Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

As busy, busy people who move through the world and occasionally need to sit still, we have a tacit understanding that furniture should be, if not comfortable, at least neutral — ready to accept the buttocks of any size, gender, race, or orientation. Beautiful designs tempt us into repose. However the conceit of universal design is upset when we are forced to recognize that not all bodies fit in or are supported by the most elemental of objects. So when, earlier this year, Hunger and Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay was fat-shamed for requesting a chair sturdy enough to support her frame and outcry ensued against this affront on body acceptance, I was also shocked by how a simple function — sitting — could be weaponized against bodies. It’s with Gay’s incident in mind that I approached maneuvering my wide hips into the dimensions of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Barrel chair. Low ceilings are generally cited for the architect’s famous disregard for bodies other than his own, his sense of scale being modeled on his (alleged) 5-foot-8-and-1/4-inch height. Designed in 1907 as part of the custom furniture of his Gesamtkunstwerk, Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, the Barrel chair is one of his most popular designs, often replicated in its nearly circular geometries. Settled into a reproduction of its oak corseting and obliged thereby to adopt a morally good posture, I imagine other people, other soft bits, shifting uncomfortably against the constraints of universality, yet comforted by the allure of an icon.

Sometime in the early 1980s, Reyner Banham looked out across a stretch of Arizona landscape—a dry wash and long mound of earth scattered with trash. “[A]mong the chollas and cacti there are areas of burned ash, holes containing broken porcelain insulators and what may be pieces of toilet fitting, broken china and other domestic detritus; and areas of compacted ground that might have been the sites of small  buildings,” he later wrote in Scenes in America Deserta as the opening to a chapter entitled “Frank Lloyd Wright Country.” Read More …