Purpose Helps Define a Design

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about chair designs.  Last week, I wrote about my wishes for a modern chaise longue sofa and that got me thinking about why I liked that particular form.  I decided that it was partly due to my admiration of the elegant form, and my appreciation of the function.

Chaise Longue (Photo from http://multay.com/)
Chaise longue sofa. (Photo from http://multay.com/)

I realized that this style of chaise longue with a flat seat and half back not only made for an elegant, asymmetrical design, but helped define its usage.  The combination of flat seat and corner back rest made it easy to sit upright with your feet on the ground or, by rotating your body, to sit slightly reclined with your feet elevated.  Slouching allowed a more reclined position.  The tapered back allowed full support for only one user at a time, discouraging a second person to sit upright on the sofa (thus leaving the option of putting your feet up at any time).

Since then, I began thinking about conversation chairs (two chairs built as one unit, side-by-side and facing opposite directions).  I have always liked the idea of the unique design which was pointed towards a very specific intended use.

Conversation chair (photo from http://www.1stdibs.com/)
Conversation chair (photo from http://www.1stdibs.com/)

However, the conversation chair had a very specific design with a clearly-defined purpose.  It did not work well as a dining chair.  It was not intended for use by more than two people.  It could not be placed in a corner or flat against a wall without impeding its function and, therefore, it could not be used in a narrow space.

There were also a few things that I didn’t really like about the design.  While thinking about my own rendition, I first had to rethink the classic design and establish my goals for the design.  Then I had to customize the design so that it made sense to me.

As much as I liked the fluid design of the conversation chairs which often incorporated a flowing S-shaped armrest, I never felt that the design fully lived up to its name.  To me, it seemed like more of a conversation piece than a piece that promoted conversation between its occupants.  I always thought that the design seemed more suited to two people doing their own thing and simply facing in the general direction of each other, with a barrier between them that is not a table.  Eye contact was not promoted and was easy to avoid, since the two people sitting in the chair had to turn their heads to look at each other.

When I began designing my version of a conversation chair, I began by thinking about what I wanted to achieve.  I wanted it to:

  1. comfortably seat two people (and only two);
  2. provide intimacy (dictate close proximity);
  3. promote eye contact;
  4. remove physical barriers (no table, no arm rest between the seats);
  5. minimize and discourage distractions (books, newspapers, phones, laptop computers);
  6. be strong and light enough to be moved around by one person; and
  7. look good.

These goals helped me determine the form of the chair.  The first goal was the easiest to achieve and the last one took the most work (I’m still not there yet).

11 thoughts on “Purpose Helps Define a Design

  1. Understanding design requirements is certainly key to success, I like your approach here, and I’m baffled on how to achieve it all. A mental sketch: A chair sitting on the lap of another chair.

  2. A quick smart answer is a bench, maybe a bench in the shape of a boom a rang? Requires much more thought…. I know

    1. Dave,

      Without a back rest, users can sit facing any way so it does not promote eye contact or intimacy. However, if a back rest is added and the bench is shaped a certain way…

      I appreciate your thoughts. You’ve got me thinking.


    1. Garth,

      I see I’ve got you thinking. If the sofas are back to back, how does it encourage eye contact? There would also be a physical barrier between the two users.


      1. In a semi-prone or lounging position, both parties would be facing each other. Looking from a historical perspective, courting was very much a non contact sport :). Viewing life from a mature perspective, conversation between 2 people is about intimate shared space and personal comfort and not nessisarily physical contact. The idea of a single piece of furniture that answers this intimacy is kind of inspired. Yes you have me thinking. I’ll work on it while I make blades.

        1. Garth,

          I just re-read your comment and I now understand what you meant. I would phrase it, “end-to-end”. I do believe that meets all of my criteria, although the open “front” (long side) would allow the users to sit facing sideways, and not towards each other.

          I think that your design would provide multiple positions (upright, lounging, etc.) while still serving the intended purpose. The only possible negative I can think of is that it would make for a very long piece of furniture.

          Good thinking, partner.


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