Take a Seat: Choosing a Chair That Will Be THE Chair for the Battery Oval

Inside Battery Park's Castle Clinton, a couple tries out the "Pivot Chair," left, and the "South Chair, two of five chairs that are competing to be chosen to be placed around the Battery Oval. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Sep. 26, 2014

Battery Park is seeking armchair experts. Really.   Already nearly 3,000 of them—folks from Tor­onto to Taipei—have of­fered their expertise as they filed through Castle Clinton on their way to buy tickets to see Lady Liberty.

Oct. 10 will be the last day for you to offer yours.

The Battery Conservancy, the non-profit that supports the rebuilding and revitalization of the park, wants more Downtowners to take a seat and opine on what makes a good chair as part of its “Draw Up A Chair” design competition being held in Battery Park’s Castle Clinton.

“We’ve had such a great cross-section of the world, but we want the locals to come to the conver­sation,” said Warrie Price, pres­ident of the Battery Con­serv­ancy. “We want them to feel that this is their place.”

Though voting ends on Oct. 10, the chairs can be sampled through the month.

Inside the former fort are five prototypes of the finalists in the competition, which solicited original designs from the Americas—North, Central and South, as well as the Caribbean. The chairs, laid out on an Astroturf platform, are there for the sitting, moving, examining and general criticism of potential parkgoers.

The winner, to be announced on Oct. 15, will be chosen by a jury of  five curators, writers and design professionals. And then at least 300 copies of the winning design will be fabricated and set out on the Battery Oval, a three-acre expanse of lawn in the northeast corner of the park encircled by mature London plane trees.

The conservancy received 678 original designs when the contest be­gan in 2012. The jurors then winnowed that down to 50 designs whose images were hung on banners around the park last year. The 50 were then reduced to the five finalists now on display, which the conservancy had fabricated in steel.

Among the five, “U Rock” is true to its name, but also flips over for a more stable ride; “Maple Chair” has leaf shapes stamped into the steel; “Pivot” can be turned end over end and converted from an upright chair to a chaise; “South Chair” has a simple tubular steel construction and is easily carried from spot to spot; and “Fleurt” is meant to evoke blue petals to be scattered across the lawn.

Placed at random on the green, the chairs will be arranged by parkgoers as they see fit, once construction on the oval is completed later this year. The idea of moveable furniture was the notion behind the competition, part of the art of making good public parks even better.

“People like a sense of ownership about their own space,” said Amanda Burden, the former city planning commissioner. Before her city career, she worked with the urbanist and behaviorist Holly Whyte, who studied how people approach a moveable chair. He observed that people will move a chair just a little bit—an inch or two—just to define their own space. Comfort and greenery are of course essential elements in a public park, noted Burden, but movability makes it more inviting.

“It’s about coming to a place and being comfortable and at ease because people are around you,” she said. “It makes it a social space. That’s what a city is all about—public spaces are people’s third place.”

While the competition is seeking subjective opinions, chair design has a science behind it. The city’s published guidelines for seating in public plazas call for a seat to be 16 to 20 inches high and 18 to 20 inches wide, with a minimum chair back height of 14 inches that reclines 10 to 15 degrees.

But it was the harder-to-measure details that visitors to Castle Clinton tried to grasp. Descriptors such as “cool” and “rock ‘n’ roll” were overheard recently, along with “cozy,” “patriotic” and “roomy,” as in room for two, or “the more the merrier.”

“You have to be able to slouch,” said Peter Aspinwall, visiting from Connecticut. “You’re a sloucher, but not me. I like a straight back,” countered his friend, Tiffany Tyree.

Wayne Driver, from Lebanon, Tenn., knew right away which chair he preferred and why. “I wouldn’t mind having that on my patio, settin’ out with a good cool beer,” he said, pointing to the little blue “Fleurt.”

However you like do it, sitting in public spaces is what makes those spaces welcoming, creates a draw.

“A good city is defined by public spaces that are really used,” said Rob Forbes, a juror and the founder of the modernist furniture retailer Design Within Reach. “You want to encourage human exchange and interaction, and you need to sit down to do it. It’s a natural thing.”

Furniture for Battery Park needs to withstand the elements, but also work in concert with them. That’s where the issue of mobility comes into play, Forbes said. As the weather changes, seating can be moved from sun to shade and back again.

“Human beings don’t like to be told what to do, they like to adapt things for themselves,” he said. “I like that kind of involvement.”

The Battery Conservancy’s goal is no less than to create the next great iconic design in seating, along the lines of the World’s Fair bench seen in most every New York City park.
And that’s no easy task.

But the effort has been worth it, Price said, if nothing more than to get a conversation going among park users about aesthetics, public spaces and good design. Since the competition


began, conservancy staff have watched tourists debate about arm height, discuss the merits of cant and color, and offer their opinions on finish and texture. When the conservancy’s ballots ran out, people scratched their votes on the backs of receipts.

That’s the kind of response the conservancy was hoping for.

“We figured, why go off the shelf?” Price said. “Let’s give young designers an opportunity. After all, The Battery is about beginnings.