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18 Jul 2008

Peter Opsvik

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The fundamental flaw of most chairs, says the Oslo-based industrial designer, is that they constrict this natural urge to move while we are sitting in them. This can be a very bad thing – Opsvik even issues a health warning: “A chair is a tool,” he says. “Reuse of it over the long term can cause damage.”

Opsvik is on a mission to rethink the way in which we sit. The designer, who will be 70 next year, is one of the world’s leading developers of work chairs, with numerous domestic and international awards to his name. Although he has never courted the limelight much himself, many of his products will be familiar: the Tripp Trapp child’s stool, for example, designed in 1972, is still manufactured by Stokke and, according to Opsvik, more than six million have been sold. The Capisco, or “saddle” chair, designed for Håg in 1984, is still responsible for making Scandinavian offices look fresh, creative and progressive almost 25 years on. The Balans, known by many as “that strange chair you kneel on which is really good for your posture or something”, was devised in 1979 by Opsvik for Stokke, and is now produced by Varier.

With a new book to his name, Rethinking Sitting, and several products in the offing, Opsvik is overdue some serious attention. In a world that undoubtedly has too many chair designers fighting for attention and prestige, as well as that elusive contract with Vitra/Moroso/et al, here is a designer who stands out for doing something different. Repeatedly.

Although Scandinavian designers are well known for their ability to transcend fashion, Opsvik’s work is nothing to do with his cultural roots. Indeed, when he started out, Opsvik says he saw no point in trying to produce variants of items of furniture or objects that fulfil the Scandinavian design criteria, as there were enough already on the market. Instead, he decided to take care of the rational and ergonomic concerns, and to value expression over beauty. Opsvik is modest in the face of praise. “My pieces are not so old,” he says. “But if it is true that they have become classic, it is because most of my furniture products came into existence for the purpose of giving answers to a functional need, as opposed to a wish to create a beautiful visual form. Second, when the development should solve visual form, I tried to give the products a unique look and avoid following the typical ‘short-wave’ trends or fashions.”

As a result, Opsvik’s designs have never been cool per se, which may be why you will rarely see his name in the pages of Elle Deco or Wallpaper. Invariably what they are, however, is distinctive and relentlessly entertaining to use. Opsvik’s designs are often immediately recognisable: the idea behind most of the seats he has designed for adults is that they should encourage the user to move. Springs are frequently incorporated, as are rockers, while others swing suspended on strings.

His latest prototype – the Reflex for a small Norwegian producer called Naturellement – looks like a cross between a rocking chair, a swing and a suspension bridge. It is, not surprisingly, incredibly comfortable.

Many of Opsvik’s designs don’t look like chairs at all. Perhaps, technically, they are not – such is the strangeness of some of the concepts, they redefine the very notion of typical postures. Take, for example, the Garden. This 1985 design was produced for 20 years by Stokke, but it looks more like a piece of contemporary design art by a RCA graduate than any kind of practical seating solution. A tree-like structure with several branches all ending at different heights with a large padded ball, the Garden encourages users to climb into it and drape themselves across the balls in whichever way they find most comfortable. “The purpose was to gain acceptance for a freer use of the body,” explains Opsvik. “Our ancestors lived in trees.” The Garden was primarily intended for public spaces, particularly for meeting points, since the person who is waiting can easily see and be seen over the crowd. Loved by children and creative office workers alike, it is also pretty entertaining to sit in.

Does Opsvik feel that he has had much influence on the furniture design industry over the years? Surprisingly little, he says. “Not as far as physical products are concerned, anyway. But maybe the message has changed. The communications material from the manufacturers of work chairs from Europe and US now often promotes theories that, as human beings are not made to sit in one posture, “the solution is movement and variation while sitting” – or something in that vein. Even Vitra – a company famous for making visually excellent chairs – has recently been running ads in magazines showing 30 different body postures, instead of promoting a chair’s visual form. “My manufacturers were alone with this kind of ergonomic message for many years,” says Opsvik. The Capisco chairs, incidentally, were the first work chairs in which the seat and backrest could tilt freely without use of handles or locking mechanisms.

Having been working on new solutions to the same tune for several decades, Opsvik is something of an expert in posture and movements that are necessary for different people of different ages and in different situations. One thing always drives the design, however. “Becoming aware of the need or possibility of improvement may, in many cases, be the most valuable moment in the design process,” he says. “Finding the solutions that can meet this need is often more of an analytical process.” He is currently engaged in the redesign of a school desk concept (the chair and table built together as one piece of furniture), which he originally conceived in the 1970s.

Opsvik’s perseverance is inspiring, but how does he define his own success? “One day, success can be the message about one of my alternative chairs enabling a person to work full time after a period with back problems,” he says. “The next day, I may reflect on the increasing number of new chairs on the market that are all trying to lift children of different sizes up to the adult table (some of them are copies). The Tripp Trapp must have been an answer to a need when, in 1972, it became the first ‘high chair’ that can grow with the child.”

Another innovative design – yet to find a producer – was perhaps before its time in 2000. The Nomadi would make a stellar addition to any Ikea or even Vitra catalogue. Answering the need for situations where flexibility, visual impact and environmental solutions are paramount, Nomadi is a series of tables, benches and stools that, when not in use, can be hung on the wall as sculptures, their legs extending sideways in a variety of personable configurations. The latest iteration of the design can also function as a musical instrument – the legs can be removed and used to “play” the tabletops. “Most of the furniture you can buy today still looks as if it was meant for nuclear families with their own home and a large number of rooms,” says Opsvik. “There is a lack of suitable furniture products for the emerging urban nomad, so I developed these.” Dynamic furniture for a dynamic consumer? It’s a slightly different story with the chairs: “The consideration that has had the largest impact on my design of sitting solutions is the fact that people spend more and more of their time sitting. The degree of passivity that characterises modern life calls for improved sitting devices.”
Peter Opsvik is hopping from foot to foot as he talks, gesturing enthusiastically. He is making a point that is absolutely central to his work: people naturally want to move around, whatever they are doing. “If we are able to move, we do,” he says. “When we stand up, we very rarely ever stay still – we shift our weight around, moving our feet and our arms much more than you ever think. We can walk for hours, but we get tired after only a few minutes if we have to stand still.”

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