4 x 4 Bench

originally published in: On the Edge of Your Seat: Chairs for the 21st Century.

To sit is to settle, to find oneself in a place, even if momentarily.

Whether we are seeking respite in a patio rocking chair, dominance in an executive office throne, or piety in a church pew, objects made for sitting are as much a response to the needs of our bodies as they are formative of our relationships to place.

As modern markers of identity like nationality and ethnicity continue to dissolve, notions of place and the material structures which support them, have begun to take on new meanings. Furniture, once seen as a material anchor to a localized inheritance of resources, knowledge, and history, today is often touted as "light to ship," and "easy to move"—a transient commodity in a globalized network of capital flows.

The chair then—a hyper-local structure which engages us at the scale of the body—becomes a somewhat conflicted object. Its power to settle becomes compromised. As we work from home, or jet through international air space, the chair puts us in a place, even while that place seems to be slipping away.

This is the context in which the piece of seating furniture presented here exists. Made with construction lumber, over-sized casters, and ratchet straps, the 4 x 4 Bench was designed to move easily within a large living room: functioning as a secluded resting pad in one location, and as theater seating for film screenings in another.

Though already mobile at this scale, the bench had the additional requirement to be easily transportable in case of residence relocation. Held together with little other than the tensioned ratchet straps and a few pieces of dowel rod, the bench easily separates into its elements, making it handily portable.

Despite the convenience, these materials collude in the object to negotiate its transience. The standard 4" x 4" structural elements are cut from Eastern Red Cedar, a common construction material in the American northeast. This ubiquity, along with the species' being native to the region and the substantial mass of the material present in the object, settle the bench in its intended place. The casters on the other hand—engineered in Germany with steel from India and blue polyurethane from China—dislocate the seat. They transport the bench away; towards extended functionality, towards ease of mobility, towards a global, ever on-the-move citizenship. The casters challenge the locality of the cedar with a convenience that is in service to transience.

This tension is mediated by the ratchet straps, which hold the bench together and also provide support for the resting sitter. But this makes the straps confounding. As tools of the transnational shipping industry, rated to hold thousands of pounds of packaged goods, in this object, the straps transcend their freighting function as they localize and comfort bodies.

The cushions are upholstered in speckled denim. In 1853, a young upstart from New York came to California amidst the gold rush hoping to make a buck selling provisions. The denim that Levi Strauss' jeans were eventually made from, in its own ways points to displacement: of prospectors to a barely settled state, of hydraulically mined earth into nearby streams and rivers, and of the fabric itself, which Strauss arranged to import from France across two continents.

Already by the middle of the 19th century, material infrastructures like transport and communications were radically changing our ideas of place. Today, places are increasingly digitally enabled by, but ultimately escaping, materiality altogether. By using industrial infrastructure components in the 4 x 4 Bench, the seat embodies the contemporary contradictions of what it means to settle.