Chapter 14. The Comfy Chair and the Element of Surprise
Recently I embarked on the little project to take pictures of furniture – chairs specifically. I’ve always had an interest in chairs, mostly because I’ve seen some designer chairs that really challenged my own conception of what a chair was, and stimulated new ideas regarding other seemingly unrelated issues. Like education, for example.
Not too long ago I heard education compared to a “chair”, and the suggestion was for leaders in education not to reshape the structure of the chair, but rather to simply inherit the basic structure, put on the paddings to make it welcome and inviting. Their business was simply to make the chair comfy – to help stuff the “comfy chair”. Looking at the basic structure of the comfy chair, we would quickly grasp that its craftsman had typically usefulness in mind – something to prop you upright, and to let you rest. Or at least it would not be something very unusual.
Staring at these designer chairs however had me very intrigued by the thinking of the designers: here often was someone who would precisely not be content with padding a basic structure, or passing on the typical chair. Rather here was, in the chair, an expression of a mind keen to re-invent the chair as “chair”, and to discover, what else that chair could be. Their task was precisely to meddle with the original structure. Indeed sometimes it was about cancelling out the “chair-ness” of the chair. Theirs is always an element of surprise, often something quite unexpected.
My favorite images, as I go through my photographs, are of those chairs taken from Xtra in Park Mall, Singapore, where I saw many examples of stimulatingly original re-conceptions of “chairs”. One gets the sense that, if the designer had anything to say about education, he or she might find the idea of a comfy chair educational project least appealing. Surely, the comfy chair has its place, and there are those who will be needed to pad it. Still, if one were to think “designerly”, then apart from shaping something that comforts, one might also be interested to create something that challenges our current conventions, making others uncomfortable. Chairs could be reconceived no more as merely chairs, but as a lighting perhaps, or a fun piece of furniture, not as something to sit on but rather as something which is to be “ridden” like a horse, or merely an object of beauty not always comfortable to sit on.
Here I am reminded of James G. March’s writings on relevance in management education. The question of relevance, conceived along utilitarian lines, which seeks warrants for curriculums based on their “usefulness” and their ability to promote “useful” consequences is for March something that needs to be challenged. Sometimes, what really matters in education is precisely not the relevant; relevance is completely irrelevant. Instead, education and scholarship, even for a business school, March argues, could well be about the beauty of scholarship, and about appreciating and learning to appreciate the beauty of ideas. Like chairs that are not merely useful, education need not be merely “useful”. Perhaps it need not even be “useful” at all.
Now of course, re-thinking chairs into something else is a luxury we can afford after we have had enough of the “merely useful” chairs. Similarly one might object and say, the priority in education is precisely the useful, and then, after that, all these fanciful re-conceptions could be welcomed as delightful extras. But this is precisely where the analogy between chairs and education breaks down, I think: because whilst beauty is an extra, an accident to a chair being a chair, learning to grasp and experience beauty could well be the essence, the core of education. Education is not training. Leaving out this aspect of education might be a serious omission, where students are shortchanged and deprived of an opportunity to become who they really should be – human beings for whom the capacity for the aesthetic is an aspect of well-being, and not just a trivial hobby. Instead of deviating from what education is, we may be fulfilling its essence.