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July 17, 2019

Designer Matteo Guarnaccia On The Anthropology Of Chairs And How People Sit

Text by Shirin Mehta

Matteo Guarnaccia, founder of the research project Cross Cultural Chairs, wonders what this innocuous piece of furniture can reveal about changing societies. Verve reports on those that he is designing as part of this latest undertaking

What’s in a chair? Ask Matteo Guarnaccia, and you are bound to view this humble piece of furniture in a totally new light. The Barcelona-based Sicilian designer, founder and promoter of Cross Cultural Chairs (CCC), a non-profit research project that is currently investigating the anthropology of chairs and how people sit around the world, sees it as a cultural marker. To this end, Guarnaccia is travelling the world designing unique varieties, one each in eight countries — Mexico, Brazil, Japan, China, Indonesia, India, Russia and Nigeria — collaborating with local design studios and craftsmen along the way. This humble object, he understands, is capable of revealing details of an entire society and its people: how tall they are, what manufacturing processes they use, what materials they have at their disposal, what their tastes and interests in architecture and technology are, and so on…. Guarnaccia’s eight chairs will eventually be exhibited at the Design Museum of Barcelona (and later in Shanghai and Milan) together with a documentary and 300-page book on the project. His initiative was mainly financed by a crowdfunding campaign and supported by IED Barcelona, ADI-FAD Barcelona as well as Amsterdam-based NGO, Architecture In Development, which put him in contact with social communities, architects and design studios.

Guarnaccia is folded into a white plastic chair at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai. His Indian model stares him in the face. “Representing a country in one chair is a difficult exercise, and particularly so when one considers the complexity of a country like India,” he says. He had help, of course. “I was looking for someone who took into consideration the cultural aspect during the creative process, and so I contacted (design studio) sP+a. Together with (principal architect) Sameep Padora, we decided to involve (furniture designer) Ajay Shah of Rubberband. It was nice to analyse ‘Indianness’ through objects, with them.” Speaking of the inspiration behind his design, Guarnaccia expresses, “I was impressed by the CH-4, a German chair that was introduced to India in the ’50s as a result of President Nehru and Le Corbusier’s common vision of a modern India. This was later brought by Godrej to every office in the country. This chair has nothing typically Indian about it, but every Indian recognises it as an Indian chair. Both Sameep and I thought that was an interesting starting point, and so, we reached out to skilled artisans from the chaotic Chor Bazaar area of the city.” He adds that while the intention of CCC was to not fall into the trap of stereotypes during the design process, he recognised that textiles form an important part of the cultural heritage of India and hence decided to represent this through the traditional weaving technique of the charpai, albeit in a more intricate version.

Having visited India several times (“Every time I come, I fall in love again”), Guarnaccia realised early on that the country has a ‘floor-sitting culture’, much like the other three in Asia (Japan, China, Indonesia) that he has travelled to. “But I noticed that India, unlike the others, merges the two seating postures,” he shares. “In Japan, for example, the difference between sitting on the floor and on a chair is clear, and it’s mainly dictated by the presence of the tatami on the floor. In India, I noticed that people cross their legs on the seat while sitting on a chair, both in an official and social context,” he states, adding, “I think this also comes from the types of shoes that are worn, which are usually easy to take off.” This was something that he wanted to express in his creation, which he did by designing a curve on the armrest and transforming it into a leg-rest instead. “So, when someone crosses their legs while sitting and, say, drinking their chai, they will accidentally discover a soft-edged surface to rest them on.”

Despite his efforts to view and decode cultures through the lens of chairs, Guarnaccia maintains that his project is concerned more with people than with chairs. He shares, “The chair, as an object, performs its duty only when it is used by someone, so I am trying to understand the how, why, where, when….”

Something for him to sit on and ponder….

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