Graphic by Olivia Abeyta

Content warning: This article contains discussions of suicide that may be difficult for some readers. If you are in crisis, please contact National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.

In Fall quarter of 2021, when School of Communication second-year Abby Mac Kenzie arrived at her dorm before her roommate, she encountered a moral dilemma.

There were two kinds of chairs in her East Fairchild (CRC) room. On her side: a two-position chair with bent legs that rocks the chair backward at the slightest touch. It had scratchy, black fabric and a metal frame which curved into armrests. On her roommate’s side: a seat with soft, plush blue upholstery on the seat and backrest, no armrests — something Mac Kenzie liked since she preferred to sit criss-cross — with stationary legs grounded on the floor at all times.

Mac Kenzie knew what she had to do. (If you happen to be Mac Kenzie’s roommate, feel free to avert your eyes right about now.) She decided to make the sneaky switcheroo.

“This is a secret,” Mac Kenzie said. “I had the [unstable] chair when I got to the room. I switched hers. Don’t tell her.”

This year, they decided to room together again in CRC, and justice has been served: their new room only came with two-position chairs.

One of Mac Kenzie’s biggest qualms is the seat’s rocking feature.

“It feels almost like it trembles underneath you,” Mac Kenzie said.

Mac Kenzie isn’t alone. The shakiness of these chairs has prompted confusion among the student body. What is the purpose of this rocking design? For all the times these seats have wreaked havoc on unsuspecting students who leaned a bit too generously, are they here to stay?

Pruning the grapevine

A Northwestern urban legend surrounding these two-position chairs, like all urban legends, has traveled through an overgrown grapevine and spread through the student body: The rocking feature serves as a suicide-prevention measure.

Medill first-year Michelle Hwang’s roommate told her about this theory, but she expressed doubts about the practicality of this speculation.

“It's a very small, sort of shallow solution to a larger problem I can see,” Hwang said. “If suicide prevention is the reason for these chairs, then the chairs are the most visible efforts from the University. And I don’t think that's a good thing.”

Daniel Barker, assistant director of facilities and operations, said he never heard of these speculations before, nor was this something that went into the decision-making process for selecting furniture.

“I can confirm that to my knowledge these chairs are not intended to act as a suicide-prevention measure, and it is not something I have ever been asked to consider when purchasing chairs,” Barker said.

There is, however, a market for furniture that is explicitly anti-suicide, or ligature-resistant. Designs for this kind of furniture avoids any “ligature points” that could result in any potential harm, whether it be self-induced or accidental, such as sharp corners on desks or unstable wardrobes that can topple over.

In this sense, the rocking two-position chairs in Northwestern’s dorms are not designed with an anti-suicide intention, nor does the provider, Foliot Furniture, market them as such.

In 2015, the University switched from wooden two-position chairs to the current two-position chair model from Foliot, Barker, wrote in an email. Barker, who was not in charge of residential facilities at the time, said generally, factors like cost, durability, customer service and the style and design are factored into selecting new furniture for dorms.

“I believe that [the design] is to provide adjustments in positions for students sitting at a desk for a long time,” Barker said. “In general, most educational desk chairs provide some sort of two-position element. In most cases, it is presented in a rocking fashion.”

A hole in research and input

Second-year Bienen student Jasmine Meyer enjoys studying at University Library — especially in Information Commons —  where she is able to adjust the height of swivel chairs from time to time to help her focus. She prefers this vertical direction of movement as opposed to back-and-forth movement.

She says her dorm chair doesn’t fit her needs, especially as someone who moves around in her seat when studying.

“Normally, whenever I see someone sitting in a rocking chair, they're just zoned out or they're watching the street on their porch,” Meyer said. “And that's great for a traditional rocking chair with a smooth, circular rail between the legs of the chair. But for this kind of rocking chair, there's a bump. You can't even rock in peace.”

While Weinberg second-year Attzy Rodriguez doesn’t study at her desk often, she said she used the chair for other needs, like reaching the ceiling to decorate her room. But given her history of precarious tip-overs, Rodriguez decided to use her wheeled university-provided drawer, turning it into a vehicle steered by her roommate.

“I didn't even touch the floor,” Rodriguez said. “I was just sitting there and she pushed me to the other side [of the room]. We didn’t even use the chair because the chair’s a lost cause.”

Research and revision are crucial for a design that fits the everyday needs of everyday people. But when it comes to an industry so extensive like furniture, she said, this process may be omitted by companies, Alexis Schilf, Adjunct lecturer at the Segal Design Institute, said.

“That’s the interesting part of the human-centered design process,” Schilf said. “We’ll go do research, we’ll understand the needs more and then we'll prototype something and then iterate on. Sometimes the research is cut, so it's easier just to keep making what you're making and … just update the materials or the aesthetics.”

The short answer: it depends on the dorm.

This summer, Allison Hall, Ayers Residential College and Bobb McCulloch Hall all received new furniture, Barker wrote in an email. This included new two-position chairs of the current model from Foliot, a commercial furniture manufacturing and design company.

Going forward, however, dorms receiving new furniture will come with a new model that allows for movement at the backrest rather than the legs.

“We are finding that the upholstery on the [current] chairs is not very durable, which causes us to have to replace some chairs within a couple of years, which is not very sustainable,” Barker said. “We have selected a new model which does not have upholstery and does not rock.”

Although the chair revolution won’t be occurring immediately or completely, any time a dormitory receives new furniture, the desks will come with this new model. Elder Hall will be the next dorm to receive these new designs in fall of next academic year.

Meyer expressed her own hopes for more student input on the University’s research of student needs and preferences.

“As a freshman your standards are so low, right?” Meyer said. “So I was like, ‘You know what, even if it's bad, I can deal with it.’ But for the amount of money I'm paying for this room, couldn't we at least have a better chair like my chairs at home? They all come from garage sales and they're 10 times better!”