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The 4 Most Important Chairs of a Designer’s Life

07 May 2020

The 4 Most Important Chairs of a Designer’s Life


by Emma Tompkins

This post is going to talk a lot about chairs. As a theatre designer you have to think about them a fair bit and so I’ve come to realise that there are 4 chairs in particular that as designers, are more important than any other.

Chair number 1 - The Studio Chair

If you’re lucky it’s ergonomic or even cushioned. It’s most likely been inherited from a show (or ‘showlen’) and let’s face it, is either IKEA or eBay.

It’s on this mildly comfortable, probably not padded seat that you first feel what it’s like to be a designer. Of all the seats in your career, you will sit on this one the most, and much like being sat in an auditorium seat for too long, it hurts.

It’s a pain in our backs as we waddle away from the NT costume hire towards Oval with two huge tartan zip bags across our back because transport wasn’t budgeted. It hurts in our necks because of the long hours spent making models watching our imaginary hourly rate slip from minimum wage to minimal food in the fridge. It hurts in our hearts because this existence feels like it must be down to us.

This chair is the loneliest chair we can sit on. We sit by ourselves, surrounded by our own thoughts and frustrations accompanied by our declining mental health. If we only sit on this chair for the rest of our careers we will be formed by the pain of its discomfort. But it is also sat on this same chair we realise we need to reach out, question if it’s just us, look online, join Facebook groups, start reading and see that we might not be alone in this.

We realise we need to move chairs.

Chair number 2 - The stackable chair

The plastic formed chair with metal feet. You know the one, you can get it in 4D with a swivel option. It’s probably black.

This time you’re not on your own, you are sat with 15-20 other designers in a circle, you’re in an arts centre or equally friendly venue, you have a cup of tea or a bottle of beer in your hand. There are maybe some lighting designers or movement directors in the room and as it turns out, things aren’t too rosy for others either. There’s a conversation afoot, and it started because someone in that circle was once sat on their own showlen chair but risked saying their pain out loud, and it snowballed. There’s a lot of bitching about the industry in this circle but you realise that it’s not just you who’s annoyed because profit share doesn’t pay your rent, and it’s not just your uni mates who are struggling to get a venue to realise model boxes aren’t free, it’s not just your peer group who have worked out that the cost or a studio, materials, subscriptions, and assistants means that even if you are getting ‘paid’ it still doesn’t work out to an actual livable fee.

This is the first time you realise that not only are you not alone but that everyone, high or low, costume supervisor or sound designer, established or god-I-hate-this-word emerging is in the same boat. It is the first time you see that it’s an industry that’s fallen into such disrepair it can’t remember when it wasn’t like this. But look, look around you, look how many people have gotten to the plastic chair, and how many more are set to come.

It’s an angry room, but you are together.

Chair number 3 - The pub stool

A wooden, slightly dented, almost certainly old seat. This time it lives amongst an eclectic collection of similar versions and a big chunky wooden table stands between you and others sat on them. You probably have a drink in your hand. A packet of crisps is split open on the table.

Chair number 3 is the chair we want to get to. We don’t spend all our time on it, ideally once a month or so. But the faces smiling back at us are friendly, and the hands diving for the crisps have scalpel scars, nails marked with paint and come from sleeves stained with those crunchy superglue marks that just won’t ever come out. They are the faces of those you once knew by name from Twitter, posters or gossip, but they now are friends. They, along with you have created something, a network of support, a chain of care that exists as far as the net you cast and the conversation isn’t 100% fury (although that’s certainly still there), but it’s fun, and supportive and kind and gossip-ridden. You are sharing both horror stories and the number of a really good production manager. You are sharing the wine and your premade theatre model boxes from old shows. You are listing the things you can do to help each other and working out how to show everyone else who sits in different chairs outside of the circle what they need to know. And you’re doing it together.

Chair number 4 - The Unknown chair

I can’t describe this chair because I don’t know what it looks like. It only belongs to a few people, but it’s an important chair nonetheless.

The chair belongs to the designers who sit near the top end of this all-too delicate house of cards. It belongs to those who have sat on chairs 1-3 and have been propelled to 4, often not even by their own intention, but from seeing the increasingly bent backs and the downturned faces of the designers, year after year coming to sit on chair 1. These people sometimes have formal titles and actual powers and have been working for a long time behind the scenes to get you a cushion and a back support. In a lot of cases these people aren’t being paid to do this, or if they are, it’s not why they are here. These people are often also our professional organisation and union leaders, they are people like Fiona at the SBTD and all the other designers who are working, above their deadlines and beyond tech hours to create events, plan festivals, create resources and graphics and words to help us, they are tweeting and ‘gramming support and questioning every single post to ask who the designers are. They are people with platforms, with influence and a little bit of power and they have sat in every seat before us and are trying very hard to pull everyone up with an industry so used to pulling us down.

Chair number 5 - The chair we need

Ok, I know I said four in the title, but this one isn’t technically a designer’s chair. The people sat on this chair may have some aesthetic appreciation for its qualities, but more importantly, they will know and care about someone who does.

Chair number 5 doesn’t belong to a designer. It belongs to a chief executive, or a producer, an artistic director, or a marketing manager, an executive producer, or an arts journalist, a patron, a funder, an associate anything. It’s the chair that belongs to the person who has gotten to the bottom of this article, and hopefully, my words have allowed them a peek through the window to see how slumped we are at our desks. It’s a person who might know a space that could help get some designers to chair 2 or 3, or might know someone who does. It’s important I say that this chair would never be a throne and I’m certain that they will have their own broken legs and wonky supports and bad ergonomics, and if this is to be a true industry moment of change, I will read with eagerness any calls they have for their own repair.

But right now, from where I sit, I can see that designers are starting to turn our chairs around to talk beyond our circles and so far we’ve found some generous and kind voices willing to listen, question and support alongside us.


So, to all designers and our allies out there, keep talking, keep sharing, keep fighting and pass me the crisps.


Emma Tompkins is a Set, Costume & Puppetry Designer based in London.
@emmatompkins on twitter

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