A chair is more than just an object to sit on. It embodies a whole design philosophy.

Launched by Godrej Archives in the 125th year of Godrej, From frugal to ornate: Stories of siege in India is a compilation of essays by Sarita Sundar – researcher, writer, designer and curator of this book – which also includes some essays by other scholars on the subject. The book traces the evolution of the “seat”, from the simple baithak to the modern chair. Images from museums, private collections, design studios, artisans, and others showcase the myriad forms of seating, from classic to modern, frugal to ornate.

Below is an excerpt from the book.


THE TENSIONS CAUSED BY THE PROXIMITY OF INCONGRESSIVE ELEMENTS – the classic with the plebeian, the ordinary with the extraordinary, heritage and kitsch – have intrigued artists and writers throughout history. Edward Hopper’s poignant paintings of humble settings in America and Vincent van Gogh’s rendering of the simple straw chair elevate the everyday, find beauty and poetry in the gritty and cause for epiphany in the ordinary. Looking at these works, the viewer sees his own monotonous existence transformed into Proustian revelations.

While the historic, the important, and the monumental make the annals of most museums and collections, social media platforms like Instagram are rejecting the “monumental” and bringing amateur enthusiasts and professional photographers to a new level. equality. Some posts on these platforms are a celebration of the ordinary, the usual. Just as the etchings and photographs of colonial photographers and illustrators created a visual history of the 19e century, and Ferenc Berko’s “fascination with the ordinary” produced images of daily life in India in the mid-20e century, photography on Instagram seems to capture the spirit of the 21st century. The study of the most mundane objects seems to offer a panoramic understanding of a culture over time.

Mayank Austen Soofi, with handle @theDelhiwalla, captures the fleeting and curious details of the city of Delhi through her social media and blog posts. Austen Soofi compares the yellow and green metallic chairs scattered around Sunder Nursery Park in New Delhi to the metallic chairs in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris and writes, afternoon lengthens, altering the quality of the light, you may feel that the chair is like a magic carpet that has transported you for a few hours in so many impressions”.

Among the myriad topics that crop up in many Instagram posts, the seat of the man in the street pops up with metronome regularity, ranging from the innocuous vernacular to the cheap industrial. These seats—isolated pieces found on urban streets, community seats in public spaces, cheap vernacular seats made of natural fibers, and mass-produced seats made of steel and plastic—are often culturally context-free, economical, accessible, and found in a way similar across the country. Benches and stools hastily assembled from available scrap wood, metal folding chairs, traditional chairs moods and woven charpais are commonplace in both rural and urban Indian environments. The chabuthrasor platforms around large trees, the banquedothe dough or high bench, are mostly found in villages and semi-urban centers. Roadside tea stalls often have a collection of simple stools or benches which are removed at the start of the working day and stacked in place at night after the last stragglers have left. These pieces of furniture, basic in shape and form, are springy, adapting to multiple uses over the course of a day – they are used as seating in the morning, as flat platforms for serving food in the afternoon. , and to lie down and rest in the evening.

Mooda. Photo: Michel Fountoulakis

HOWEVER, THERE IS A SEAT THAT IS REPLACING MORE AND MORE – the plastic chair, also known as a one-piece, is taking over waiting rooms, wedding halls, security booths and even museum corridors across India. This lightweight, economical chair with its efficient stackability, ease of maintenance and flexible layout potential is as easily seen in noodle cafes on the snow-capped mountains of Gulmarg in Kashmir as it is in seaside shacks on beaches. beach of tropical Goa.

The plastic chairs appear to be part of a social network, like members of a community interacting with each other, stacked in the back of trucks or even pedicabs, or on the side of roads. Like community animals, they move in red, white and blue herds and congregate from one social event to the next – as friendly at birth and wedding celebrations as they are at death ceremonies and gatherings. policies. The plastic chairs not only adopt the places occupied by the previous vernacular seats, but also their modest nature – their naivety giving them special qualities. They seat both the commoner and the VIP, the secular and the sacred with an egalitarian spirit. Their very banality gives them an invisible and paradoxical power: omnipresent but imperceptible, indispensable but forgettable. While almost every seat in India suggests a time and place, the one-piece plastic chair is free of any specific context, with no geographical or cultural connotations. It can be faulted for making the world too homogenized and thus leading to the erasure of indigenous cultures, even as it accomplished exactly what modernism strove to achieve – a universal object in the idiom , inexpensive and accessible to millions of people – by participating in the creation of a democratic and equitable world. However, designers are divided on their take on the one-piece chair. While some see value in it as a cheap and accessible consumer product, others decry it for its plebeian appearance, to illustrate waste and the use of an unsustainable and non-renewable material.

Photo: KK Muralidharan

Photo: Dinesh Khanna

SOME COMMON SEATS HAVE A “STICKY” CHARACTER FOR ALL THEIR BANNER CHARACTERS, which attract people to them, whose potential is clearly recognized by companies. Mumbai’s historic Irani Cafés, known for their inclusive and welcoming nature, are frequented by people from all walks of life. Located at the corners of the buildings, they are held by Irani or Parsi communities who are not affected by the ‘not extensive compliance of local businesses. These establishments retain classic features: checkered tablecloths; the quaint “establishment committee rules”; a counter at the entrance with a glazed cabinet of cookie jars; cantankerous staff; a simple menu of bread rollsmask, omelettes and Parsi dishes – and the Irani cafe chair. The design and form of these iconic bentwood chairs reflect the welcoming, inclusive, robust, pragmatic and democratic café culture. They may have been introduced to give a European vibe and were most likely imported in the early 1900s when the first Iranian restaurants appeared in India. Some of these chairs are close versions of the Thonet Chair No. 14 found in classic Viennese café bars, while others with turned wooden elements resemble French café chairs.

Photo: Merchant of Kunal/Historical Works of Bombaywalla

INDUSTRIAL MANUFACTURE’S Godrej CH series of bent steel chairs were the mainstay of public offices across the country in the mid-20e century. Intrinsically part of the public consciousness, their appropriation into newly styled interiors was a natural progression. The CH-13 executive chair has been redesigned by design boutiques; Refreshed and brightened by colorful floral upholstery and glossy white painted frames, it participates in contemporary decors that feature a blend of traditional and contemporary aesthetics. The refurbished CH 8 chairs, with bright yellow and blue frames and upholstery, have lost their gray and military green industrial aesthetic that characterized the modern period. These ordinary chairs wouldn’t have received a second look when used in government offices across the country, but with their “makeover” they become “accent pieces” and “pieces of conversation”. Whether out of nostalgia or a call for simplicity and practicality, these everyday objects acquire a special status in their new environment.

Both the ubiquitous plastic chair and the simple mood keep hope for a continued pluralistic future in the air, while highlighting critical questions about obsolescence, the value of unskilled craftsmanship, and cultural appropriation. Having proven their evolutionary worth, it behooves the new breed of designers and makers to address issues of sustainability – of materials and processes, of craftsmanship and thus the sustainability of socio-cultural identities. The image of the plastic chair repaired countless times, tied with string and adapted for reuse gives us a hint that India is not yet a ‘disposable’ society. Its appearance in garden parties and conflict zones testifies to its grace and power. While the tenets of modernism have prescribed anonymity, universalism and uncluttered simplicity as an ideal ideal, there is another kind of simplicity and timelessness that is embedded in everyday things, an enduring allure in human hand touch in products like the unpretentious mood– which finds mention in ancient scriptures and sculptures as readily as it does in contemporary design salons and forums. As we celebrate the continued interest in a seat of our common heritage on global platforms, we should pause and heed the concern raised by William Morris and his fellow members of the Arts and Crafts movement in 1909 that “goods which should be common in the market now become rare treasures for museums and the cabinets of rich men”.

Many industrial designers are eager to take on the challenge of creating a mass-produced, Indian-designed chair or seat that is accessible to the masses and not just used in living rooms and “rich men’s cabinets”. The question remains whether the collaborations with manufacturers will result in the necessary investments in design and technical development to create a product that has the potential to position itself “up there” among the classics of global design while remaining rich. in a cultural context, while being sensitive to the need. for a sustainable future.

Sarita Sundar is a Bangalore-based designer, design historian, teacher and studied observer of the visual world.

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