Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Semiotic Analysis of Two Chairs

For this semiotic analysis, I will be doing a detailed compare and contrast between: 

<-------- this chair and 
                this chair -------->

I found these two images online using Google. The photograph on the left features an antique armchair and the photograph on the right features a contemporary folding chair. I decided to choose these two chairs as my topic for analysis because the juxtaposition between them is interesting.

These chairs share a simple and straightforward purpose: to provide a place for people to sit.  However, the metonyms—substitution of one word for another—associated with each chair are very different. The chair on the left—which I will call the "ornate chair"—has words like antique, wealth, high class, and excess associated with it. The chair on the right—which I will call the "folding chair"—has words like simple, basic, cheap, and portable associated with it. The ornate chair is associated with power, whereas the folding chair is not. The ornate chair symbolizes permanency, whereas the folding chair represents flexibility and change.

The ornate chair has been around for awhile, which has given it's meaning time to ripen. A fancy chair, such as the one posted above, was presumably made hundreds of years ago, but it still looks "new". In order for it to stay "new", the chair needs to be cleaned and maintained. Who has the time to clean a chair for hundreds of years? Probably a person who has "old money" and who has lived in the same house for generations. These are assumptions but, nonetheless, this sign emanates power, money, and prestige. At one point, the ornate chair was probably considered less important than it is today. It's meaning has slowly developed and adopted new metonyms.

The folding chair, on the other hand, has not been around for as long as the ornate chair. The folding chair is a contemporary invention that provides people with an easily accessible, compact seat. It's not concerned with power, money, or glitz. The folding chair is strictly utilitarian. The folding chair, as we know it today, was invented in 1947, but the concept of a "folding chair" dates all the way to the vikings. At that time, it was probably a fantastic invention, a first-class seat, a comfortable place to pop-a-squat, but now we view it as the most basic man-made chair available. 

Here's a scenario for you to imagine: let's say you go to an interview for a job. You walk into the office where the interview will be conducted and you see the interviewer sitting comfortably in the ornate chair. You nervously glance around and notice that your seat is a folding chair. Does this make you more or less nervous for your interview? Furthermore, the interviewer is relaxed, spread out, and he's tucked away into a corner of the room. The folding chair is in the middle of the room and it's positioned so your back will be to the door. How nervous are you?

Chairs, in general, are full of symbols and hidden meaning. People in power generally have larger, more expensive, and more comfortable chairs than people who have less power. For example, consider a dining room table: the chairs at each end of the table normally have armrests and the the chairs around the rest of the table do not.
Chairs, synchronically, represent a place to sit, but chairs, diachronically, have evolved to send a wide variety of social meaning.


  1. Let me start by saying I have a sort of odd chair obsession, or so I thought. I've been on the prowl for a very particular "ornate" french chair for awhile now. Until now I assumed it was just some odd desire or quirky antique craving. After reading this convincing post, I am seriously worried that it might actually be a subconscious attempt at attaining a sense of extreme power and wealth, both of which are things I consciously rebel against... Needless to say, I am disgusted with myself, but also impressed with your post for digging so deep.

  2. Janina, it's always impressive when a post can cause a classmate to feel disgusted with herself. NICE WORK! (ha ha) A great post. I was hoping for some more history, since I think that kind of diachronic approach could have illuminated a lot more here, but you gestured to it, and definitely showed that you understand how you could craft a good semiotic analysis of a set of objects like this. Funny how I lament that your work could be MORE you need to write a whole book on these two chairs...which I have no doubt you could absolutely do! :)