Global Perspectives: Chair as a Vehicle of Status

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During my trip to South Korea I shared a meal in a traditional Korean BBQ restaurant, seated on small cushions around a long table. I subsequently became more interested in Korean culture in daily life, and this interest was cemented after a trip to the Korean Furniture Museum where I learned about the intricacies of traditional palace life, floor culture, and ondol: an underfloor heating system. Another major source of inspiration was a historical Korean drama called Lovers in the Moonlight.

Historically, chairs have been used as a symbol of status; the Egyptians first used them as thrones, and later they were used globally to display wealth and power. In the western word, larger chairs signified higher status; luxurious seats were how a king or noble could display their riches, using broad backed seats to frame their body, and intricately carved legs and chair bodies. Having a matching set displayed superiority, and until the industrial revolution, having more than one chair in your house was reserved for the wealthy.

Furthermore, the arrangement of furniture around the person with the highest status is a good indicator of hierarchy: typically in western culture, the person sat at the head of the dining table is the most important, followed by those sat either side of them. Being seated on a dais raises the king or nobles’ position physically, acting as a real world-actualisation of their standing, and forces everyone else to change their posture to reflect that.

In South Korean culture raised seating was reserved for the king but only for formal occasions: in everyday activities he would seat himself on the floor like everyone else. In fact, even sat on the throne his posture would be the same as if he were on the floor, cross-legged, as opposed to other countries where people sit with their knees and hips at right angles.

Traditionally, the clothes that a person wore would be adorned with signifiers; for example the headwear the king would wear; a crown. However, as clothing today is no longer so deeply embedded with telltale signifiers of status, examining the behaviour of subordinates is becoming increasingly useful in determining the person in charge. It is simpler to determine a person’s rank by observing the behaviour of colleagues, and their work environment, rather than the quality of their clothes. A company CEO, for example, would likely lead, with employees beside or behind him. In South Korea respect is shown through bowing; the deeper the bow, the higher the respect, so subordinates bow deeply to their employers.

These days, chairs are still hugely important for measuring rank, particularly in the western. People choose their seating based on which chair is the biggest, has the most extras which are not necessarily useful, and looks the most important, over whether it is the most comfortable or best suited to their own body.

To conclude, I have discovered that the physical size and height of one’s position is important in both Western and Asian culture. In my own practice, I could apply the rules of height as a marker of hierarchy to my own work, as I am currently making furniture.

References:

Cranz, G. (1998). The Chair. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton.

Kim Love in the Moonlight (구르미 그린 달빛) (2016) [TV programme] KBS2

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