A newsletter for the industry pro (or aspiring pro).

It’s a prime time to go out for drinks in America. Is it a prime time to sit?

Over the course of my drinking life, I have sat on many barstools—I think? I can remember none of them. I can remember specific conversations, specific drinks. I can remember lighting, atmosphere and bathrooms. Not always, but in general, I can remember what I wore. But stools, I took for granted. They existed. I sat on them.

I did not seem alone in my obliviousness. “What are you going to say?” fellow plebes laughed, more at me than with me, when I told them I was attempting to investigate the state of the barstool. Well, I didn’t know, obviously; that’s why I was investigating

What I did know was this: Every time I went to a bar, I sat on a stool. There were dozens or hundreds, maybe thousands of stool possibilities—every week, some new bar was opening with some concept (“Italian-American-inspired!” “The living room of downtown Manhattan!”) for which stools had been selected, presumably by an expert. Everything else about the bargoing experience has been endlessly elevated, twisted and riffed upon—it is a prime time to be a drinker in America! But is it, I wondered, a prime time to sit?

Over the past month, I set out to learn more. I would sit vigorously. At a Spanish wine bar in Brooklyn, I perched on a cork-topped stool—backless, wooden legs, seat slightly cupped to suggest, elegantly, butt cheeks—and continually rearranged my legs. Like the stools, the bar was airy and earth-toned. I wanted to look sophisticated, or barring that, mysterious, and it occurred to me that a good barstool ought to help facilitate this. A backless stool is good for looking glamorous, potentially, but you really have to engage your core to get the effect.

You can wolf down a burger seated on pretty much anything; to graze, you need support.

“I think a barstool is a genre of seating where it is OK to prioritize aesthetics over comfort,” the design writer Tyler Watamanuk told me. “We should give it some grace.” I sipped my sherry, gracefully. I visualized my spine. I had never paid so much attention to my own comfort. I had no real complaints, unless I really thought about it. It was dangerous, thinking this much about whether and in what specific ways I hurt. 

Ian Chapin, a Philadelphia-based furniture designer and fabricator who is responsible for all manner of glamorous seating, including the ultrapadded black leather stools, with miniature backrests, at the newly opened East Village wine-and-seafood joint Penny, outlined a grand theory of barstools that would guide my further sitting. Stools exist on a continuum, he explained. On one end: the solid wood Old English barstool, designed for efficiency. “You come in, you get a pint, you sit for 15 minutes, and you leave,” he says. On the other end is what he calls “heyday New York oyster bar,” where “every seat is basically a La-Z-Boy, and you could sit there for five or six hours.” Right now, he tells me, we are moving away from Old English toward La-Z-Boy, “but a little more streamlined,” with thick, round cushions and perfectly curved backs. The reason for this renewed interest in comfort is clear to him: “Even dive bars have full menus now.” You can wolf down a burger seated on pretty much anything; to graze, you need support. 

In Times Square, a few days later, I found evidence for his theory: a brown vinyl number at the bar of a very dim, very generic restaurant that was also very empty. This would be a great place, I thought, to have a grim affair. The stool was armless and well-padded, on spindly legs, with a boxy, cushioned backrest. It was hideous. It felt incredible, orthopedic. “I didn’t even know that stools could be like this, honestly,” my companion whispered, entranced. 

Still, it was hard to draw sweeping conclusions. There were just too many stools. I sat on a knockoff of the Tolix—a cold, hard, universally dreaded seat—which, according to Restaurant Furniture Plus, “works great for industrial designs.” At a splurgy barside dinner in the East Village, I sat on a red, midcentury, upholstered variation, with a full back and partial arms, and wondered where I was supposed to put my knees. 

Who was I supposed to be, sitting in this thing, and how was I supposed to feel? A lot of stools are unobjectionable, but unobjectionable isn’t very fun.

What should a barstool be? Everyone I talked to had a different opinion. They were universally anti-armrest and pro-footrest. Beyond that, there seemed to be no rules. “I love chrome. I think chrome is beautiful,” Amy Morris, of design studio The Morris Project, told me. Yeah! I thought, agreeably. “When it comes to the barstool, I’m just not a fan of metal in general,” said Anna Polonsky, creative director at Polonsky & Friends. “I think it’s very cold in every way.” Yeah! I thought again. 

Chapin is “a huge fan” of the low or partial backrest, arguing that “it’s the easiest to get in and out of—you don’t feel trapped.” “Pointless!” countered Watamanuk. “The no-show sock of barstool design.” Velvet is good, unless velvet is bad. “I would love for that to make a return,” said Chapin, wistfully. “I hate those crazy colors, like teal velvet barstools,” Polonsky said. “A barstool, for me, shouldn’t be a transformed chair.” Morris pushed even further: Actually, she suggested, her ideal bar might not have stools at all. “You get into the spirit of it, when you have no stools, and you move around, and you meet more people, and you drink more wine,” she said. “When you’re stuck in a stool, there’s one experience, instead of multiple experiences.” In London, at what used to be P. Franco—now 107 Wine Shop & Bar—she told me, there’d been one long table and just a handful of stools, and the result had been “like a party.” 

I sat on a swiveling kitschy yellow stool with a full back and chrome legs and considered this, spinning back and forth, feeling not trapped so much as luxuriously contained. I thought about it sitting on a pillow-topped pub stool—round, backless, wooden legs—at an artfully distressed beer bar, and in a weathered saddle stool, wedged up against another counter, nibbling on “small plates.” There’d been no backrest and, more importantly, no legroom. It felt like retaliation for something I hadn’t done.

The problem with most barstools, I decided, is not that they’re uncomfortable, but that they aren’t anything. They are good enough to sit for an hour or two, while aesthetically communicating something— “This bar is expensive!” or “This bar is in Brooklyn!”—but they do very little to indicate what kind of night this is supposed to be. They lean understated; I wanted excess. I wanted boldness. More than that, I wanted instructions: Who was I supposed to be, sitting in this thing, and how was I supposed to feel? A lot of stools are unobjectionable, but unobjectionable isn’t very fun. I wanted fun! I’d liked the hulking yellow swiveler, I realized, for exactly the same reason I liked the idea of the standing-only wine bar—they were aggressively not-neutral. I didn’t, personally, want to stand for several hours, however hiply, but I respected the vision. Vision was what I wanted, and it was so often lacking! My couch at home is very comfortable; when I leave the house, I am in search of something else.

Tagged: culture, trends