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The Politics of Seating
From family feuds over the best seat on the sofa to Lord and Ladies past, Kat Poole explores the weird and wonderful rituals of sitting down.
When it comes to mealtimes, there’s a rule in my family: whoever isn’t cooking has to lay the table. But this doesn’t just mean putting out placemats and cutlery. No; for the big gatherings, this involves creating a thoroughly thought-out seating plan to make sure every one of our guests will feel at ease. They need at least one neighbour they’ll enjoy talking to, and no one should have to squeeze up too close to anyone they haven’t met before (it’s a small table when you’ve invited thirteen). It sounds exhausting, but it’s tradition.
And I don’t cook. Which means this particular tradition — one that was so ingrained in Medieval and Tudor times that even the height of the chairs guests sat on had a complicated hierarchy – has become my custom, too. I might just be a girl, standing in front of a table, wondering where to seat their train-mad Uncle, but that puts me in league with lords and ladies past.
Nowadays, thankfully, etiquette lines are a bit more blurred. Unless your idea of a dinner party falls in with that of the monarchy or you’re planning a wedding, it’s unlikely that you’ll be thinking about precedence, guests of honour, and the correct way to title a place-name. In most circles, gone are the days of boy-girl-boy-girl and the host at the heart of the table. Modern flexibility has overtaken stringent decorum, and different styles of seating — benches, mix-and-match seats — are commonplace.
But even if the rules aren’t the same, there is still inherent meaning to where we sit, and it’s something we pick up early on in life. The first principle of Christmas dinner in my clan is easy because it’s always been this way: my Nan is seated first — as the oldest, she gets the best chair and the most room, no argument. And the youngest (ahem) always gets the dud seat; a foot-rest, or a bar stool. Still, it’s a step up from the kids’ table.
That being said, it doesn’t stop me behaving like one when guests are gone and we’re piling in around the TV. Dad might have his end of the sofa — a square cushion that he appears to have reserved until the end of time — but it’s quite possible to be nearing 30 years old and still spat with your older brother about who gets to sit next to him. So possible, in fact, that one year my Dad sat in a different seat on the other side of the room for two hours afterwards.
Fight over your seat on the Vitra Mariposa.
There are unspoken conventions everywhere, and to each their own. So why do we care just so much? There’s comfort, of course, and not just the feel and material; sitting in a seat you’ve lounged in and loved for years and years is consoling. And it’s territorial, too.
Most school children start their first academic steps by being assigned a desk, a little table with a matching chair, so worn from years of other children sitting there that it’s easy to scratch their name in it with a pencil and mark it as their own for that year.
And studies have shown that this sense of personal territory carries right on up through school and doesn’t really leave us; one paper from the University of Bologna found that students in higher education, too, choose the same seat over time. These chairs don’t have to be comfortable, they just have to be yours, and in your place. Look at royalty — they’ve had their bottoms on their rightful hard-backed wooden seats since antiquity; no squishy foam involved.
For many, the classroom becomes the office and that sense still thrives. We sit where our job requires us to, and you might have the most worn-in, wonky swivel chair on the floor, but it’s yours, by the right of wearing it in, day after day, spilling coffee on the seat and snapping off the height-adjuster handle. It’s the kind of impossible-to-explain affection that makes the mere mention of hot-seating sound like the gates to hell.
An office chair to love, the Vitra .04 Office Swivel Chair.
It’s a tricky conundrum, the feeling that you are where you sit. But I’ve learned one thing from making my way around new homes, new offices, new pieces of household furniture that I’m coerced into sitting on at dinner parties as our family grows (it’ll be a bucket next): get a favourite cushion. Wear it in so well that no one else could possibly get jealous. And take it with you everywhere.
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See more from Kat on twitter @whatKPdid