Theory of a Product:

Theory of Furniture

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Furniture is a composite which contains several sorts of furniture - chairs, tables, beds and so on - which have uses and dimensions that have only little in common (apart from the fact that a set of furniture that is intended to be used together is often designed as a group). Accordingly, the body of knowledge concerning furniture contains relatively independent segments that we could call 'a theory of tables, 'theory of beds', etc. In the following we, however, discuss all these sub-theories together, because all of them follow very much the same pattern.

Theory is a composite concept, too, meaning all the knowledge that we have about a class of objects (here furniture). If there is much information, it can be advantageous to categorize it in two classes:

In most sciences the word 'theory' means general knowledge, often called invariance, which is common to all or most of the objects in the class, for example in the class of 'beds'. Typical for this type of study is a great number of objects, i.e. the study is extensive. From these the researcher records and analyzes only those attributes of the objects that he judges as important and interesting. This approach is often preferred in technological sciences.

As a contrast, when studying furniture or other products of human culture it is often not enough to study only a few properties of the products. In order to understand the objects and their meaning in the social and cultural context it may be necessary to study them thoroughly in their genuine environment with all their relevant properties and relationships (i.e. the study will be holistic). This so called intensive approach is more laborious and it will be possible to study only a restricted number of objects. The findings will concern specific cases, for example named models of furniture or their designers or makers. Specific knowledge would not be called 'theory' by all scientists, but often it can be used as exemplars for new design in the absence of proper theory.

Combining the above mentioned two dichotomies we get the following table:

  Descriptive research of facts. It gives knowledge about the object but avoids making changes to it: Normative study of needs and goals of people, of how to fulfil them or how to remove practical problems by modifying the object of study:
Intensive study of single cases (persons, objects or events): E.g. case studies of notable works of arts, artists, or historical events. Also histories of products where these are studied as unique discrete items. Research and development projects which aim at improving the present state of things by developing an existing activity or developing a new product. Besides, case studies of earlier admirable products can serve as exemplars for new design.
Extensive study which gathers generally valid knowledge: Exploring invariances, knowledge which is true for most of the studied objects, sometimes anywhere in the world as a 'law of nature'. Composing universally applicable theory of design, such as governmental regulations, standards, algorithms, handbooks and other tools for designers.

In the following we first take a look at recent intensive research of furniture, because there is much of it and it is often consulted by designers. Later on, the proper general theory of furniture will be discussed under the title Theory of Furniture.

Intensive Studies of Furniture

Most studies around furniture have until now been intensive, idiographic and holistic, which means that the researcher has demarcated a geographical area and a time span, has selected from this extent a few pieces of furniture and tried to understand them in their original context. There have been case studies that have just aimed at documenting the works of a renowned designer or an important workshop, but there have also been studies which attempt to point out more general structures, or invariances, in the development of furniture, such as one of the following:
Development of art

In relation to the stylistic period, individual artists are often described either as avant-garde, i.e. the original creators of novelties; or followers who adapt and refine the ideas created by the avant-garde. The logical structures of such descriptive studies of furniture are discussed under the title Describing Development.

Explaining the development. Descriptions of development often mention factors intrinsic to the community of artists, their families and customers. Often a mere description of the changes does not suffice, and the researcher is expected to uncover also the reasons and/or effects of the development. The reasons can be taken either from the past (causal explanation), from simultaneous context, or alternatively from the future (i.e. from the intentions of people). Explaining factors are, for example, changes in society demographics, in industry or in economic conditions, inventions, education, political changes, wars, and the acquisition or loss of colonies. For example, in the book Furniture: Twentieth-century design Sparke (1986) found among others the following factors that could explain the development of furniture between 1860 and 1985:

In a historical study of furniture these often are viewed as illustrative cases only, while the principal object of study is the activity of design and production as a social, economic and ecological process. When the designers of furniture are in focus, they are often seen as members of society in the same way as in the biographies of artists. The philosophy and methods of this approach are examined in Explaining a Development.

Until now most studies about furniture have been descriptive: the study is not expected to bring about improvements to the object. Nevertheless, also a normative aspect has sometimes entered in the picture, especially when a descriptive study is revealing problems in the state of the object. For example, descriptive studies made in Sweden about 1950 showed that up till 90% of people in some cities were habitually sleeping in foldable beds, ottomans and other temporary arrangements which physicians judged being pernicious to the health. This gave impetus for normative studies which aimed at improving the unhealthy situation and indeed corrected it in quite a short time.

Theory of Furniture

Knowledge that is valid universally is often more useful than information that just concerns one case, and accordingly the normal trend in sciences is a pursuit from idiographic case studies to nomothetic general knowledge. 'General' means information which holds true for all or most of the objects in the given population. This knowledge which does not vary from case to case is often called invariance, and it usually is expressed as models which consist of a few concepts.

The study of furniture has produced general theory mostly on the following topics:

Theory that gets collected about any of the above-mentioned aspects of furniture can be either descriptive or normative, in other words it can report either how things are (or have been), or how they should be. The former approach is often used in historical studies, while the latter is normal in research that is intended to help and guide the design of new furniture.

The mentioned properties of furniture are important in practice: they are at the same time the most important goals that a piece of furniture is expected to attain. For this reason we can give the label of goal-specific theory of furniture to each of the collections of knowledge that researchers have composed around these topics.

Note that the goals for furniture design have much in common with the goals for other types of products. In fact, there has been so much research about the general goals of product development that the results of these studies can be seen as goal-specific theories of products in general. The most important of them are examined on their specific www-pages:

Below is a short account about recent research on each of the above mentioned properties of furniture and samples of the resulting collected theory.

Theory of manufacturing

Materials and technology. "Up until the 1960s, the major furniture breakthroughs of this century all depended, in one way or another, upon technological advances" writes Sparke (1986, page 105). She means not only new machines, which she enumerates meticulously for each subsequent period, but also novel construction materials. Not counting traditional straight joined wood, Sparke enumerates the following materials that have motivated designers to invent radically novel shapes for furniture:

The above are certainly not the last new materials and machines that are being introduced in the furniture industry. Today machines are not very often replaced with new ones, because it usually is possible to adjust modern robot-machines for new tasks. This means that each factory has a relatively permanent arsenal of machines, and when a designer of new furniture items wants to have his proposal evaluated from the manufacturing point of view, often the most reliable method is simply to consult the managers of the production plant. Besides, data about new materials and machines are now and then updated in the new editions of manufacturing handbooks.

Beside materials and machines, important points of departure when planning the manufacture of furniture items are ecology and economy. Both of these are discussed on their respective pages: Ecology of products and Economy of products. Moreover, a general view on the Theories of Production can be found on another page.

Ecology of manufacture. Ecological view of production General theory of industrial ecology, a short report of which is given on the page Ecology of products, can easily be applied to the design and manufacture of furniture. When analyzing production and use of furniture with the standard model of ecological life cycle analysis (figure on the right) it turns out that furniture generates seldom grave ecological disadvantages: raw materials, especially wood, are replenishable, there is a lively recycling market, and disposal of materials is relatively simple because it is usually easy to disassemble furniture and waste materials are not toxic.

Of course, existence of trustworthy theory of ecology does not mean that it is always used. Designers and makers of furniture could often do better work in minimizing the use of material and energy and facilitating recovery of materials.

Economy and management. Theory of business economy, the main branches of which are portrayed on the page Economy of products, includes numerous powerful procedures that are often used when optimizing a new product.

Likewise, there are useful techniques for optimizing the marketing mix, i.e. the assortment of the company's products. By comparing incomes with fixed and variable costs, it is possible to define for each product the break-even quantity of sales that the company must surpass in order to get positive profit. This method also points out the least profitable products which the company then can consider to abandon. It is explained in Optimizing Production and Pricing.

There are economic optimization methods for the customer, as well. When selecting a piece of furniture among several alternatives, the cost-benefit method is often used.

Theory of the usability of furniture

Usability has been the principal aspect in many normative studies about furniture, especially during the latter half of the 20 century, after the breakthrough of the Functionalist style of architecture which professed that function must be the starting point for all design. One pioneering country was Sweden where the research center for furniture Möbelinstitutet was created in 1967 with financing mainly from the state. The first projects dealt with ergonomic aspects and dimensions, and on the basis of these studies recommendations were given and disseminated effectively. Below is an excerpt from General ergonomic requirements for office chairs and desks (from Berglund, 1976 p. 45):

Ergonomy of office work

  1. Shoulders must be free to move.
  2. Top and bottom edges of the backrest must be comfortable - no sharp edges.
  3. When the person leans backwards the backrest should give support to the lower chest and it should be inclined ca. 15 degrees. It should not be too wide and restrict moving the arms.
  4. When seated upright or a little inclined forward, backrest should give support to the backbone.
  5. Backrest should be cushioned.
  6. Backrest should give support to the upper part of the pelvis but open space should be left between backrest and seat.
  7. Height of the seat must be adjustable to allow a height of ca. 2cm under knee joint.
  8. Seat must not be slippery. A suitable inclination is about 3 degrees.
  9. Seat should be cushioned.
  10. Free space of ca. 10cm between legs and the front of the seat, to avoid pinching the nerves.
  11. Space for moving the legs.
  12. It should be possible to push the chair back and forward. Rollers should be avoided, however.
  13. Seat must be a little wider than the pelvis. It must allow for moving the posture. It can be flat or a little concave.
  14. The difference between the heights of seat and desk must be adjustable. Suitable height for a desk is from 67 to 75cm.
  15. Under the desk there should be space for feet ca. 70cm wide and from 60 to 70cm deep.

Above are listed (slightly abridged) only a few cardinal recommendations for office furniture. Other types of furniture were similarly studied. Properties of furniture for which Möbelinstitutet created quality standards and test methods, were, among others:

Several of Möbelinstitutet's instructions were also later published as international standards (ISO). Other channels of publicity were booklets, lectures in universities and professional organizations and stands in the annual furniture exhibitions where often a jury was appointed to select exemplary pieces of furniture as an attempt to educate the great public on the questions of good design.

Today the results of many years of ergonomic research in several countries are published not only as standards but also as handbooks for the design of many types of furniture.

The concepts, models and methods in the study of the usability of furniture do not much differ from their counterparts in the study of other products. These universally applicable utensils of research are examined on a separate page Usability of products.

Theory of the message of furniture

Furniture belongs to those products that function as a "second skin" of people in the same sense as clothes, cars and homes. Furniture associates closely with its user or owner, and when selecting furniture the owner can define the picture that other people shall have of him or her.

What people want to say about themselves, depends above all of the local social structure. In a traditional rural community a peasant perhaps wishes to be seen simply as worthy of his fathers. Accordingly, he has all reason to stick to ancestral vernacular furniture.

On the other hand, Western urban societies have a strong legacy of social rank-order. Many people would like to ascend to a higher social class or, should an immediate ascent seem infeasible, they want to show at least that they are worthy and prepared to such a rise. Furniture, as well as clothes, are well suited to indicate social status and also the owner's competence for an eventual ascent of status. That is the reason why the furniture styles of European aristocracy have long been imitated by coexistent lower classes.

Imitation of the higher classes explains how furniture styles propagate through society, but it also explains why new styles come into existence repeatedly. The reason is that the reigning aristocracy cannot afford to adhere long to any single style. Should they do so, the imitators would sooner or later reach equal perfection of style. The upper-class must continuously develop their avant-garde style onto a new, more refined level. In this way the imitators are forever condemned to have a slightly old-fashioned, hence inferior, style.

The above sociopsychological mechanism, which Simmel (1923) first exposed in the fashion of dress, and Bourdieu (1984 a) cleverly analyzed in the book The Distinction, explains much of the development of new styles of furniture, at least in Europe until well into the 19 century. The workings of the mechanism are also reflected in the fact that French period styles still bear the names of the reigning monarchs: "style Louis XV" etc.

Even today, when aristocracy has lost its position as the most enviable social class, many people still fetch the model for their habitus and furniture from one or another ostensibly more distinguished group in the society. Today it might be the new class of technocrats or "meritocrats", or the idols of music or sports, the homes of which are published in coffee-table periodicals.

The Ant, by Arne JacobsenA great difference to earlier generations is that today people, especially the younger ones, are free to select their models for habitus. They can now muse and select into which group of people they want to be counted and what style or genre of furniture is their proper ambience - it need not be aristocratic period items. They are even free to get nostalgic and return to the vernacular style of their ancestors.

Moreover, the traditional status or group membership symbol is today only one of many possible alternative messages. Other alternatives are attitudes, moods and sentiments which can today be propagated through suitable selection of furniture, clothes and other personal belongings. Fun-loving or imaginative people can today create for themselves or find in the shops witty products which, placed in suitable contexts, can transmit various messages, either vague and subconscious, or overt and unequivocal. Some products have even been given a name that indicates what it symbolizes, for example the "Ant" chair by Arne Jacobsen, on the right.

The great diversity of messages that the public today wants to deliver makes it almost impossible to compose a semiotical theory of furniture. There is, to be sure, a paradigm of general semiology (it is paraphrased on the page Semiotics Of products) but very little of its findings until now can be applied into the design of furniture. The normal method when a designer wishes to communicate a message in his work is simply to do it by trial and error. The public will then decide either to take it or leave it.

Aesthetics of furniture

We all agree that it is a pleasure to see beautiful objects around us and that some pieces of furniture are more beautiful than others, but it is difficult to give grounds for our preferences and discuss them, let alone of knowing how a designer could attain beauty when creating new products. In such a situation one normally expects that basic research, in this case the study of aesthetics, would help us by providing concepts and models which designers, manufacturers and the great public could use when discussing questions of beauty, when setting targets for it and when trying to fulfil these in new furniture.

Indeed, there is tradition of more than two millennia of studying the beauty of works of art and other objects. These studies are summarized on the page Beauty of products. From the point of view of the designers and users of furniture, perhaps the most interesting findings of these studies concern the process of gradual comprehension of works of art. It is explained in the paragraphs under the title of Beauty of Discovery.

According to the hypothesis of gradual comprehension, aesthetic pleasure is a sensation which is felt when a person discovers something of interest in the work of art. This discovery produces a gratifying sensation of "eureka" which is more intensive if the discovery has been preceded by a few seconds of perplexion. As contrast, if there are no enigmas and the work of art reveals its content easily, the sensation of beauty remains flat.

An important aspect in the aesthetic discovery is that for a human it is not possible to receive great amounts of information in one shot because there is a quantitative limit in the "input" capacity of human cognition. However great aesthetic values a work of art may contain, the public never can receive them as one single flash. The reception must always take place bitwise.

Gradual comprehension of artTypical of a great work of art is thus a multi-layered content. To begin with, it must have superficial content or decoration immediately appealing to the senses, otherwise the public would not more than glance at the work. Moreover, to qualify as competent art, the work must be able to offer also a deeper content. Finding this deeper content will then produce the pleasant feeling of "eureka" once more. As a contrast, if the work offers no deeper layers of interpretation, or if discovering them is too easy, the aesthetic pleasure remains brief and thus meager, and the work of art will be classified as kitsch.

The perception of a profound work of art proceeds thus as several step-by-step phases. According to the findings of quantitative perception psychology, the aesthetic pleasure is greatest when the flow of new information remains long near the maximum of human abilities of perception (ca. 100 bits per second). The most rewarding work of art is one where the process of discovery can take place several times successively. Such a multi-faceted work of art can be looked at over and over again. In each new vista the observer finds something new; each phase of observation leads to more profound comprehension and thus increases the aesthetic value of the work. When no more discoveries can be made, the spectator loses his interest in the work.

Trying now to apply the theory of gradual comprehension to the art of furniture design, the first question will be, what could be those hidden structures or messages that could coax a spectator to meditate and examine a piece of furniture?

It is to be admitted that furniture seldom can display such dramatic focal points of interest as can a painting or a novel. Nevertheless, even a piece of furniture can include elements that sometimes invite a spectator to look closer at them:

There has not been much research on these techniques for creating aesthetic interest in a piece of furniture, and the few studies that have been made have stayed on a case study level, not on a general level. In other words there is not much theory of these questions yet. In practical product development the designer thus has to rely just on the exemplars given by earlier products and his own aesthetic judgment.

Theory of the safety of furniture

The use of furniture entails risks of accident, especially to small children and elderly people. However, there are serviceable methods for studying, systematizing and analyzing the accidents related with furniture and for defining necessary measures for avoiding them. The approaches are similar for nearly all products, and a selection of them is reported on the page Safety of products.

Many investigation projects around accidents include proposals for improving the design of subsequent furniture. For example, the Swedish research institute Möbelinstitutet has published instructions on baby beds and foldable beds (to avoid getting pinched etc.), two-storey beds (to prevent falling from the upper bed), high baby stools (to prevent them tipping over), load-bearing capacity of shelves, the use of toxic solvents in glues, paints and varnishes, and the resistance to ignition of surface materials. Quite often these proposals are also rewritten and published as national or international standards. There is, among others, the standard ISO/DIS 9221-2 Furniture - Children's high chairs - Safety requirements and testing.

Normative Use of Descriptive Theory

As a summary of all the preceding we can say that normative general theory, in other words explicit recommendations for design, exists today only for a few properties of furniture, notably on their usability, economy and safety. Regarding other properties, such as beauty or message, nearly all the studies until now have been of the descriptive and intensive type, i.e. either case studies or historical studies where the objects have been studied as holistic entities. Intensive approach means that general theory has not been produced.

In practice intensive research seldom is free from all normative bias. The reason is that researchers tend to select their objects among "interesting" cases which quite often are better than average is some respects. A quite usual finding of such a study is one or a few exemplars, reports on earlier produced meritorious artefacts. This is no bad thing, however, because exemplars can in practice substitute theory in questions where it is difficult to develop more explicit doctrines, like for example in questions of beauty and message. Exemplars can provide useful points of reference in various stages of product design project, particularly when preparing a detailed product concept. They are published in professional journals and exhibitions, and they are also much used in the education to the profession.

Selection of exemplars can be done by the researcher, or they can be selected by juries for exhibitions, by steering groups for professional journals or by other committees consisting of respected members of the profession. In any case they do not directly reflect the opinions of the users of the products, which naturally is a disadvantage as compared to proper research.

In the future, when descriptive research uncovers more of the relationships between various factors pertaining to furniture, it is probable that these findings will be used for normative purposes as well. The special methods of Normative Analysis are explained on a separate page.

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August 3, 2007.
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