What’s the first thing that you notice on walking into an historic church? Well there are plenty of things that might claim your attention but I suspect that pews are hardly at the top of most people’s list. For most of us, I imagine, they are something fairly utilitarian – there to sit on and that’s about it. They have few merits, least of all any that could be classed as ergonomic. For quite a few vicars today the things are the bane of their life: it’s difficult enough trying to grow a congregation without trying to persuade newcomers to put up with the backside-numbing experience that worship in a pewed church all too often entails.
Worse, they are the stumbling block that all too often puts paid to worthy initiatives to make a church interior flexible and thus able to be used outside service times. Rare these days are the PCC members who haven’t at some point wailed, “There are so many things we could do with the building if only it weren’t for the pews”. Trying to move them around can send vergers straight to the local A&E, assuming the things are even capable of being detached from the floor.
It’s no surprise, then, that quite a lot of the projects I deal with as church development support officer in the Care of Churches Team involve the removal of pews. Given all the drawbacks, you mightn’t imagine it’d be a big deal getting rid of them. Big mistake: removing pews is an incredibly emotive and contentious issue almost whenever and wherever it crops up. It divides congregations (even St Stephen’s in Ambridge, no less). It leads to pitched battles between the heritage lobby and PCCs.
Yet if we cut through all the polemic we find that the matter is a bit more complex than simply pews, good or bad? First of all, let’s put one issue to bed. While this isn’t the place to go into the subject in too much detail (although if you are interested I can recommend an excellent survey of 500 odd pages published by the Ecclesiological Society last year) a lot of church seating is undeniably of great historic and architectural importance. Anyone who wants to pull out medieval benches with carved poppyheads, Georgian box pews, or seating by one of the Victorian ‘brand name’ architects is asking for trouble. You just have to work around it.
But what to do with, say, the standard-issue – and very numerous – later 19th or 20th century pitch pine jobs that are often what a colleague at the Church Buildings Council described as “kipper-coloured”? Usually plain and manufactured to ‘catalogue’ designs, even the most diehard heritage campaigner, I think, would be hard pressed to argue for their having any great intrinsic value. Trouble is, what do you replace them with?
This is the crux of the matter: a lot of the time, I think what really stirs things up isn’t so much what’s being taken out but the quality of what’s going in to replace it. Even modest pews can make the sort of contribution to an historic interior that modern seating would be hard put to equal. You’d think that it’d hardly be acceptable to put in an order with, say, MFI for seating for a listed historic church, and yet there are enough places where it looks as though that’s exactly what’s happened. Look up, and you see something beautiful and inspiring. Eyes down, and you see clunky forms and a sea of garish bright blue or orange upholstery that would look more at home in the waiting room of a doctor’s surgery.
But the fault doesn’t lie entirely with the parishes concerned. The plain fact is that the market in church seating has been cornered by a small number of firms. The range of options simply isn’t that great and narrows even further when the budget is restricted. And what is gained in flexibility is often lost in durability. Pews can last for centuries, while some models of chair are coming apart at the seams by the end of their second decade.
This problem has exercised the minds of the Church Buildings Council – if you like, the equivalent on a national level of a Diocesan Advisory Committee – and in January it announced a competition to find well made, affordable chairs combining comfort, durability and style, but able to look well in historic interiors. Did they succeed? Well, at an awards ceremony held at St John’s, Hyde Park Crescent on 14 June we were able to find out. The Bishop of London gave awards to winners in three categories selected by the judging panel from well over 100 entries.
Category 1 – designing a chair to retail for under £100 a piece, open to students and recent graduates – was won by Nick Shurey and Sebastian Klawiter with a clean, modern, slightly angular design. No prototype was on display at the awards ceremony, only a monochrome model, making it a bit difficult to draw any firm conclusions. The winner of Category 2, for professional designers, was Tomoko Azumi of TNA Design with the ‘Wave Chair’, so called because of the effect that the undulating line of the gently curved profile of the backrests will produce when they are seen en masse. The grain, texture and colour of the wood have been very carefully used and the craftsmanship is exquisite.
Category 3, for designers with established products, was won by Luke Hughes and Co. Their church bench is a popular model that is both practical (it can be stacked and easily moved around on wheeled handling dollies) and looks well in historic interiors. This was the seating chosen for the acclaimed restoration of Hawksmoor’s magnificent church of St George, Bloomsbury, completed in 2009. The design of the joint winner in this category, Simon Pengelly’s Theo chair, had a slightly retro look that seemed to pick up on the current fashion for 1950s/early 60s style and which, as the Bishop demonstrated, is light enough to be lifted with one finger.
Special mention should go to David Colwell’s extraordinary bent wood chair with copper fittings, perhaps not terribly practical (although it does have magnetic fixings to attach it to its neighbours, it can’t be stacked) but a rather beautiful object that is so outlandish it might actually manage to look at home just about anywhere. Almost all the entrants gave upholstery a wide berth – sensibly so, given that the fabric is usually the first bit of a church chair to wear. Where it was used, for Treske’s bench and folding chair, more durable rush seating was employed instead of fabric.
Among the more unconventional offerings was Ann Toplis’s design with a wedge-shaped seat to allow it easily to be formed into the concentric arcs of seating that are currently in vogue, especially for reorderings based on a central altar. The stackable Trinity chair with a narrow straight back by Willam McMorran, while striking, looked like it might not be much of an improvement on the most spartan Victorian pews in terms of comfort. The brief seemed to have sent some designers to garden furniture for inspiration and Søren Rose Studio’s offering looked like it would be more at home in someone’s conservatory. Sir Terence Conran’s design had a small Latin cross-shaped cut out in the back, just in case anyone had missed the point that it was intended for ecclesiastical use, while France’s Marie Blanchot entered a design for a bench with a seat and back made of honeycomb structure recycled cardboard.
Did the competition solve the great and thorny pew replacement problem? Well, probably not – it’s too complex for that. And while many of the designs are undeniably attractive objects, I’m yet to be convinced that row after row of them will look good in historic interiors. But what was shown on 14 June was a big advance on what most of the market currently offers. If it encourages designers and manufacturers to aim higher and widen the range of products on offer then it will have more than served its purpose.