Furniture is instinctively associated with comfort, it might be sacrificed for utility or aesthetics, but it’s always a characteristic that we use to consider it. Since chairs and tables are the smallest scale to interact with architecture, they have to be valued on the perception we have of it with our body, so comfort is the way to measure it. But is there a purpose for uncomfortable furniture? Can it be considered furniture if it’s not designed to comfort a human body?
Adolf Loos made an incredible contribution to the history of furniture, but when presenting his work at a conference in Museu del Disseny de Barcelona, the architect Josep Quetglas mentioned a quote by Thomas Bernhard in which he described a Loos stool as «awful and uncomfortable». Bernhard goes on about that particular piece of furniture by writing that it was sitting on it that his wife would read for him, «between 1 and 2 a.m.», Kant’s essays. To this, professor Quetglas stated: « In a masterpiece there’s no mistakes, mistakes and inconveniences always are part of itself. If a stool is uncomfortable, it’s because it has to be uncomfortable, it’s not a stool to be sitting two hours listening to Kant. ». According to this affirmation, furniture is a mean to have an experience, so designers are allowed to work with a whole range of comfort, from very comfortable to very uncomfortable, and it’s the users’ responsibility to choose the right piece for each moment.
It’s easy to think about those situations in which we would seek comfort, but not that much about those in which we would seek uncomfort. In Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals the quest for an uncomfortable bench seems to be part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s daily working habits: « During the afternoon he would often take an additional nap, lying down on a thinly padded wooden bench or even a concrete ledge; the uncomfortable perch, he said, prevented him from oversleeping. ». The experience of a not very pleasant surface is exactly what Wright needs to keep on with his tight schedule. In this case practicability and uneasiness go hand in hand.
Currey also describes Louis I. Kahn working day, and gives us a sense of how he might as well, not look for the most comfortable place to have a nap: « When he got tired, he would sleep on a bench in his office for a few hours before moving back to the drafting table. » To go from drawing at the drafting table to lying on a bench seems to be close enough perceptions so Kahn’s body and mind keep engage with work even while having a rest.
Our experience with space is not static, it flows during the day depending on our activity and the conditions that surround us. That’s why the perfect piece of furniture is not the most comfortable design, but the most efficient in its purpose. A cozy couch might be ideal for a weekend nap but for a workday the uncomfortable bench is the right design.