Is Our Furniture Getting Bigger? Yes. Here’s Why – Size and scale in furniture mean more than just harmony of proportions: they are first and foremost a matter of practicality. The height and depth of a sofa can determine how comfortable a family feels when spending time reading or watching TV. A chair back that’s too low can disrupt meal and work times, while awkwardly tall kitchen cabinets can spoil the fun of cooking dinner.
The pioneers of Modernism looked into proportion and people’s interactions with space, and applied their findings to furniture design. The famous Modulor Man anthropometric scale of proportion, developed by celebrated architect and designer Le Corbusier, offered a standard of sorts and served as a guideline for furniture manufacturers, but average human height has increased over the decades, and furniture proportions have changed accordingly. Find out how furniture makers are adjusting their offerings to provide us with more flexibility and choices.
From ancient times until the Renaissance, there were no standardised measurement systems: the human body was used as a standard. The system of feet and inches originated from these simple and easily accessible body measurements. A foot was the average length of a human foot; an inch was the length of the top phalanx of a thumb; a yard was the length of a step or of a man’s outstretched arm measured from the middle of his body.
The metric system was more abstract and came into wide use thanks to the French Academy of Sciences, which in 1791 defined a metre as 1/10,000,000 of the distance between the equator and the North Pole, measured via Paris.
The discrepancies were so great that they would become stumbling blocks to experts from countries with different measurement systems. The contradictions and mismatches were ironed out in the mid-20th century by one of the fathers of Modernism, Le Corbusier.
Le Corbusier developed a new system, the Modulor, describing it as “a range of harmonious measurements to suit the human scale, universally applicable to architecture and to mechanical things.” The Modulor was initially based on a man’s height of 1.75m, but was changed to 1.83m in 1946.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I have seen on the drawing boards designs that were displeasing, badly put together: ‘But it was done with the Modulor.’… If all you can do with the Modulor is to produce such horrors as these, drop it. Your eyes are your judges, the only ones you should know.”
“Human beings’ measurements have changed considerably over the past centuries, especially in the last one,” says designer Marco Piva of Studio Marco Piva. “I’m thinking of Napoleon’s bed or Emperor Franz Joseph’s in Austria’s Schönbrunn Palace –very small when compared to the current ones, yet only two centuries have passed. In general, statistics show that, since the beginning of the 20th century, people are much taller in Europe. This is a significant change, although I don’t think it’s had a profound effect on the design world.”
In Piva’s opinion, what’s really changed is the way in which contemporary humans live in their own spaces and feel at ease in them. “There has certainly been a general resizing of objects, accompanied by technological breakthroughs on their possible use, but I think this has happened in the general perspective of the individual’s wellbeing and comfort.”
Over the past 50 years, the average human height has increased worldwide by nearly 10cm, according to Swiss design company Vitra. This led the trendsetting furniture maker to conclude that tall people may feel uncomfortable sitting in its Eames Lounge chair (pictured), as they might find the 20th century classic a bit too small.
“In 2010, the company made a decision to supplement the original 1956 Lounge chair with an upsized version,” says Margarita Morozova, a Vitra spokesperson. “Vitra’s decision was dictated by the way Charles and Ray Eames, the creators of the chair, understood design.
“They compared a designer with a good host, whose job was to accommodate and pretty much indulge their guest,” Morozova says. “It was common practice at the Eames office to review product design, even when the product itself had been sent for manufacturing, and adapt it to new requirements, as long as the move was useful and justified.”
Learn more about the iconic Eames Lounge chair
“At first glance, the new edition is hardly different from its original version,” which continues to be available, Morozova says. “The difference is hard to spot with the naked eye, but you can feel it once you’ve sat in both chairs.”
“The company has increased the height of the seat by 20mm and made some changes to its geometry,” says Edwin Gugerell of Vitra International. “While visually subtle, these changes make the chair much more comfortable, especially when used with modern tables.”
“For the most part, furniture dimensions have been transforming due to changes in social and market demands,” says Victoria Baryshnikova of the German Furniture Union, Premiumwerk. “One hundred years ago, neither the Thonet Brothers nor WK Wohnen would have thought of including a disclaimer in their chair paperwork: ‘Maximum user weight: 130kg,’ but nowadays, every manufacturer does it.”
“Baker Furniture used museum designs to create replicas for one of its collections,” Veretennikov says. “It turned out that 16th and 17th century items tend to have lower seats,” of 37 to 40cm, compared with today’s 45 to 50cm standard.
“In the late 1990s, the furniture company Hülsta made a 240cm-long bed for a St Petersburg-based ex-basketball player who was 220cm tall,” Baryshnikova says. “At the time, this was something out of the ordinary, and manufacturers were not prepared to make furniture this size. Nowadays, 220cm-long beds are commonly offered in the main collections of both premium and lower-end brands.”
Other companies that manufacture furniture are also reviewing their collections, making adjustments for lifestyle and size. Beds are getting longer and wider, while wardrobes are becoming taller.
“The sizes of kitchen cabinets are modular nowadays to fit any space,” says Roy Hesling, country interior design leader at Ikea Russia.
See 10 ideas for creating a clutter-free and multi-functional kitchen
“Modern humans consider their houses to be not only private havens, but also ‘social’ and more informal places,” Piva says. “As a result, the objects within it are flexible, which I think is the real key word in contemporary design.
“In the design world today, competition has allowed companies to find new solutions to ensure individual comfort, so now you can find a variety of sizes for all furnishings. The same has happened in the fashion world: if 20 years ago it was almost impossible to find size 41 [UK size 8] shoes (and not because there was no one with size 41 feet), it’s now easy,” he says.
“Design and fashion feed the needs of modern man, and on this basis create a much larger range of possibilities.”
The standards introduced for furniture at the time of Le Corbusier still apply: the recommended height of a dining table is 72-78cm (from the floor to the top corner of the tabletop); the standard seat height is 40-45cm for chairs (from the floor to the seat) and 42cm for sofas.
Most furniture manufacturers have expanded their size range and choices. We no longer have to put up with a narrow bed or sustain knee injuries from kitchen cabinets. Thanks to a variety of sizes and a modular approach to furniture building, it’s now easier to find the right item for every member of the family, however big or small they are.
Have you ever had difficulty finding furniture that works for you and your family? Have you ever had a piece made specially? Share your experiences in the Comments below.