Body-building equipment from 1904, published in Physical Exercise and Culture and Their Bearings On Health and Strength

pdf print

Designing for a Furniture of Self-Transformation

I spent several hours today going through a large stack of publications in the CCA Library—reading about topics as varied as sacred groves in ancient Greece and the contemporary architecture of Mexico City, from underground buildings on the Italian coast to the history of German military fortifications—but a relatively small detail in one particular article caught my eye.

In the CCA’s copy of AA Files #57—a remarkably interesting issue—architectural historian Georges Teyssot writes about, among many things, the design history of furniture and its unexpected relationship to weightlifting equipment. Like toy poodles and pit bulls, we might say, domestic home-furnishings and weightroom machinery are simply different breeds of the same design line: each are furniture, ergonomic frameworks for the human body in space.

Specifically, Teyssot points readers’ attention to the early history of body-building itself, and the various devices, machines, and semi-prosthetic mechanisms that allowed for bodily transformation through muscular self-development to become possible at all. “Body-building,” he writes, “is thus achieved by repetitive exercises using these devices, which now constitute gymnastic machinery.” Citing earlier historical research performed by Baron Nils Posse and Georges Vigarello, Teyssot adds that “athletic machinery was to become a source of inspiration for modernist architecture from the nineteenth century until the 1930s: furniture was conceived in an ‘anthro-potechnical’ framework like a machine upon which the body exerted its strength and exercised its forces—in other words, as gym equipment; and the room was conceived like a gymnasium where one worked out.” Furniture is thus a fitness regime for inhabiting modernist space.

Teyssot points to Le Corbusier as an example of how “machines for living in” could actually be body-building machines—but I think it’s equally interesting here to speculate about what sorts of furniture could be designed someday to combine, however subtly or explicitly, practical everyday use with intensive muscular training.

On the other hand, it’s worth remembering that late-night television—at least in the United States—is already rife with bizarre infomercials for exactly this sort of thing: whether it’s elaborate back-stretching devices that rotate nearly 270º in order to flex the vertebrae of elderly office workers or it’s chairs that spin and counter-spin in constrained semi-circles to tone the underused abdominal muscles of 21st-century urban humans (and make Gerrit Rietveld roll in his grave), furniture and fitness equipment are always just one or two entrepreneurs away from turning into one another. (Further, a design history of these instantly obsolete and often patently absurd fitness machines is something that has yet to be written.)

So could we perform a kind of genetic analysis on the furniture around us, in order to detect how these office chairs, kitchen tables, love seats, and bedframes could be retro-engineered to become, once again, the fitness machines that they long ago promised to be? Conversely, could we accelerate their formal mutation into the body-altering furniture of a new humanity to come? In other words, that couch parked against the living room wall is, in fact, an unacknowledged machine, waiting to transform you into someone you had no idea you could become.

Geoff Manaugh is a 2010 Visiting Scholar and writes as part of the To CCA, From… series. Browse all of Geoff’s posts.