Communities in China use a lot of outdoor furniture. And chairs, laundry, food preparation, morning ablutions all spill out onto the narrowhutong and urban streets. Because they do, everyday people create the infrastructure to support these activities. Much of the furniture is outside year-round, with owners making a minimal effort to keep it protected from the elements. When there is the threat of rain, for instance, they angle chairs against walls to ensure the rain runs off instead of puddling and potentially soaking the wood.
In the United States, the Shakers are often lauded for their carefully observed furniture designs, including their hanging furniture—grandfather clocks, bookshelves, chairs placed on racks with neatly spaced hooks, and defying gravity.
Image by Dave Morris/Flickr
Simple and elegant as the Shaker style is—including their signature practice of storing chairs hanging upside down—I'd argue that the Chinese DIY chair storage is just as, if not more elegant than the Shaker hanging furniture, since it can apply to most high-back chair designs and also works with any wall.
The type of noticeboard frame seen in my hutong photo is fairly common in Chinese cities, so the lean-forward approach with the hind legs wedged under the frame requires minimal preparation for use. And, in terms of effective user-friendly design, the subtle repositioning of a rained-soaked chair with one hand allows the owner to easily wipe the surface with the other hand.
Could the chair design itself better support other stakeholders in the community—for example, the person who cleans/sweeps the hutong? The person owning the chair and the street cleaner are unlikely to be one and the the same, and designing a chair that makes it easier to sweep underneath is not a priority for the owner. One could argue that not explicitly accommodating the needs of the hutong sweeper and the extra steps required to move furniture around reinforces the current power structure, roles and responsibilities.
Not that your or my opinions matter in the enjoyment of this product, but I am guessing that by the likely demographic of most people reading this on Core77—the chair would either be considered nondescript or ugly. So what would it take for you personally to put less emphasis on the visceral aspects of the design, and pay more attention to and appreciate its usability? In what contexts do looks matter most, and in which situations are they less important? How do these factors affect the design of personal objects stored in public spaces? How responsible do designers need to be in terms of creating appealing products in these contexts? In what contexts would you grow to truly love this, and would your appreciation of it changed if it were transported from a hutong in Beijing to a hip neighborhood in L.A.?
Note: For those with a penchant for hutong furniture, including the Old Guy Chair, (and well made Chinese reinterpretations of Japanese reinterpretations of Danish design classics) will want to head over to Lost and Found, Beijing, or of course take a stroll down to your nearest hutong.
Jan Chipchase is Executive Creative Director of Global Insights at frog, as well as an advisory board member for Makeshift Magazine. You can subscribe to his Facebook feed here, follow him on @janchip. This article first appeared here.