Your chair's Killing You, Now What?: Galen Cranz on 99% Invisible

Galen Cranz was on last week’s episode of 99% Invisible, the radio show/podcast about design with Roman Mars. Cranz is a professor of architecture at Berkeley and a leading proponent of body conscious design, the idea that designers should spend at least as much time adapting things to us as expecting us to adapt to things. Cranz published The Chair, Rethinking Culture, Body and Design in 1998. She’s also a certified Alexander Technique teacher—and a highly esteemed one. She was a featured speaker at the 2013 annual conference of the American Society for the Alexander Technique here in Chicago.

I was excited that she was going to be on the podcast and the episode is worth a listen—you can find it here. It traces out the argument that Galen makes in The Chair. She explains that In the 20th century, we transitioned from an agricultural to a manufacturing to a service economy. The chair became the dominant object in our lives as sedentary work, done mostly while sitting, took over manual labor. But chairs weren’t designed to fit our bodies. People started to suffer from back pain and repetitive strain injuries, which inspired the development of highly adjustable, ergonomic chairs, like the Herman Miller Aeron chairs. Even with highly-engineered furniture, the health effects of sitting all day are still terrible. “Sitting is the new smoking,” and all the exercise in the world won’t make up for sitting eight or more hours a day.

So what’s the solution? Producer Avery Trufelman goes to Cranz’s house and marvels at her collection of mis-matched furniture. She applauds Cranz’s “gusto” at bucking the conventions of normal sitting.

When she’s out in public and gets tired, Cranz opts to kneel, or squat, or lie down. “I lay down in a bank and someone asked me if I was having a heart attack,” Cranz says. “I understand. But I said no, I’m fine, I’m resting because the line is so long!”

Cranz advises against using back support—it weakens the back—and suggests using stools to perch on and lounge chairs to recline. The solution, she says is variety—“The next posture is the best posture.” And Roman Mars intones, tongue-a-bit-in-cheek, “We don’t need fewer chairs. We need more. Bring us chairs. All of the chairs!”

99% Invisible is great radio—like Radiolab or This American Life. But I felt like this episode ended having made only half of Cranz’s point. Great design will only take you so far. Health and well-being require education. As she writes in The Chair, “We need better objects and we need to take responsibility for how we use ourselves while using them.”

It’s been my experience that when my students come to their first Alexander lesson complaining of pain from sitting all day, they're not in a condition to take advantage of varied furniture. They’ve lost the ability to sit without back support, or to lie on their backs without puzzling discomfort, let alone squat.

Great design will only take you so far. Health and well-being require education. As she writes in The Chair, ‘We need better objects and we need to take responsibility for how we use ourselves while using them.’

When I was around 21 and still in college—a couple years before I started studying the Alexander Technique—I got into an argument with one of the teachers at a summer music festival. During orchestra rehearsals and concerts, several of us—myself included—were crossing our legs if we weren’t playing for long periods of time. She thought it looked unprofessional and told us to put both feet on the floor. I told her that the chairs were too low for me and that if I didn’t cross my legs, my back would hurt. Crossing my legs was the only thing that kept me from being in pain.

The story embarrasses me now. There was nothing about crossing my legs that was good for my back. In fact, you could argue that crossing your legs is positively bad for your back. But I was used to it. I liked how it felt, and I would fight with my teacher for the right to do it on stage. It was only after I had taken some Alexander lessons that I started to unlearn the habits that were causing my back pain. It was empowering—even if a chair was too low for me, it couldn’t hurt me.

Back in 2010, I went to see Galen Cranz give a talk about The Chair at the Chicago Humanities Festival. Afterwards, I chatted with a man in the audience who had spent the previous few years working on a new chair design for the workplace. He had incorporated all the latest knowledge about healthy human movement, and his design let workers be more dynamic at work. Yet when he tried out a prototype of the design at an office, the workers ended up pushing all the new chairs to the edge of the room after only a week. They went back to their usual chairs. They were used to them.

At the end of The Chair, Galen Cranz describes her ideal work environment. It’s a place where you can work sitting down, perching on a stool, or standing up. You can take a phone call lying on your back. You can squat to reach low files and stretch high to reach the top of shelves. It’s a place for adaptability and movement. The world would be a better place if Galen Cranz was in charge of designing it, and part of the reason is that she knows that people and furniture need to be equally adaptable. We Alexander teachers can help Cranz in her mission by making the Alexander Technique—and the importance of education—100% more visible.