The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford have housed precious literature and scholarly documents for the past 400 years. It’s a special place, with its own special chairs–and over those last four centuries, only three chair designs have graced the Bodleian’s halls. The latest, designed by Barber and Osgerby, beat out competing designs by Herman Miller and four other firms. So how do you create a chair for the ages–something that can fit into Oxford’s storied history while updating it at the same time?
“After spending a day at the library it became apparent there are some pretty unusual requirements for the readers at the Bodleian Libraries,” say designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby. For one, researchers may sit in the same chair for 12 hours straight, “so comfort was obviously very important.” The chair also had to be wide enough to fit the Bodleian’s reading desks, plus offer an appropriate angle for peering over fragile books laid on foam supports to protect their spines. And of course, the chair had to be silent. This is a library where squeaking furniture will not be tolerated.
Oxford’s brief called for a chair that would offer sitters a 120-degree field of working. An Aeron-like swivel chair would easily satisfy this constraint, but moving parts make noise, so “we managed to accommodate rotation without mechanism,” the designers tell Co.Design. “The curved backrest and armrest structure allow the reader to pivot and use the full width of the desk, and the armrests can also be used for notebooks or tablets.” The chair is also engineered to tilt slightly, “enabling the reader to maintain a better posture whilst leaning over books.” And that solid, horseshoe-shaped oak base “reduced the vibration and improved the stability of the chair so that it is silent in use,” say Barber and Osgerby.
Each redesign of the Bodleian Library chair has accompanied a major update to the architecture of the library itself–which is why new ones don’t get commissioned very often. In an age where design has come to encompass ephemera like interfaces, logos, and “experiences,” there’s something timelessly satisfying about creating a good old-fashioned chair. And if history is any indication, Barber and Osgerby’s creation could remain unseated for decades or even centuries to come.