Where Art Meets Practicality: Are Art Galleries Missing A Trick In Their Seating Design?
July 9, 2020
'Please Be Seated,' by British designer Paul Cocksedge

by Virtosu Art Gallery

July 9, 2020

Where Art Meets Practicality: Are Art Galleries Missing A Trick In Their Seating Design?

In Finsbury Avenue Square in London last year, an undulating bench caught the eye of art lovers. 'Please Be Seated,' by British designer Paul Cocksedge, was a communal bench commissioned for the London Design Festival. The work was both functional and practical and raises the question about whether art galleries might be missing a trick when it comes to museum seating. Gallery seating is a practical concern, but just as real-life constraints are used by artists to further their work, functional requirements like seating could be incorporated in a gallery's design to enrich visitors' art experience.

Why is art gallery seating necessary?

A visit to an art gallery can be as exhausting as inspiring: to contemplate the exhibits and give each one the attention it deserves. Visitors are required to be on their feet for a long time. Benches allow respite - a chance for visitors to recharge between rooms - and they also encourage them to slow down and reflect on the work. Seating is also essential to allow for accessibility - some people are unable to stand for long periods and need to know that there's somewhere for them to rest if needed. Seating is a functional requirement of an art gallery, but it could be much more than this.
'gallery seating

The potential for art

In a restaurant, seating is essential to the purpose of the venue. Seating is meant to provide a pleasant and comfortable place for customers to enjoy a meal. Restaurants owners put a lot of time into their design plans to ensure that their seating reflects their brand and interior design style. While formal restaurants are more likely to include individual dining chairs, a more relaxed establishment may choose sofas or benches for a more intimate feeling.

Similarly, in an art gallery, benches often complement the design of the room, with modern galleries that often include simple, minimalist styles. The seating often helps the overall ambiance of the room and allows visitors to contemplate the work in a suitable environment free from distractions. But could benches themselves be a work of art? This was the vision of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which began a project called 'Pleased Be Seated' in 1975. The initiative commissioned furniture designers to work on gallery seating, creating benches that were both useful objects and works of art.
Paul Cocksedge's 'Please Be Seated

Paul Cocksedge's 'Please Be Seated'

While the bench commissioned for the London Design Festival would be impractical in most art galleries, it does illustrate how seating can be both a practical object and a work of art. The bench was made up of three rings of undulating planks and reflected the shifting rhythms of the community it served. The construction featured curves to walk under or sit on, making the whole occupied space either a seat or a route to get to one. Cocksedge said that the installation occupied Finsbury Avenue Square without blocking it, blurring the boundaries between utility and design.

Art galleries that have large rooms to accommodate sculpture might consider commissioning similar works. However, those that must limit their seating to single benches within the gallery space could still consider commissioning seating as art. While a bench on the scale of 'Please Be Seated' would be both distracting and challenging to accommodate, smaller installations explicitly designed to reflect the space and communicate an artist's message would still be valuable.

'Seating is an often overlooked component of a gallery's design
Seating is an often overlooked component of a gallery's design, but there's a massive potential for it to be something more. The colors of the walls, the lighting, and the space between exhibits are given a lot of thought in an art gallery's design. At the very least, the same attention should be given to seating, but it has the potential to be something much more exciting too.

About author Isabella Lovett is working as a freelance writer, Issy worked for many years in healthcare, and latterly in health and safety. She writes articles on art, design, and wellbeing for a range of different sites and publications. In her free time she likes long walks with her dog, Bertie.

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