Long before Thorstein Veblen theorised the ‘leisured society’ in the late 19th century, people looked for ways to cut off from the rest of the world, temporarily, or for good. Men and women recognised the value of taking a break from day-to-day living: making time to think, or let your thoughts flow free. Our need for ‘time out’ opened the doors to a wide range of possibilities: artistic endeavours, reading, prayer (for some), dreams and meditation for others, time to listen, and talk, time to mull things over, alone, or with others, time to rest our tired bodies. Over centuries, the history of furniture and furnishings has been marked by hundreds of designs and forms dedicated to the deliberate exercise of quiet solitude, for a few moments, or hours at a time.
The mere presence or possession of a piece of specially-adapted furniture is enough to satisfy this basic need, helping us to assert and exercise our right to relax, for a moment or more. Seating supplies a basic social need, too: coming together in moments of leisure has long been an important function of society. From reclining chairs to smoking chairs, chaises-longues, reading chairs, nursing seats or club armchairs, and from so-called ‘loving seats’ to baby recliners, our culture has furnished those special moments of repose for the mind, body and spirit, in relaxed attitudes quite different from those we adopt in our active, commercial lives. Sometimes, the chair or seat will be accessorised, for extra comfort. Perhaps it can be folded away, transformed or re-assembled for new uses; it may be portable, or (quite literally) rock; it may include an articulated reading-stand, storage space, separate sections to be added or subtracted for extra concentration, reflection, meditation, reading, writing, drawing, listening to music, or the use of digital devices. And last but not least, it should hold out the promise of a self-contained environment, a small, individual, dedicated world – a real or virtual ‘habitat’ in which every posture has been studied in precise detail…
By contrast, modern man relishes city life, too, and the exciting new possibilities it affords. The Bauhaus – to take just one example – offered students the chance to ‘liberate their creative forces’ on the Vorlehere, or preliminary course. Students explored the new condition of modern man: his home a ‘machine for living’, his armchair a ‘machine for sitting’. Yet our need for time out, vacation, relaxation, a moment’s nonchalance, was never forgotten: witness the famous rocking chair by Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier, the celebrated variations on the theme of grand repos by Jean Prouvé, Eileen Gray or George Nelson, and of course Gaetano Pesce’s fabulous Mama…
Design acknowledges our need for a moment’s peace, but it has constrained the vocabulary of postures available to us, too. New research in the 1970s and 80s took a fresh, radical look at our phsyiological and morphological needs, linked to changing social norms in an increasingly emancipated society.
The design world addresses multiple, intersecting concerns. Society has embraced change: recent, remarkable, rapid technological advances have a role to play in shaping our moments of rest and retreat. And so it seemed important to re-examine the concept of an ‘environment’ – a piece of furniture, tool or tools for the many functions and positions associated with relaxation and the individual pursuit of well-being, recreation, or concentration. A machine (why not?) for ‘sitting out’, taking a break from the hurly-burly of daily life, a shelter from the storm of information and images, the eye of the whirlwind of social and professional demands on our time and energies.
All cultures identify this basic need, and all have expressed and responded to it differently. Successive civilisations and eras have brought new ways of relaxing, new postures to adopt, new ways of stepping out of the mainstream, new ways of recollecting and concentrating our thoughts. Some have become universal, familiar, transcultural aspects of our social and cultural lives, irrespective of their origins.
The third Prix Émile Hermès takes the theme ‘Time to yourself’. We’re looking for thoughtful responses to contemporary lifestyles, postures, gestures, and the social and cultural needs of individuals everywhere, the things we have in common, and the things that set us apart, but which – when we choose to share them – become a source of rich spiritual renewal, the starting-point for new concepts, breaking with past stereotypes. The resulting objects – devices, compartments, small-scale architectural modules or items of furniture, produced using the simplest methods or the most sophisticated technology – should acknowledge and implement principles of sustainable development, reducing the planetary footprint of our species, soon to number some eight billion individuals.
For this reason, the jury of the Prix Émile Hermès asks entrants to take account of the many different issues affecting sustainable development, in their approach to the production and distribution of their designs.