Mar 20, 2017

The year was 2013. The design research practice we shared the Gurgaon house with, was moving out to a roomier, better place in Lado Sarai. They had moved down to the basement with more people joining, and had now realised it was time to abandon the plumbing nightmare altogether. In the course of our staying together, I had taken to an IKEA folding chair despite the studio’s insistence on the new, ergonomically better made, swivel ones. Depending on who was looking at it (and sitting on it), the IKEA one wasn’t that pleasing to look at, as far as chairs went. I had a little yellow band taped onto one of its legs, to tell it apart from the other three identical ones, and had started calling it Tinku. It was made of perforated steel and the name made no sense (It sounds silly in hindsight. In my defence, I called my WiFi network Nebuchadnezzar.), but ‘Tin-ku’ had a ring to it welded to bits of irony. The research practice had bought it on one of their tours abroad. (It is a curious breed of people, who bring otherwise insignificant pieces of furniture home after a trip in the vilayats. And I approve of that breed.)

The IKEA one was a perfectly ordinary chair, light enough to move at the least of persuasion. Coupled with the faulty wiring at the studio, it could keep me awake with unexpected electric shocks when the aluminiuminimal laptop was hooked up to power. It brought back memories of the green folding chairs, painted the kind of peacock green peacocks were never told they were in possession of, chairs we stacked in bunches of two, and then sat on, at weddings and house-warming feasts back home. The chair was part nostalgia wrapped in practicality sprinkled with a touch of leftover chill on summer mornings.

At the place I was renting, after I had the friendly neighbourhood carpenter build me the perfect table, I went hunting for the perfect chair to go with it. I was reading too much Yves Behar and decided on a red-backed swivel chair. And regretted it the day it arrived. (It did, in fact, not arrive. I wheeled it in myself, the shop only half a block from where I stayed.) At the showroom, among the fairly grotesque ones on display, this one had looked like it belonged in the Vignelli Canon. Now that it was on its own, I could no longer stand its sorry attempt at sophistication. It kept me awake on nights as I chased deadlines though, and the cat I was living with seemed to find the slow swivel amusing. She would sit on it and look at me read in the bed, waiting for the chair to be turned in mellow circles. Some chairs are cat chairs. I remember the two grass-woven ones I had kept in the garage-turned-room outside, in anticipation of guests who would never arrive. Once in a while, out of a sense of duty, I would sit on one and read the newspaper, the cat napping on the other in a perfect arc. We would find peace and she would turn it into a scratch-post afterwards.

During college, I got to sit on Nakashimas, Van-Der-Rohes (an imitation Barcelona chair), Chinese knockoffs of Ovalia Eggs at an upscale cafe, various Eamses and a whole bunch of prototypes from the furniture department, never making a connection. Some were admirable from a distance, most were ergonomically perfect and some legends on their own right. They did not need people sat on them to be whole. (Would the imitations have filled me with a sense of accomplishment if I hadn’t known they were? Would I have reveled in the feeling had I not known the pedigree?) The ones I fell for were humble GU chairs (after Gajanan Upadhyay) in the canteen, resembling multicoloured buttons stacked on top of each other. They were solid, unassuming, made us variously lean forward, stretch out and even do the wheelie equivalent one does on those chairs one knows will be more accomodating of the lack of exercise and too much Bun-Maska in the mornings. They never judged us like the plastic ones did. What they lacked in playing at new-ness, they more than made up in empathy. Later, we would find a mezzanine floor at the Paldi City Museum dedicated to these chairs in their unscratched glory, waiting in silence to reward people weird enough to climb the stairs tucked into a corner, away from the kites and multicolour distractions on the ground floor.

Image: GU Chair (From the Gajanan Upadhyay monograph)

Two years after the IKEA chair incident, I left the ‘confines’ of my regular, paying job to focus on two-digit bank balances, and decided to set up a workplace down south, close to the sea, making up for all those years away from the unapologetic geography. We (M, B and I) needed chairs and our pockets were unwilling. We scouted around in high-end furniture shops, drooled over more from Yves Behar, and settled on second-hand chairs in need of their major miracle. M, the product-designer, had a painter friend with attention to detail that matched M’s own, spend weeks on the old chairs (“They have good bones,” said the friend.) and manage to make them work better than they ever did. Once restored, hours passed (being fresh out of work helped) with us debating what colour to paint the backrests in, before deciding on white. The day we moved into the space, and sat ourselves down on these time-sinks, I knew I had fallen in love again. These were vanilla-ice cream chairs, quite like the IKEA ones from work in their bare bones approach to function. Something deliberate about the exposed wood-grain and the joinery. We called them ‘Seems’ chairs after the legend’s own. When we had friends over, we sat on them facing the wrong way.

Image: The Seems Chair at KL11

For the research studio people from Gurgaon, it was time to pack up and leave with their chairs. I decide to save myself the minor heartbreak watching it carried off to a truck, and leave early. I reach the studio the day after and settle down on one of the swivel chairs, trying to not feel a phantom limb off the perforated metal frame by accident. After 11, Mr. D (teacher, mentor, also runs the studio) arrives with the extended family, and goes to the lawn out back. The lawn doubled up as our official open-air conference room overlooking consistently annoyed neighbours in twin towers of the Gurgaon kind. We have a conversation over chai, on how to spread out to the rest of the ground floor now that it is empty, what will we eat now the cook has moved out with the moving out party, and so on. (In Gurgaon back then, unlike in other metropolises, one didn’t panic at the possibility of empty space.) As we walk back in, Mr. D stops by the cabinet of magazines and packaging we couldn’t make ourselves throw away, and pulls out Tinku with no trace of a flourish. I freeze in my tracks as Mrs. M retells how they had slipped it into the cabinet after I left and had hoped the movers wouldn’t notice one piece missing. I went on sitting on it till I left two years later, never once looking back at the swivel-ones again.

Image: The IKEA chair (From IKEA)

At IDC, three semesters and an unforgiving P3 schedule later, I find another. (After all the excitement around the reclining, rocking chair [Prof. Munshi’s] in the third floor VC studio. Each encounter with it an exercise in surprise, delight.) We had hauled two of these light-weight Prismas from CONF-ROOM-1 for an overpopulated course and held on to them. On Saturdays when the department is sleepy and everyone (including Taxi) decides it isn’t worth looking up to my increasingly weird summonses, I sit on it facing the other way and wonder what it could mean to be on a quest to perfect the idea of a chair. I have seen people do that in the wood workshop. I think over my relationships with chairs. Getting to know them have often felt romantic. Some leave deep, painful impressions as I leave, only to heal too soon with a memory of once having been around. The swivel ones are too jumpy and turn away before I have a chance at long walks on the beach and so on. 

Then I doze off. A chair is a chair only when someone is sat on it. Then it isn’t anymore.

Image: The Prisma Chair at IDC (From a Modelco catalog)

There are chairs I look forward to seeing in person, someday. One is the Mae West Lips Sofa Salvador Dali shaped after the actress Mae West’s lips. And then, I will settle for an undisturbed hour looking at the 1917 De Stijl chair. I am not sure I will last that long on it, though. For Gerrit Rietveld, sitting was a verb (“zitten is een werkwoord”).

What are the chairs you remember?

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Wrote this for an online magazine. I haven’t heard back from them.