The bottom line is wider than ever; American seats have expanded. Ballparks have been among the first to size up the situation -- and the seating.; TRENDS


When the Boston Red Sox announced a long-awaited and highly controversial plan to replace venerable Fenway Park, the team made much of the deficiencies of the old ballpark. At the top of the list, however, were not the antiquated restrooms and snack bars, the lack of revenue-producing sky boxes or even the rats that occasionally menaced television cameramen. The most criticized feature of the old stadium: its narrow seats.

"In our surveys, seating was the largest single issue for fans who come to more than three games a year," said Kathryn St. John, a team spokeswoman. "When the park was full, people were literally overflowing their seats." In the new stadium, fans will enjoy an 18- or 19-inch seat instead of a 14- or 15-inch one.

The Red Sox' experience was a sign of how obsessed America has become with widening its seats -- mainly because its own seats have widened. Statistics indicate that the number of obese Americans has increased by 50 percent in the last two decades, and since 1985 the average weight has grown by 10 pounds. Much of this surplus has migrated to the bottom line.

It's a trend often seen in new ballparks. Many of the new crop of stadiums offer larger seats, along with a premium class of even wider ones, called club seating, usually 2 inches wider than standard. At Redskins Stadium in Landover, the club section seats, or chairs, as the management refers to them, are a full 5 inches wider than those in the main seating areas.

"Sure, Americans have always liked things big," says George Kordaris, the editor and publisher of Office Insight, an office furnishings industry newsletter based in Darien, Conn. "But there's no question that American butts have gotten bigger in the last few years. I've seen a lot of chairs from European companies that Americans are just not comfortable in."

Redesign broadens

Designers and administrators of stadiums and theaters are finding that the standard 18 inches of bench or bleacher space that guides like the Architectural Graphic Standards of the American Institute of Architects recommends no longer suffice for the same number of people.

At General Cinema Clifton Commons, a 16-theater omniplex in Clifton, N.J., which opened last spring, the seats are wider than those in older theaters, and cup holders are on the seat back in front for more elbow room.

In the air, seats are a key battle in the design of airliners, with Airbus bragging that its planned A3XX will offer wider seats than the Boeing 747-400. Boeing pushes the virtues of the new 777, whose coach seats are wider than those of the 747 (18.5 against 17 inches).

On the road, sport utility vehicles are growing larger, and so are their seats. When Ford rolls out its new Excursion, 7 inches longer than Chevrolet's Suburban, the Suburban counters with wider seats in its year 2000 model. In Ford's new subcompact Focus, there was no room to widen the seats, but, said Mike Bradley, the designer in charge of the car's ergonomics, Ford did away with constricting lumbar bolsters, flattening the seat bottom more comfortably to accommodate human seats.

With a certain militancy emerging on the part of larger members of the population, many companies are reluctant to refer outright to larger rears. But the renewed popularity of huge, old-fashioned club chairs, for instance, suggests a subtle way to minister to those who want more seat room. So, perhaps, does the return to fashion of such 1950s designs as Arne Jacobsen's broad-beamed Swan chair.

Taking our measure

Definitive word on the increase in posterior dimensions awaits the completion of a body-measurement study being conducted by the Air Force and some 20 companies at the laboratories of Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. The Civilian American and European Surface Anthropometry Resource project aims to update designer templates for human dimensions, including rear ones. Kathleen Robinette, head of the research lab, explained that by using a new whole-body scanner, the project will supplement traditional two-dimensional templates with statistics about surface and volume. Many designs, she said, are based on obsolete dimensions for the human body.

But what most designers have already realized is that however much the average rear may have expanded, the important news is that it has become more varied. The population has become somewhat taller and a good deal heavier but also far more diverse in size and shape.

This was one finding of the extensive research that went into the design of Herman Miller's Aeron chair, a favorite in high-tech offices. For this reason, William Stumpf, Don Chadwick and the other designers finally decided to produce not one but three sizes of the Aeron, a la Goldilocks.

Fitting seats to a variety of dimensions is hardly a new goal. Along with all the ergonomic research, the Aeron team also pursued a line of literary research. In Shakespeare, they found evidence of the search for ideal size seating. The clown in "All's Well That Ends Well" refers to the search for an imagined chair "that fits all buttocks; the pin-buttock, the quatch-buttock, the brawn-buttock, or any buttock."

Such a chair, it seems, is more elusive than ever.

Pub Date: 09/26/99

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