Today, thoughts about comfort -- in an open field.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Here's something I'll bet
you never thought of as invention. It's comfort.
Three hundred years ago the word comfort
meant to strengthen. In the 1700s we began changing
that to the modern meaning of physical well-being.
That theme began dominating furniture and interior
design. Yet comfort is such a deceptive concept --
one we still struggle with. Think about chairs.
Chairs were once little more than authority
symbols. Today we try to design chairs for absolute
comfort in, say, reading a book. But the chairs you
really like aren't the ones that best serve
reading. That's because chairs serve many purposes.
You want to be able to sit forward attentively and
give full attention to a friend. You want to drink
coffee while you read. You want to curl your feet
under you, slouch, put your head back. I like to
use my computer keyboard with the cat in my lap.
The well-being of comfort has too many dimensions.
One industry provided its employees with elegant
furnishings. Then experts asked what they liked and
disliked about their work environment. The
employees criticized most of it.
They had problems with lighting, sound, and air
quality. They complained they didn't have enough
intimacy, and they didn't have enough privacy. Of
course privacy contradicts intimacy.
Comfort, it seems, is shaped in subtler ways than
we realize. Witold Rybczynski says that analyzing
comfort is like trying to describe an onion by
detailing each successive layer. Comfort means more
than removing pain or granting privacy. It means
creating well-being. And that has so many
Now I sit writing in the field where we all run our
dogs. My back's against a tree. Dogs swirl about.
No chair, no pillow. Yet I feel good. Five other
dog owners stand a hundred feet away. They chat
just within earshot. I'm alone and focused. Yet I
have friends -- community. My foot's bent at the
wrong angle. I'm not even free of pain. But I'm
Thomas Jefferson loved comfort. And he understood
it in this broader sense. He tinkered with
Monticello during his whole life. He chose its
location. He formed a harmony of physical and
mental comfort. He designed each element to serve
his convenience and well-being -- dumb waiters,
special tables and chairs, book shelves. Jefferson,
of course, was the quintessential amateur. Of
course he knew how to construct comfort.
In the end, Rybczynski tells us, "Domestic
well-being is too important to be left to experts;
it is ... the business of the family and the
individual." Perhaps real comfort is, after all,
trying to write with a dog's nose in my ear.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds