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A Classic Japanese Chair, Remade For Big American Behinds

Maruni, the manufacturer of SANAA’s “Rabbit Ears” chair, has introduced a wide version targeted at American audiences. Oh no they didn’t.

In 2004, just as their firm was achieving international notoriety, SANAA principals Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa were commissioned to build a small home in Tokyo.

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The client asked for a house built for socializing, and the architects responded by with a design for five leafy, open “living rooms.” To complement the unusual succession of spaces, they designed a slender, inconspicuous birch chair that could function in nearly any situation. Its unusual ergonomics made it instantly recognizable, with two iconic “bunny ears” that ostensibly relieved pressure on the spine. It was also remarkably narrow–at around 14.5″ wide, it was really more of a stool than a chair.

SANAA’s one-off was soon picked up by Maruni Wood Industry, a Japanese manufacturer of wood furniture, where it’s since seen immense commercial success. Last year the company even produced a limited run of Mini and Minimini sizes, with seat widths of 9.5″ and 7″, respectively, and again, the chairs sold out.

This year, the company is trying a different angle. A wider one, specifically, with a seat two inches broader than the standard size. Some speculate that the wide version is targeted towards the, uh, more obtuse American market.

“There’s nothing I’m particularly conscious of,” writes Sejima on Maruni’s website. “But I’m aware that my work is sometimes thought of by people from other countries as being distinctively Japanese.” Though she’s clearly talking about more than the proportions of the chair, it’s interesting that it was necessary to re-imagine the chair for the American market. Both original and wide sizes were exhibited last spring at the Canadian Center for Architecture, as part of an exhibit called Imperfect Health, examining medicine and illness through design. The idea, as John Hill first noted, was to draw a wordless comparison between Japanese and American physical standards.

America has been demanding wider airplane seats and deeper school desks for decades, so this isn’t a particularly unique phenomenon. And there are several unsavory undertones to the way this story has been covered by the media (one is sizeism, and the other is a series of physical generalizations based on nationality). But it is interesting to see world-renowned architects–usually so firmly rooted in the cerebral academic world–alter a classic design to accommodate a larger range of body types.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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