Sitting on Your Grave: How Most Chairs are Slowly Killing You

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

The hunters and gatherers of the prehistoric world could never have imagined that one day, many people would spend most of their lives sitting. Yet in today’s modern world, many people do just that, spending countless hours each day seated in cars, at work and at home. The need to move has driven the evolution of the human body, and it is ill-equipped to handle a sedentary lifestyle. Medical researchers are responding with new studies on “inactivity physiology,” while modern furniture designers are taking a new look at ergonomics. Interior design professionals, for their part, are busy theorizing new approaches to work place design.

Health Consequences of Prolonged Sitting

When a body sits for too long, the circulation slows. Enzymes that normally break down the fat in the body react to long periods of sitting by going dormant. In his book, Move a Little, Lose a Lot, Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota states that after a full day of sitting, the effect of the body’s fat burners is reduced by 50 percent.

Prolonged periods of sitting also increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease. It even reduces the number of hormones reaching the brain, which can result in depression. Staying seated too long plays havoc on the body’s posture, as well; the muscles that support the spine weaken and become stiff. Hip and leg muscles shorten and tighten.

An Australian study published in the European Heart Journal found that sitting for long periods of time is harmful for otherwise active people as well, increasing bad cholesterol, decreasing good cholesterol and broadening the waist line. The one hopeful note in the study was the finding that the more breaks that the participants in the study took, the healthier their results were. Of the 17,000 participants in the study, those that took frequent breaks had smaller waist lines, lower body mass indexes and healthier blood sugar levels.

Reimagining Ergonomics

The human body instinctively moves when uncomfortable. Some argue that ergonomically designed chairs, intended to be kinder to the human body, have merely allowed people to sit for longer periods of time. Yet there is no arguing that the field of ergonomics has helped develop chairs that are more comfortable and that comfortable workers do a better job. Recently, however, ergonomic experts have been taking another look at posture, including a closer examination of what it means to be comfortable. Rather than assuming that comfort means total relaxation of the muscles, experts are now openly wondering whether or not complimentary muscle groups, working in balance, may be more comfortable for long-term sitting.

For generations, Western culture has assumed that keeping the back at a right angle to the thighs while seated is the best posture, yet that angle puts a lot of strain on the lower back. Another posture is being promoted, by NASA no less, as healthier. The “neutral body posture” is a position somewhere between sitting and standing. Also known as the “perch” position, it better balances the muscles in both the front and back of the body.

Contemporary furniture makers have taken note, designing chairs with side cutouts on the seat so that those who sit on them can easily assume the perch position. Hydraulic tables are available that, with the push of a button, can raise the surface to the correct height for the perch position. Even the venerable lounge chair is being re-imagined as a work chair, as the typical lounge chair automatically places the body in NASA’s neutral body position. A computer monitor on a movable arm makes working in this position possible.

Rethinking Interior Design

Using lounge chairs, recliners and adjustable beds at home may ease the health consequences of sitting for too long of a period. But in the end, sitting in any position for a long time is unhealthy. Modern furniture that allows the body to engage in a variety of postures throughout the day may be the answer. At home, innovative interior design schemes may focus on creating living room conversation areas with seating at different levels or with varying depths, widths and back heights.

Work space interior designs present other challenges, requiring the acceptance and approval of management. Standing desks are being used by a relatively small number of companies, and while they are one viable alternative to sitting all day, they present their own health hazards since prolonged standing isn’t good for the body either. Treadmill desks are too cumbersome for many work settings, and no one expects workers to use them for an entire work day. Even keyboards, for their part, are being reinvented with ergonomic designs in mind, and these are certainly easier to work with than treadmill desks!

Redesigning jobs so that workers are able to change postures during the day is the healthiest solution, yet corporations are notoriously slow to accept change. Until that day comes, the healthiest alternative for today’s modern worker is to avoid sitting for extended periods as much as possible and, when seated, to ensure that the chair is designed with the natural contours of the body in mind. All this will be good news to the skilled designers of modern furniture, being that the modern school of design has long held that “form follows function.”

Decor Trek: The USS Enterprise’s Bridge Through the Years

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

Since the launch of the original Star Trek television series in 1966, dozens of different starships have borne the USS Enterprise designation, some portrayed in television and cinema, others described in novels and magazines, all spanning an imagined timeline of some 600 years. Volumes have been written about the structure, layout and design of these famous fictional crafts. Star Trek remains the most exhaustively researched science-fiction universe ever created, with a passionate fan base of millions of fans (also known as “Trekkies”).

From an interior design perspective, the evolution of the bridge of the USS Enterprise over the years reflects three cultural influences. First and foremost, designs have been affected by each individual project’s production budget. Second, designs have been shaped by the trends and fashions of the time in which they were created. Finally, designs have been influenced by the creators’ vision of what the future will look like.

The Original Star Trek Television Series

Networks had little faith that the original Star Trek series would be a hit, so production expenses were kept to a minimum. Nevertheless, the bridge of the original Enterprise, as interpreted by designer Matt Jeffries, was surprisingly creative. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry placed the bridge on the deck of the ship, at the top of the craft’s saucer section. The first version featured gooseneck viewers, reminiscent of submarines. These incongruous features were gone by the time James Tiberius Kirk took the helm.

Post-modernism flourished during the free-wheeling 1960s when Star Trek hit the small screen. Designers were rebelling against the minimalist styles of classic modernism, opting instead for contemporary furniture with a more personal, eclectic style. This sensibility is echoed in Kirk’s bridge, with its circular, sunken floor and quirky red railings. Chairs for the crew are a perfect example of how Roddenberry used affordable contemporary furniture to convey a futuristic style.

The first Star Trek bridge was built for function; even the Captain’s chair looked uncomfortable. But the chair did feature some technological innovations, with ship controls built into the arm rests. Budget constraints may have limited the style of the first bridge, but what it lacked in expensive materials, it made up for with blinking lights and beeping sound effects. The basic layout of the bridge, with its central command chairs encircled by crew stations, would remain in almost every future Enterprise vessel.

Star Trek Films Featuring the Original Crew

When Star Trek moved from the small screen to the big screen in 1979, the bridge was given a makeover, or a “retrofit.” The Captain’s chair still held its central, raised position, but two other chairs were added into the mix. All the chairs were more stylized, with stitched detailing and subtle, arcing shapes. Instead of side chairs with flimsy seat belts, the crew enjoyed built-in, high-back swivel chairs.

The primary colors used in the original series were replaced with neutral shades. The molded plastic consoles manned by the crew not only reflected a more futuristic style, but echoed the generally softer lines of the interior design trends of the time as well. As the Star Trek movies with the original crew continued, the bridge became larger and more expansive. Larger budgets meant that more attention could be paid to the technology of the bridge, and the panels of screens and consoles played a greater role in the overall design.

The Next Generation

27 million people watched the first episode of the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Designed by Andrew Probert, the bridge of the new Enterprise was elongated into an oval shape. For the first time, the bridge was unabashedly designed for style as well as function. Nowhere was this more evident than in the ceiling; the ceiling was a half dome, with the lower half serving as an ambient light source, crisscrossed by metallic designs. The color scheme was warm and rich, while the chairs were comfortable enough to be used in contemporary living rooms.

While the railings that had encircled every bridge thus far could not be entirely abandoned without a revolt from loyal fans, in Next Generation they assumed a more decorative position. Presumably, the railings had been viewed as a safety feature for voyages through tumultuous space. This premise was put aside with a long arcing rail of wood sloped gracefully to the floor.

When the cast of Next Generation moved into the film franchise, the look of the bridge inexplicably grew darker. Blue tones overwhelmed the warmer shades. Rather than reflecting contemporary interior design trends, the sets seemed more influenced by trending cinematic styles, with an over-abundance of lighting effects. The chairs, however, featured luxurious looking brown leather, perhaps echoing an ongoing trend towards enriching interiors with texture.

The Prequel

Any producer, director or set designer involved in a television show or movie in the Star Trek franchise faces the challenge of creating designs for a bridge that will be distinctive and memorable, yet simultaneously acceptable to the franchise’s multitude of loyal fans. Director J.J. Abrams took a big risk with his visual reinterpretation of the bridge in his Star Trek prequel movie. Designed by Scott Chambliss, the bridge was a radical departure in all aspects, from its layout to its lack of a central focal point. Flashy, cluttered and overloaded with flaring lighting effects, it perhaps reflected the chaos of the global financial collapse more than any clear vision of the future.

The décor trek of the enduring Star Trek saga not only documents the constantly changing vision of the franchise, but the cultural trends that have occurred over the last 45 years as well. Each Star Trek production includes contemporary furniture that producers envisioned as futuristic, providing glimpses of the styles of modern furniture that may endure for generations to come. May the art of interior design live long and prosper!

6 Pieces of Furniture You’ll Never Be Able to Afford

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

When it comes to creating a distinct interior design for your home, paying extra for furniture constructed with quality materials, expert craftsmanship and stellar style is usually worth the investment. A fine piece of furniture will likely be enjoyed for a lifetime and may even be passed down from generation to generation. But no matter how fat one’s wallet may be, every budget has its limit. Here are six pieces of glamorous furniture that most people will never be able to afford, but that may just inspire an appreciation of the finer things in life:

1. The Badminton Cabinet

This lovely antique is so named because for over two centuries, it stayed in Badminton, England. Crafted from ebony, the chest is inlaid with precious stones, including lapis lazuli, agate and amethyst quartz. In 1990, Barbara Piasecka Johnson, of the Johnson & Johnson family, bought the Badminton Cabinet for over $16 million. In 2004, she put the piece up for auction at Christie’s. Prince Hans Adam II of Liechtenstein then bought the cabinet for a whopping $36 million, making it the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold at auction. The Prince donated the Badminton Cabinet to Austria’s Liechtenstein Museum.

2. The Dragon’s Chair

It’s not only traditional antique furniture that commands the highest prices, as the best of classic modern furniture can cost a pretty penny as well. The Dragon’s Chair, created by Irish designer Eileen Gray in the early 1900s, is a striking example of early modern design. The chair is crafted in brown leather, with a frame sculpted to resemble the bodies of two intertwined dragons – a bold sight that would look at home in any modern living room design scheme. The wood is lacquered in brown, orange and silver. Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent owned the Dragon’s Chair before it was sold at a Christie’s auction for nearly $28 million.

3. Louis XVI Commode

Historically, the word “commode” has been used to describe chests of drawers with characteristics that included serpentine lines and elaborate inlaid detailing. Commodes were typically displayed in a prominent place, sometimes accented by a mirror. Eventually they were moved into the bedroom. A pitcher, bowl and towel rack were added, and they were subsequently used as a wash stand, leading to the modern association of commodes with the toilet. The Louis XVI Commode and matching Secretaire were part of the estate of billionaire banker Edmond J. Safra. The pieces feature opulent gilded ormulu mounts on a Japanese lacquer. They were sold at a Sotheby’s auction for nearly $7 million.

4. The Baldacchino Supreme Bed

Sometimes contemporary furniture is priced out-of-reach too. British designer Stuart Hughes recently collaborated with Fratelli Basile Interior Design of Nocera Superiore, Italy to create the world’s most expensive bed. The elaborate canopy bed is draped in Italian silk curtains, with a capitonnè headboard that can be decorated with diamonds at the customer’s request. The bed’s frame is constructed from cherry, chestnut and ash wood, and carved in Medieval turns and ornamentation. The entire frame is bordered with gold leaf. Only two Baldacchino Supreme beds were ever made, and one has already been sold. The price? Over $6 million.

5. John Lennon’s White Upright Piano

Sometimes a piece of furniture is priced high solely for its association with a celebrity. For $1,500, John Lennon bought an upright piano that had been manufactured at Steinway’s factory in Germany in 1970. Lennon composed and recorded many of his most famous songs on the instrument, including the classic “Imagine.” In 2000, an unnamed British collector sold the piano at auction for nearly $3 million to pop star George Michael.

6. Aresline Xten Chair

The Italian design firm of Pininfarina is responsible for designing some of the world’s most high-priced and luxurious automobiles, including Ferraris and Cadillacs. The designers used their expertise to create what many consider to be the most comfortable chair ever created: the Aresline Xten Chair. This luxurious chair uses several propriety materials and technologies, including the Dynamic Synchronized Tilting system that allows the back and the seat to tilt back independently of each other. The cushions are filled with a material called Technogel that self-adjusts to the shape of those who sit in the chair. The Aresline Xten Chair is even crafted from the same aerodynamic material that Olympic athletes use, Dynatec. For a cool $1.5 million, connoisseurs of fine seating can own this glamorous chair for themselves.

Whether antique or contemporary, for collectors, fine furniture is not only viewed as a worthwhile investment, but also as a way to exhibit personal taste, status and style. Thoughtful, modern interior design embraces this sensibility, with creations that reflect and enhance the life style of those who purchase and enjoy them. No matter what one’s decorating budget may be, the best interiors will be decorated in furnishings that make those who inhabit them feel right at home.

Bohemian Rhapsody for Lasvit

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

One of the most talked about installations at last year’s Milan Design Week was the Lasvit project that called for top designers like Fabio Novembre, Nendo and Mathieu Lehanneur to indulge in limitless ingenuity by creating a series of glass blown objects representative of love and light, which are the two protagonists behind the brand’s name – Laska (love) and Svit (light).  The three resulting installations went above and beyond the called for striking metamorphosis of blown glass into modern art objects, presenting the world with inspiring realizations of “universe in a state of tension halfway between the rigid geometry of theory and the melting state of reality, halfway between an implosion and an explosion.” Fabio Novembre.  Nendo’s explanation included a bold attempt to “turn convention on its head by making flowers blooming in vases into vases blooming from flowers to represent the flower bulbs that draw nutrients from plants through photosynthesisand store new life.”  And finally, Mathieu Lehanneur’s creation was “halfway between quartz and gas, between mineral and animal, soft geometry is a stone which thinks and breathes.”

Bohemian Rhapsody for Lasvit

Bohemian Rhapsody for Lasvit

Bohemian Rhapsody for Lasvit

The World’s 5 Most Obscenely Luxurious Palaces

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

Gilded ornaments and sumptuous linens are standard fare within the walls of the world’s five most obscenely luxurious palaces. Created for ruling officials and their family members, some of these buildings remain inhabited for official use. Other structures have emerged as important cultural landmarks within their respective countries after conversion to art and history museums. What they all have in common, however, is their jaw-dropping opulence!

1. Dolmabahce Palace – Turkey
Located along the European side of the Bosphorus strait coastline, this massive, elegant complex once served as the headquarters of the storied Ottoman Empire. Built during the mid-19th century, Dolmabahce Palace seamlessly blends a variety of architecture styles; Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical and Turkish designs all came together to form a truly unique external and internal design scheme.

The imposing external façade houses a truly decadent interior. 285 rooms and 45 halls were divided into three distinct areas for use by officials and their family members. 14 tons of gold leaf covers the ceiling, while the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier illuminates the center hall. Dolmabahce also holds the largest collection of Baccarat crystal, even incorporating the material into one of its great staircase designs. While the palace boasts countless bedrooms with wondrous decor and furnishings, the most-visited one is that which served as the deathbed of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the legendary founder of the modern Turkish republic.

Protocol dictated the interior design scheme. Tables bear the royal emblem, while curtains and most furnishings are a deep shade of regal red. Porcelain vases and 150-year-old bearskin rugs are a part of the furnishings for a palace known in English as The Filled Garden. These days, the palace is open for public tours, receiving thousands of curious visitors each day.

2. Catherine Palace – Russia
Catherine Palace was a refuge for Russian Czars looking to get away from the sweltering summers of Moscow. Located just outside St. Petersburg, Empress Elizabeth commissioned the Rococo design scheme in the mid-17th century. In Empress Elizabeth’s eyes, the original designs were outdated. The palace became synonymous with luxury after her upgrades were completed.

Gold leaf covered building exteriors, while numerous statues gazed down upon guests from the rooftop. A formal garden graced the front of palace grounds and an outdoor pavilion featured dumbwaiters to facilitate al fresco dining. This was just a preview of what Catherine Palace had to offer; a series of formal rooms feature intricate paintings on the ceiling, while windows in the Great Hall gaze out directly over adjacent gardens. In the White Formal Dining Room, a mural of Apollo watched over the Empress and her guests. Later improvements included walls lined with apricot silk and inlaid floors of mahogany and rosewood. Catherine Palace is also home to the famous Amber Room, which is embellished with amber panels, gold leaf and tons of mirrors.

3. Palazzo Pitti – Italy
One of Florence’s largest art galleries was once a luxurious palace. Situated on the River Amo, an Italian banker originally commissioned the residence. Palazzo Pitti stands out due to its Romanesque exterior design; thanks to seven carefully placed arches, the building resembles an ancient aqueduct. This gave the palace an imposing classical appearance against the modern city skyline.

Upon entering the palace grounds, guests immediately pass through a garden and large courtyard. Statues of animals, slaves and plants are hidden away in a grotto that also houses a fountain. Frescoes and elaborate stuccowork decorate the first floor rooms. Four-poster beds are some of the furnishings found within royal living spaces.

The transition from active palace to art museum started during the 18th century, but royals continued to use the premises for official business until the 1920s. The entire palace was eventually converted to a public art museum, which it remains to this day.

4. Abdeen Palace – Egypt
It took 10 years for a French architect to design Abdeen Palace. Decorators from Egypt, Italy, France and Turkey used 2 million Egyptian pounds (EGP) to furnish all 500 rooms. This figure eclipsed total building costs, which only amounted to approximately 700,000 EGP. Abdeen is named for Abdeen Bey, owner of the land, which housed the former royal court for Egypt.

Many people consider Abdeen to be the most luxurious palace in the world. Layers of pure gold cover paintings and clocks located throughout the building. A series of museums are located on the ground floor, including military and Presidential gifts. Visiting dignitaries still use the upper levels, so little information is available regarding the former living quarters of the Egyptian royal family.

5. Palacio da Alvorada – Brazil
One of the younger structures on the list belongs to the country of Brazil. Palacio da Alvorada, or Palace of Dawn, was built in the late 1950s. The structure epitomizes contemporary architecture, with glass walls supported by rail-like external columns. Features of the three-story building include an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a library, and a separate chapel area.

Gold covered walls greet arriving guests as statues silently stand guard in the mezzanine area, where floor to ceiling windows offer unobstructed garden views. Designers made the expansive stateroom feel slightly more intimate by creating smaller nooks with area rugs and small, soft chairs. Mirrors line the entire wall of the music room, making the hardwood floors seem like they go on forever.

In 2004, First Lady Marisa Leticia started palace renovations to replace antiquated pieces with contemporary furniture. Careful research was undertaken to ensure that all items remained true to the original design scheme. It took 2 years and 18.4 million United States dollars (USD) to return Palacio da Alvorada to its former glory.

In Closing
Many people can only dream of palace living. These elaborate structures were once a requirement for royalty and other government officials, as they sought to dazzle their subjects with shows of power and wealth. While most of their respective rulers were removed from power long ago, these luxurious residences are no less dazzling to behold today than they were at the prime of their existence. If you’re fortunate enough, your travels may well take you to one of them some day!