Atlantic Cities

The Quest to Design the Ultimate Public Chair for Battery Park

A pretzel, a folded-up copy of The New York Times, and Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2: These are some of the inspirations for a new kind of public chair slated to cradle rumps in Manhattan's Battery Park.

A while ago, the Battery Conservancy put out a call for entries asking North and South American designers to create the ultimate outdoors chair. The specifications were that the chairs should be able to endure foul weather, show innovative industrial design, and "delight while they invite." It was also crucial that the people could move the furniture. Why's that? As our own Nate Berg wrote last fall:

In his classic 1980 study of the use of public spaces in New York City, William H. Whyte and his team of researchers used cameras to watch people and understand how they used the public places in the city. One of the takeaways from the film footage was that people like to sit in public places, and, far more fascinatingly, that if given the option they will almost always move chairs before they sit in them....

Whyte, who passed away in 1999, saw this as a crucial aspect of designing good public spaces and parks – especially in a heavily populated area like New York City. 

Part of Whyte's legacy is the park's commitment to using these lightweight chairs, which will appear in 2014 in a yet-finished public lawn called the Battery Green, located here:

More than 1,500 designers responded to the chair challenge, a glut of ideas that the conservancy and NYC Parks recently whittled down to 50 finalists. Next spring jurors from the Museum of Modern Art, The New York Times, and elsewhere will pick the winner, who will receive $10,000 and boasting rights for owning an exclusive chair monopoly over a prominent Manhattan park... at least until the snazzy furniture migrates into private living rooms throughout the city. Just kidding – the park's supervisors say they don't expect any problems with theft (although the chairs might get RFID chips, just in case).

Among the 50 finalists are some highly original and whacked-out designs. Here are a few of the grippier ones, in no particular order:

"Salix" (Ed Kopel Archtects)

This translucent wonder is made by draping plastic yarn over a mold that's later removed. Each chair is unique and thanks to a chemical in the plastic also glows in the dark. "The chair shall be stiff enough but shall also have some give," its creators say. "Like nature itself, it shall be adaptable." (The name presumably refers to the willow tree, not the pharmaceutical company that helps people with gastrointestinal disorders.)

"Portable Park" (Bohlin Cywinski Jackson)

It might be a little tough understanding what's going on in this modular chair, made from a "soy-based eco-resin" – train your eyes on the top diagrams to see how it's supposed to function. Basically, the furniture comes disassembled in various geometric shapes, like a toddler's set of play blocks. Visitors can then lodge them together to form whatever furniture best suits their needs, whether it be reading stool, reclining bench, lunch table, or, if you're a big jerkface, a 15-foot tall throne using all the pieces in the park. Write the designers, who you know have played their fair share of Tetris: "Portable Park acts as a three-dimensional puzzle-like set at the scale of the human body, as it can be configured into a myriad of shapes to support the incredible range of activities happening in and around the Green."

"Chair Descending a Staircase" (FJA Architecture)

Given the name, one might be startled to learn the original inspiration for this sittable scribble was not Duchamp but the suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. That got the designers thinking of Duchamp's painting, and thus this artsy folding chair was born. "Duchamp’s painting depicts a model moving down a staircase by means of a series of cascading shapes," they say. "In similar fashion this design transfers loads from the occupant to the ground by means of a series of cascading trapezoidal planes." It's probably good the designers didn't run with Duchamp's other Dada masterpiece, Fountain.

"One-Quarter Table" (Jaklitsch / Gardner Architects)

The makers of this oddball entry wanted to highlight the "social condition" of chairs. So they gave their prototype a horizontal slab on its rear so people can push the chairs together to make communal surfaces. "Chairs can be seamlessly combined in which two chairs arranged back to back create a table large enough for a chess game or two friends meeting for lunch," they say. "The number of chairs that can be combined is only limited to the number of available chairs. Larger arrangements accommodate a 4-person table and seating or even a long banquet table." There's even cup holders for folks who find interacting easier with a foamy beverage (just don't let the cops catch you).

"Twiddle" (Noa Younse)

Experimental artist/designer/techno-kook Noa Younse helped conceive this pseudo-sentient chair, which is riddled with video panels that fade from transparent to black. "The chair is designed to activate its LCD shutters during the day, dancing in the sunlight that powers the embedded photovoltaic panels within the seat," its makers write. "The simple patterns, programmed into an onboard microprocessor, will let the unoccupied chair 'play' until it is sat in by a passerby." Make sure to watch this video to see how the chair blinks and blips like a robot on the fritz.

"The Newspaper Chair" (University of Toronto)

The font at the top gives away what newspaper this chair is referencing. The team that thought it up wanted to give stressed-out New Yorkers a chance to quietly reflect on things, so they made a design with overlapping surfaces that looks like a folded-up Times. The idea is that the chair provides a psychological prompt for people to chill out. "The association of the chair with the act of reading, and viewing, would condition the user to focus on the act of sitting and taking in his or her surroundings," they say.

"Battery Park Pretzel" (Bartosik)

Mmmmmm... pretzel chair. This Canadian entry can be flipped over to provide a totally different sitting surface. Don't try to bite it, though – it's not actually edible.

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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