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The Patio Chairs
Posted on Mon, May. 10, 2004

America's plastic patio chair is popping up around the world


Pioneer Press

The Romans left their mark on the world paved roads, famous archaeological remains, characters in three of Shakespeare's plays. The British, too, dispatched their navy, their tea and their mother tongue to every corner of the globe.

If you can say there is an American empire, its surest symbol may be one of its humblest.

Behold the plastic patio chair.

A recent photo of an American Marine, just out of the bitter battle against insurgents in Ramadi, Iraq, showed the exhausted soldier slumped in a white plastic patio chair.

In Thailand, where 15,000 Hmong refugees are waiting outside Bangkok for resettlement to the United States, there are no flush toilets, health care plans or cars in their squatters' city. But there are signs of an American future patio chairs in every home. Five-foot stacks of them, often as not. Refugees set them out in every color and with a great flurry of seat-wiping when guests stop to talk.

They may be flimsy and cheap, but those chairs are chock full of some of the essential ingredients of America, regardless of where the plastic is actually poured into a mold.

To begin with, they're mass produced and interchangeable, products of that industrial process that Eli Whitney began with a gun factory in Connecticut in 1798 and Henry Ford perfected with the Model T assembly line in Michigan more than 100 years later.

Second, plastic chairs are cheap. Often priced at less than $5 each, they have that other key attribute of American consumer goods: They're practically disposable.

Still, those two attributes together aren't quite enough to make the plastic patio chair the molded essence of America.

Consider, by contrast, the bistro chair and the park bench, two other forms of leisure seating.

The bistro chair is practically the sina qua non of European culture, the furniture that transforms the sidewalk and boulevard into shared, habitable space compensation for the paucity of private property from Seville to Stockholm.

The bench, on the other hand, is often not much more than landscape. You can sit on it, sure, but it's usually a public fixture immutable and unoccupied.

The plastic patio chair sits on a middle ground. Maintenance free, it's meant to be a semipermanent object you can move, but you don't have to, since it's impervious to weather. It's sometimes anonymous but too flimsy to be public property.

Most important, it is designed for that uniquely American space, the backyard patio.

The chairs are too spindly-legged to be born of the bare ground of the Third World and too faux-stylish to be camping gear or office furniture.

And you know there isn't anybody sitting down on a slab of pavers next to the smoking Weber in Paris. You could build treated-wood decks forever across the Russian steppes, but not many people living there have the time or the dough for the sliding glass door in the back of their dacha.

No, those chairs were meant to stand spiffily at the intersection of Leisure and Plenty. Right at home behind Any Garage, U.S.A.

And like anything truly American, like Coke or Visa or Big Mac, the chairs are now popping up all over the world, supplanting native habits like the proverbial "third world squat." No need to sit back on your haunches and wrap your arms around your knees when you can now afford to take a seat, no matter how poor you might be.

It's the chair that conquered the world.
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Old 05-13-2004, 07:33 PM ViriiK is offline