It's the only chair that can truly claim to have changed the world. Elizabeth Guffey asks why it's rarely included in the design canon
From modern chairs to Chair Anatomy to 100 Midcentury Chairs, there are plenty of design books on chairs. Entire volumes have been written about most important chairs in design history, including Peter and Charlotte Fiell's on 1,000 major chair designs. But in those accounts you are guaranteed not to see a chair so influential that it has literally changed the world around it. And yet, the modern folding wheelchair is such a chair. The familiar lightweight steel and chrome chair resting on four wheels is so integrated into civic life that we scarcely stop to consider it – nor its implications.
It is about time we rewrote the history of the folding wheelchair as a designed object, not least because it has had such an immediate – and definitive – impact on our environment. Not only is it iconic, but it now has a system of legally mandated infrastructure, and architecture, built to accommodate it. Even the simplest models are part of a larger, more complex network of ramps, curb cuts, elevators and other features that snake their way through our world today. This re-ordering of the built environment around us has passed virtually unremarked. Even more significantly, it spearheaded the early attempts to seriously use architecture and design to remake our attitudes towards people and acknowledge design’s role in asserting human rights.
In the half-century since these changes began to be made in the public realm, their impact – being a ‘peaceful revolution’ of sorts – has been under-acknowledged. This has made the lightweight, foldable wheelchair seem a profoundly mundane object. In fact its implications have been life-changing for those who need to use one. Until the modern, foldable version came about, wheelchairs were almost exclusively made to be used indoors.
Little more than a century ago, a variety of wheelbarrows, modified tricycles and simple carts were used to transport people with mobility impairments out-of-doors. In the 19th century, most users indoors relied on bulky, difficult-to-manoeuvre behemoths made of wicker or wood. Even wealthy users like Franklin Roosevelt avoided such devices. Before the modern wheelchair went into production, FDR’s favourite wheelchair was a common kitchen chair carefully placed on four small wheels.
While rich and poor alike struggled with these early contraptions, the problem of the wheelchair came to a head with the case of Herbert Everest. A mining engineer by training, Everest survived a deadly fire at an Arkansas mine in 1918, but became paraplegic when the shaft collapsed, fracturing his spine. That he merely survived an accident like this is significant. A generation earlier, medical treatment was not sophisticated enough to save anyone with such injuries; but advances in hygiene, medicine and treatment meant that Everest – and millions like him worldwide – could still live long, productive and meaningful lives for decades to come.
After this mining accident, Everest moved to California and became a travelling salesman, driving around the state with an old wicker wheelchair in the back of his car. But the wheelchairs of this period were never intended for this kind of use. After each trip, he had to buy a new one. Why not, he decided, design something different?
The final product, which he developed in collaboration with Henry Jennings, a neighbour who also happened to be an engineer, was patented in 1937. Constructed with industrial materials such as tubular steel and using techniques like specially welded joints, it was sturdy enough to be taken in and out of cars, with a flexible lightness that allowed it to collapse when needed, but rugged enough to be used both in and outside. It was strikingly modern in appearance, and used as Everest originally imagined, in tandem with the automobile, the chair gave disabled people a type of mobility that was simply unimaginable a century earlier.
While the modern wheelchair is a global icon of access for all disabled people and has its own internally recognised symbol (denoting accommodation for disabled people worldwide), its uses and impact are rarely discussed. Even if popular histories of modern design overlook the modern wheelchair, the redesign of urban infrastructure, questions of access in and out of buildings, as well as interiors, have at least opened up new discussions of access and human rights.
No matter how iconic we may find a chair by Mies van der Rohe or William Morris, no other chair can make such a sweeping a profound claim.