Ergonomically Designing Art Objects

Based within a discussion of semiotics, Ergonomically Designing Art Objects researches furniture's significations and its evolution through traditional form, ergonomic function, and consumed product. Major points include the ways in which objects are capable of collapsing and retaining the semiotic divide between a sign and referent, and how that signification relates to contemporary design-oriented products. Using the chair as a somewhat satirical object, the installation questions how objects have lost their signifying properties due to increased consumerism. A study of a chair’s semiotic nature has the potential to change that lost signification (either through retention or separation) while still being a design product - as explored in the following installation.

Furniture (and the chair in particular - the most tangible object with which we interact) has a strong signifying nature, where the actual form has been completely realized. Not only has the chair been established as a symbol, word, and object since its inception, but it also has been commoditized to the greatest degree by design and branding - it has been stretched in both its signifying qualities and signified qualities by consumer culture.

Questioned is what happens when the chair is put into an art context? Or if the basic elements of a chair – form and function – are stripped away? A whole multitude of symbols and factors that accompany the signifier and referent of “the chair” make this an extremely complex object for artistic study. However, the chairs not only end up questioning the role of functioning objects in a gallery, but satirically show the current nature of ergonomic design for chairs.

The design and engagement between the various chair-like objects advocates form and function as the determining factors in the semiotic role of a chair. The distinction of these two elements, and their retention or separation, opens discourse as to the breakdown of the semiotic relationships between signified and signifier, and how that may change the way we understand design and the chair. 


More about Installation:

To understand the first question, I had to understand the qualities that name an object a sit-able one, something to be purchased for a living room, and signal “chair.” The first object series, consisting of nylon cords strung on wooden frames, suggests ergonomic function as the primary factor in making an object into a chair-signifier. When the object cannot be read as an efficient object to sit on, it no longer becomes an ergonomically functional chair, but another kind of object. It may resemble, have similar materials, or be named a chair, but it does not act as a chair-signifier because of the lack of proper functionality. The string chairs do this because they do not function ergonomically – they cannot be arranged for proper seating, are not normal heights within a set, or have the stability for varying weights – but they can nonetheless be sat on. The chairs are functional, but they do not ergonomically achieve a chair’s functionality of apparent usefulness. They have legs that are turned on a lathe like a Windsor chair, and their cords are strung like a hammock, but they are not seen as chairs until they are labeled “functional chair.” On first encounter, the objects are more closely associated with structural, aesthetic sculptures that are boat-like with sails, especially when put in the context of a gallery where they are seen as art objects. Even though they are stable, functional, and can be sat on, they lack the inherent functions of a good seat and therefore cannot be a signifier of a chair. 

I approached the second question by using an alternative signifier for the objects, building blocks. By using objects whose design rests in engaging parts, alternative materials, and endless ways of arranging the objects (opposed to the normal ways of arranging furniture), we no longer conceptualize these as chairs but as building blocks.

The choice for building blocks falls in accordance with the cognitive humor mechanisms that involves semiotics, as suggested by Paul Surgi Speck. In relation to a discussion on advertising, Speck suggests that mistranslations and wrong significations due to structural relatedness (the relationship between humor and message parts) can lead to moments of humor that act as an important mechanism of advertising. In the second series of the installation, changing the signifier of the “chair” to a signifier of “building blocks” starts to exude a certain sense of absurdity and humor. Rather than being a signifier that is culturally mistranslated, the building blocks are a signifier to an entire realm of childhood playing toys that is put in a gallery context where they signify something completely different. In other words, if the signifier of the second series had been a chair, then the signified would automatically be the concept of a chair (as understood in Saussurean terms). However, if the signifiers are building blocks, then the automatic concept of a chair is abolished, and experimentation can test what exact factors delineate a chair as signified.

 After changing signifiers, the second series of objects, which consists of the majority of my Spring 2014 work, addresses the factor of form as the integral component in having an object signified (as a chair). The objects consist of various types of blocks that function as seats; they are ergonomic in terms of seating heights, and they have the same building structure as classical chairs. Using similar wooden dado joints, upholstery, no nails, fine hardwoods, the objects maintain those same characteristics as the chairs that qualify it as a chair-signifier. However, the joints are not used for legs, but for other forms, and the upholstery is a cushion, not used for the human sitter but for the object itself. The objects do not retain the form of a chair. When form is stripped away from the object entirely, can it still be conceptualized as a chair? Will people still sit on it or buy it for their living room?

The thesis combines research in ergonomic design, philosophy, and object making and draws upon the critical theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, Jean Baudrillard, and Deleuze and Guattari.

Read the entire thesis online: