The Chair and the Figure

Newcastle University Stage 1 architecture student drawings for The Chair & the Figure are currently on display at the Shipley Art Gallery until 30 March 2017.  In this post architecture Teaching Fellow and project lead Elizabeth Baldwin Gray outlines how the project developed.


The original work produced for a two-week project consists of large-scale 1:1 pencil drawings of chairs ranging from the Bishop’s throne and Quire Stalls at Durham Cathedral to Marcel Breuer’s Wassily and Long Chair, as well as an Eames chair and ottoman, alongside contemporary chair designs presented to the students by Newcastle furniture designers. The original Marcel Breuer chairs, accessible to the students thanks to the Shipley Gallery, are extremely rare design objects. The ability to interact with these design objects at Shipley Gallery was an invaluable opportunity for our students.

The Chair & the Figure introduces the mechanics of technical drawing, while at the same time helping students become more aware of changes in design attitudes and style over time. The project also explores the relation between chairs and the human form, a conceptual standard of measurement or ‘module’ for architecture in treatises and figures ranging for Vitruvius and Da Vinci to Dürer and Le Corbusier. By examining, measuring, and drawing a chair, groups of students carefully record how the dimensions of a static design element, the chair, are informed by the proportions of the human body. This work serves as the basis for original architectural design in later individual projects.

Shipley exhibition image

exhibition image

The students began with analytic sketchbook studies of the Platonic ‘form’ of a chair: plans, sections, and elevations, as well as exploratory 3D sketches. Working in groups of three or four, they then produced 1:1 drawings of various specific chairs they had been assigned to study. Each student was responsible for one A1 board, to be combined with two or three others from the other members of his or her group to form a single large drawing.  Groups presented these collaborative drawings at their final review, together with research into the history of the chair under study. The text that accompanies each of the chairs was written by the students and reflects this research, detailing the social and economic conditions in which the chairs were designed and manufactured. The framed images on display at Shipley Gallery are excerpts from large collaborative drawings, reproduced and displayed to give a sense of the overall range of drawings presented at the final review.

A dedicated group of student curators, Assem Saparbekova, Vito Benjamin Sugianto, Natalie Lau and Iris Xin Guo, guided by Elizabeth Baldwin Gray, worked hard following the project’s final review in October/November 2016 to make the exhibition happen. Together the exhibition team came up with a plan for how to display the work in the space made available by Shipley Gallery through Education Director, Morgan Fail. From initial brain-storming sessions to measuring and drawing the space at Shipley, to coming up with a design layout, to physically installing the exhibit with the help of Newcastle University’s Sean Mallen, the experience was a true introduction into curatorial exhibition design and assured that the display would truly reflect the range of student work produced and the learning experience of the project.

Training the Trainers: passing on the skills of engagement

YES Planning is a student volunteer project which offers town planning students training in engagement skills and which, in turn, extends an understanding of town planning amongst young people in the community. Through this initiative, it is hoped that young people in the region will be inspired to become involved, not only in local planning issues but also in wider democratic processes in the longer term. For the town planning students, YES Planning allows them to learn how to share their subject with a broader audience and to learn how to listen to young people’s views about the local environment.

The findings of the project have been turned into an engagement toolkit to enable town planners, teachers and youth workers to start to explore young people’s views about their local area.

In this post one of Yes Planning’s newest first year recruits reflects on a training session that was run by students in November 2016.  The students, Sean Peacock and Ben Million had been instrumental in setting up the project three years ago.


The training session that Sean and Ben ran helped us to get to know what the YES Planning opportunity was all about, as beforehand I was unsure. We were told about the aims of the project and about the praise the project had received in the past which was great – everyone got to know what a fantastic opportunity they were getting involved in. We got to participate in some of the activities we would run with the pupils on a future school visit which I thought was really helpful, as opposed to just being told about the activities. This was also useful for the facilitators of YES Planning, as volunteers could give feedback on the activities, which might have been more difficult to get from children of such a young age. We discussed what challenges we might face working with groups of children and how we could overcome these challenges to get the best possible data from the pupils, through utilisation of the tasks we had been taught about.

Cognitive Mapping Skills

Cognitive Mapping Skills

I felt like we were all well prepared for the school visit because of the training session, and I personally found the school visit very rewarding and insightful.

I look forward to the next opportunity YES Planning presents!

Amy Ingle, Stage 1 Urban Planning


For more information about YES Planning please contact Teresa Strachan, Lecturer in Town Planning,

Maternity Tales – Exploring the History of Maternity Spaces

Maternity Tales is a three-year research project lead by Dr Emma Cheatle at Newcastle University. It looks at the buildings and interior spaces used for childbirth in England from the seventeenth century onwards, and evaluates their impact on the development of maternity practices.

In this post, Dr Cheatle gives a short history of maternity spaces and talks about her contribution to this years Being Human Festival.

Until the 1750s all births took place at home – except of course where birth occurred unexpectedly! A labour and the recovery afterwards were known as ‘lying-in’. The lying-in period was typically a month, during which the new mother at first recuperated bed-bound, then remained in the house, gradually returning to her household duties. Lying-in ended with the public cleansing and thanksgiving ritual of ‘churching’ performed in the local Church of England.

Lying-in did not take place just anywhere in the home but involved carefully remaking the master bedroom into a dark and airless lying-in chamber. At the first signs of labour, extra linen was draped onto and around the bed and over the windows and doors. The fire was stoked up, and all openings in the room closed – sometimes even gaps and the keyhole were stuffed with fabric. It was thought air and light were harmful, and may lead to the dreaded puerperal fever, a tremendously dangerous illness (essentially an infection) experienced after childbirth. Men were removed from the room, and replaced by a gathering including the midwife and at least five women to aid the birth, called the ‘gossip’. The room was darkened further after birth, as it was thought light could damage the new mother’s eyesight, already weakened by the effort of childbirth.

Jane Sharp, The Midwife Book, 1671, detail of frontispiece

Jane Sharp, The Midwife Book, 1671, detail of frontispiece

From the 1750s the domestic spaces of home birth were made complex by the emergence of lying-in hospitals. These were the first specialist hospitals, and began an era of institutions in general – from spaces of welfare such as asylums and hospitals to those of intellectual gathering like the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle and the Royal Society in London. The lying-in hospitals were philanthropic charities aimed at poor (albeit married) women who lacked the funds to afford decent homes let alone good midwifery care. Although they undoubtedly helped many women, the lying-in hospitals were devised and controlled by the new men-midwives to develop their skills and establish their status. At first occupying large houses, as the century progressed they acquired purpose made buildings. In contrast to the dark and airless domestic lying-in chamber, these were lofty and neo-classical designs, with roomy wards of 6-8 beds and large windows. Their advantages – including light and airy spaces, access to new forms of care and spaces of rest – contrasted with their disadvantages – lack of privacy, a shift in control over one’s own body as it was passed to the institution, the medicalisation of birth and an increased death rate from puerperal fever.

Newcastle Lying-in Hospital, 1825 From Tom Faulkner and Andrew Greg, John Dobson, Newcastle architect 1787-1865 (Tyne and Wear Museums Service, 1987)

Newcastle Lying-in Hospital, 1825
From Tom Faulkner and Andrew Greg, John Dobson, Newcastle architect 1787-1865 (Tyne and Wear Museums Service, 1987)

Across the nineteenth-century, birth witnessed various experimental practices in these purpose made spaces. Men-midwives were gradually renamed accoucheurs and then obstetricians. Although the vast majority of women continued to give birth at home – indeed it was not until the 1940s that more than 50% women gave birth in hospital – midwifery care had shifted, and the practices and ideas tested in the hospitals affected home delivery. Light and fresh air were seen as important. Instruments such as midwifery forceps became more common, and men began to be called into the birth chamber in favour of the traditional female midwives, particularly by the middle- and upper-classes.

The Maternity Tales Listening Booth at the 2016 Being Human Festival

Parts of the Maternity Tales project are being presented in an installation which can be seen at this November’s 2016 Being Human Festival. The installation, taking place at the Laing Art Gallery and Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne, presents a ‘listening booth’ to explore the history of maternity. Aimed at parents to be, parents, grandparents, midwifery/obstetric professionals, plus anyone interested in architectural and maternity history, the booth comprises two parts:

[1] Histories: Visitors are able to explore a tall wooden filing drawer unit containing different visual displays and sound pieces on the history of spaces used for birth from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

[2] Collections: Visitors are encouraged to fill in record cards found in one of the drawers, in order to explore and share their own labour experiences as ‘spatial maternity stories’. Willing participants are also invited to make sound recordings in a separate screened private interview space. Both these collections will inform Emma’s further research and a radio play.


Doreen Evenden, The Midwives of Seventeenth-Century London (Cambridge, 2000)

Ralph A Houlbrooke, English family life,1576-1716 An Anthology from Diaries (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989)

Pam Lieske, Eighteenth-century British midwifery (Pickering and Chatto, 2007)

Adrian Wilson, The making of man-midwifery,1660-1770 (Harvard University Press, 1995)

Margaret Connor Versluysen, ‘Midwives, medical men and “poor women labouring of child”: lying in hospitals in eighteenth century London’, in Helen Roberts (ed.), Women, health and reproduction (Routledge, 1981), pp 18–24.

Helen King, Midwifery, obstetrics and the rise of gynaecology: the Uses of a Sixteenth-Century Compendium (Ashgate, 2007)


Dr Emma Cheatle is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Newcastle University Humanities Research Institute. She is an architectural historian and writer, and author of Part-Architecture: The Maison de Verre, Duchamp, Domesticity and Desire in 1930s Paris (Routledge, 2017). Her current project presents a critical history of maternity spaces and examines how the past changes our understanding of contemporary experience.