultaneously gaining momentum and giving of itself, bestowing life upon the fields and pastures and people it passes. And it is aware of its greater purpose: continued life and sustenance for an entire planet.

From another angle, a straight line doesn’t seem the metaphor for political discourse. Straightforward? Straight talk? Hardly. Political arguments are circular like the reasoning often fueling them. Yet we accept them. We don’t want to. But we do, through confused complacency. NPR’s editorial director of digital media nails this aggravating conundrum in Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium:

“…I’ve talked about typical complaints we have about everyday life and popular and commercial culture. In these arenas, you can control your exposure to some degree. You can turn off the television or throw it out the window. You can leave the cell phone at home or never go online…You can ignore any movie and any news story you want. But you can’t pay your taxes to a different government. You can’t control the health coverage your company gives you, if it gives you any…You can ignore politics, as many do. That doesn’t help your community though, and so in the end it doesn’t help you.”

Chadwick and Stumpf had the luxury of controlling what they were creating. “Transparency is a major design movement,” Stumpf explained. “Its purpose is to make technology less opaque, to communicate the inner workings of things, and to make objects less intrusive in the environment. Aeron is a nonintrusive chair.” The political climate we’ve created embodies none of these things. Government policies are far from transparent, despite oversight committees and this precious democratic system.

If this were all, perhaps we could live in peace. But Stumpf’s final statement is likewise untrue. Politics is intrusive, in the way that a year-round forecast of freezing rain would be intrusive. It grates on us, wears us down, fosters bitterness instead of optimism.

We would love to change this. But the time has passed. It’s a different world. As music columnist Brandon Stosuy recently said in Paste magazine, “Everyone is out there searching for the next big thing, but it’ll never be the next big thing on the scale Nirvana was.” This is true in many more ways than in music. Going the way we’re going, we’ll probably never see the country collectively angry enough to protest like it did in the 60s or banded together like it was during the Second World War.

But we’re always in flux. Might as well grab a seat—an Aeron if you can afford it—and enjoy the show.

5 Responses to “Randomography: Aeron Chair + Karin Brownlee”

  1. Sean Conner March 3, 2010 at 2:00 am #

    I’m going to play devil’s advocate. It’s what I do. I grow horns and blow fire and stab plump animals in the stomach with a pitchfork. I actually agree with everything you have to say, Tim, until the final part, the argument that there will be no more next big thing. I think there will be, and has been a variety in the past decade. They just come in a different form. In the latest issue of Wired, I read about how in 2003 cell phones sent about 20 billion text messages a month, and in 2009, that number was over 100 billion. That seems like a pretty big thing. What happens these days though is that the big things are technological and they just kind of fit into a groove. GMAIL, for instance, seems so natural to use. But has anybody gone back to Yahoo or Hotmail lately? By comparison, GMAIL isn’t just natural, it’s a godsend. I guess what I’m trying to get out is that the Big things from here on out won’t necessarily be social, but technological, or technologically social. Already marketing campaigns are being redirected into the digital social sphere. People are reimagining branding as a communication rather than a pitch. Access to this technology is widespread, so anyone can have a peace of the pie. So, I hope for a few big things to come along. They might not be a bunch of hippies in Haight Ashbury, but they might prove to be all the more effective or extensive. They might be hard to pin down in a textbook, or with photographs, but I imagine they’ll reshape the world just the same.

    I am the devil, coo coo cachoo!

  2. readzebra March 3, 2010 at 3:20 pm #

    The devil is wise. But lose the blue dress.

    I totally agree in a lot of ways. Technological changes are big. But the iPad still isn’t as big as the telegraph or radio, because it’s just another form of the computer/internet technology. The Internet was the last big thing to hit.

    But what I really meant was that in all of these changes, politics has remained the same for decades. Sure, politicians build websites and advertise on television. We’re (maybe) more informed due to online info sites. But when you think about who politicians are, how they get elected, how they debate things, how they make laws, how they align themselves… these have not changed at all.

    In fact, even though the majority is growing more moderate, the fundamentalists of both parties have become more fundamentalist and more demonizing of the other side. And unfortunately, the moderates are so moderate, that we’ve resigned ourselves that it is the way the it is. That’s why I say there may not ever be a big change in our political process.

    Our social lives will be restructured. Paradigms will shift. But those things happened all throughout the 20th century too. And yet, politics remained virtually untouched in terms of the patterns we saw exhibited. No one I know has an idea on how to literally reconfigure our government so that we have trust in it again, so we feel honored to live under it, and proud of its decisions. They only have ideas on how to live outside of it, or singularly against it, or in spite of it.

  3. Sean Conner March 9, 2010 at 6:18 am #

    I’ll be honest and say I misunderstood the political argument of the final paragraph, taking it more as a general assertion of all ‘movements.’ GAH. How exasperating politics are to even write about. I have to agree, the subject is banal and droll, and especially with the current, gridlocked progress of the health care bill, and the fact that Obama’s change engine has lost all steam, it’s all quite disheartening. Like you say, it’s not just the politicians, but the fact of the growing resignation of the moderate.

    What to do? I mean, what roll does the political process really still play? Is it necessary to have a public motivated to operate within the same political structures of the last 200 years? (The polt. science minor in me desires to point out that the process has, actually, changed substantially. Though it’s framed in the same structure, there has been a tremendous shift in the capability and rolls of each branch, even in the last twenty years… but that’s another matter). Is one of the problems that our culture / social / geopolitcal systems have all changed so dramatically over the past century that our democracy isn’t an apt political structure to deal with issues anymore? If not, what is?

    Matt posted that nice compilation of Daily Show clips with which to showcase the Health Care fiasco. Humorous as it was, there were moments where the sarcastic analysis of punditry gave way to the admonition that some communication is actually happening. I think it makes the clear case that the problem isn’t entirely with the politicians, but in the way media outlets cover the story, and refuse to analyze or report with any legitimacy anymore. Complex stuff is reduced to sound bites, and that’s what we, as moderates, receive, and this is ultimately as exhausting as trying to follow the political pinball of this reform.

    But what do we owe our government? I mean, they provided me education, an infrastructure, affordable public utilities, a nice rule set to follow in order to maintain some social stability, buses, tax breaks, and a remarkable quality of life. Yet the situation exhausts me, and because it exhausts me, despite all the subliminal benefits of our ‘government,’ or of the maintenance of the government, I still face those desires “to live outside of it, or singularly against it, or in spite of it.”

    That can’t be healthy. That’s cheating it. I don’t really know where to take it other than there, but there has to be a better road. Following are a few links that kind of address this issue indirectly. The first concerns the problem of our generation: the idea that we have so much capability, but we rarely actually get something in place. We talk a lot, but we don’t ship on the ideas we talk about. Step one for me then, is actually doing something about it (again, paradox, as I don’t know what that is). The second post concerns how things are restructuring in general now, in little manifestations of ideas actually coming to fruition. There is strength in communities now, and lots of people doing really compelling and positive things despite the fact that the ‘government’ is FUBAR. I guess what I’m trying to say is, if politics aren’t going to change for us, and we’re unwilling or incapable of changing them, then we owe it to this country and ourselves to start figuring out other ways of operating. If these prove to be successful, then no amount of ‘politics as usual’ can really stand in the way of the majority. First Task: we’ve got to get up and out of all our chairs.



    • readzebra March 9, 2010 at 4:15 pm #

      touche, well said, and i like it.

  4. Brian March 31, 2010 at 5:16 am #

    Take it for what it’s worth: I sit in that chair at work.

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