I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on various subjects, but particularly the subject of chairs. I have recently become blessed with an abundance of seating, most of which have been discarded by their previous owners and refinished by Justin and me.
So the other night I was trying to find the name of a particular decorative style of chair: not so much the chair itself, rather the two-tone-and-folk-painted variety that I have thus far concluded arrived in the United States by way of Swiss or Dutch ancestry in the late 19th century. My research may prove me wrong, but this is where it stands now.
My own observations about humanity led me to thinking that a “chair” of some sort might be one of the first pieces of “furniture” modern man would design. At first, maybe a rock would suffice, but certainly after a while the rock might be altered in a way that is smoothed for modern man’s sitting parts to allow comfort. It seems to me that one day modern man would think “Hey, this rock (or log) is more comfortable than the ground.” And thus becomes chair.
So I tried to search it out: “What was the first chair?” but only received results as far back as Greater Mesopotamia, when the acquisition of chairs were a symbol of both class and status. This was more “chair” than I was seeking; so I tried other searches, but realized that the identity of “chair” was very specific and therefore as far back as chair could go was to actually a chair and not a rock.
In ancient Egypt and Greater Mesopotamia, chair became two things: the noun, “chair,” and the verb, “chair,” of which the latter is a status symbol created by the object of its affections. Chair.
Of course, we are talking about humanity, and as I’ve always believed, humans haven’t really changed that much. People are still essentially the same today as they were 6000 years ago (maybe even 50,000 years ago), only our objective reality has become more complicated (not necessarily more complex). And one thing modern man has always wanted is the image of power, chairs notwithstanding.
Earlier today I was talking with a friend about an antiques store she recently visited during her almost heroic quest for “the chair” to silhouette in a her new video project. She related an account of a chair she saw for $850, which, in many examples, isn’t all that much for a good chair, especially one with historical value. This particular chair was a high modern piece with clean, straight lines that represent a fashionable (read: currently desirable) period of time around the mid-20th century. Fashion is created by an amalgam of environment and longing, particularly influenced by social media and marketing.
So this conversation led me to thinking about typefaces. Typefaces, like chairs, represent fashion and social current/currency. Chairs are of a period, just like typefaces and we choose to present ourselves to the world with our objects of desire (in type or furniture); we want these ideas and objects to be coveted by Others so that we may put ourselves in relation to them. We use fashion as a method of inclusion in a world where we are, ultimately, alone.
Not every typeface is transparent, not all typography recedes; certain types symbolise philosophies and ideologies, some represent institutions, nations, and cults, many have intrinsic meaning. In about 1540 the French monarch François I commissioned Claude Garamond to design the typeface that bears his name. Believing that standardised typography would make governance easier, Garamond’s face was ordered to be used for all official papers, and became a symbol of French enlightenment as well as the nation’s first proprietary font. Around the same time Maximilian, the German king rejected Antiqua (used in Latin manuscripts) in favour of spiky blackletter.
In the sixteenth century, blackletter stood for German protestantism and nationalism, in the 1920s it was attacked for being antiquated, replaced by the New Typography, characterised by sans serif type in asymmetrical compositions and codified in 1928 by Jan Tschichold. In 1933, however, the Nazi government revived the blackletter face, proclaiming it Volk (or the people’s) type and condemned the New Typography as un-German. (source)
And therefore, we can find a relationship to language (the vehicle behind typeface) and style (the vehicle behind identity) and their relationship to us and Other in society by way of proximity.
Language itself is much like this – at least in the Western world. Characters of the alphabet, like people, are individual and without direct meaning until they are placed in proximity to another object: either another letter (or person) or punctuation (object). These strings of characters present abstracted ideograms we call “words” but even a word doesn’t mean much out of the contextual relationship of other words.
The fact might very well be that we don’t exist until an Other confirms our existing by its existence. The chair is only assembled parts and fabrics until we assign it the identity of “chair” and only within the contextual relationship of other objects does it really exist. How different is this from a sign marking the streamlined chair for $850 in a sans serif font, big beautiful block letters all strung together to convey the idea of “sleek”, “modern” and “fashionable”, a judgment we carry from our living rooms to the outside world, believing that we really are all those things, but more than that, hoping Others believe it, too.
We are all objects shifting in and out of context in a world far too caught up in an identity crisis. All the signs are there, literally.