Did you ever notice that you often sit in the same chair when you head to your living room? There are, say, three, maybe four chairs in there, and nine times out of ten you sit in the same one. Maybe ten times out of ten. How about when you go to visit a friend, neighbor or family member? Same thing, right? If given the choice (that is, if it’s an occasion to sit down and someone else didn’t get there before you), you find yourself in the same chair. I do.
For some reason, the right end of my couch is softer than the left. You sink in more, which is not necessarily a good thing unless you are settling in for a good long movie. I am not sure whether it came this way or whether this happened during the first year I had it, when we lived in Maine and spent hours, sometimes entire weekends during the cold and snowy winter, watching consecutive episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I put this on the list of things I will never know). Anyway, the other thing for me is that being right-handed, if I sit on the right side of my couch I have the arm to contend with. I almost always sit on the left.
This is my friend Lisa enjoying a moment with Coco on my couch. Coco does not seem to have a preference as to which end to snuggle down in, as long as it has a pillow. I aim to please, and she has her choice. Or a lap, which is sometimes better.
I never really thought about this chair business until I read a book that my friend Stephen in Canada recommended. “If you are going to build anything, read A Pattern Language first.” The title confused me, but Stephen is a smart person so I ordered the book sight unseen. It’s written by Christopher Alexander, who, according to author Witold Rybczynski, is “an architectural theorist who has inspired smart-growth advocates, counterculture DIY-ers, and computer programmers.” http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/architecture/2009/12/do_you_see_a_pattern.html
Am I perhaps a counterculture DIY-er? Can’t say I ever defined myself like that, but the book makes a lot of sense to me. It includes – briefly and clearly – hundreds of ideas for designing spaces that are comfortable for people. It talks about light and privacy and community, about the height of the ceiling, the pitch of the roof, the gradience of intimate spaces, and which side of the street you would most likely prefer to live on because of its orientation to the sun. It’s a cross-cultural, cross-economic, brilliant classic. You pick and choose your way through it nonlinearly, ignore the parts that don’t and won’t apply, and marvel at Alexander’s ability to state the obvious about the house and neighborhood you live in and some reasons you like it or don’t but never put your finger on before.
Almost the last chapter is “Different Chairs.”
“People are different sizes. They sit in different ways. And yet there is a tendency in modern times to make all chairs alike….
Obviously, the ‘average chair’ is good for some but not for everyone. Short and tall people are likely to be uncomfortable. And although situations are roughly uniform – in a restaurant everyone is eating and in an office everyone is working at a table – even so, there are important distinctions: people sitting for different lengths of time; people sitting back and musing; people sitting aggressively forward in a hot discussion; people sitting formally, waiting for a few minutes. If all the chairs are the same, these differences are repressed.
What is less obvious and perhaps most important of all, is this: we project our moods and personalities into the chairs we sit in. In one mood, a big fat chair is just right; in another mood, a rocking chair; for another, a stiff upright; and yet again, a stool or sofa. And of course, it isn’t only that we like to switch according to our mood; one of them is our favorite chair, the one that makes us the most secure and comfortable; and that again is different for each person. A setting that is full of chairs, all slightly different, immediately creates an atmosphere that supports rich experience; a setting that contains chairs that are all alike puts a subtle straight jacket on experience.
Never furnish any place with chairs that are identically the same. Choose a variety of different chairs, some big, some small, some softer than others, some new, with arms, without arms, some wicker, some wood, some cloth.”
Working with what I have – old red couch and chair, two armed chairs gifted to me, one love seat from when Mom downsized – I have tried to make a space that gives options for people, and I do notice visitors gravitating to one chair or another. I prefer large dogs on the floor; this one, called Coconut, generally respects this rule. At least when I’m around.
The chapters in Alexander’s book are that succinct and that practical. Naturally, there are many chapters about light: Wings of Light, Tapestry of Light and Dark, Indoor Sunlight, Light on Two Sides of Every Room, Window Place, Filtered Light, Windows Which Open Wide and Pools of Light. Yesterday we did some work to make Samuel’s room brighter and more comfortable. One thing at a time in an old house, and this weekend was his turn.
This is what it looked like before, the darkest room in the house. The single window might be original to the house, built in 1973. We’ve been slowly replacing them all. Moisture gets between the panes over time, clouding up the view, and this one, as you can see, requires a stick to hold it open!
First the skytube: to bring light from above and to balance the light in the room. There is only one exterior wall, so we can’t have “light on two sides.” But light from above is a darn good substitute for one of the sides.
Then we made a hole in the wall in to put in new windows. A big enough hole for two windows. They are not in yet; that comes later today. Those plus the sky tube will make a big difference!
Light is, of course, not the only thing that makes our spaces comfortable. But wherever we spend a lot of time, we want to feel as good as we can feel. The environment of our created spaces plays into that more than we realize sometimes. It’s only one factor of course, but many, many things come together to make our lives wonderfully interesting, comfortable, safe, personalized and unboring. Comfort is one of them.
I don’t know who’s happiest about the new light in Samuel’s room, but I know it’s worth every bit of effort and frustration. See that wire hanging between the studs that had to be moved? By tomorrow that’s long forgotten. Light will flood this room and the peacefulness of the view will both sooth and inspire.
For seven years that room has been too dark. I am so grateful for the change!