Stop Thief Chairs
The security principle common to these customised anti crime chairs was the idea that human beings have an innate sense of what Oscar Newman called “defensible space” related to the body.
How did the project come about?
In 1999 the DAC Research Initiative, in response to persistent student experiences of bag theft, developed an interest in preventing theft of, and from, people’s bags in public places and bars or cafes. Such thefts are commonplace, and victimise people from all walks of life. For all victims, the consequences range from nuisance and immediate loss of valuables (costly or sentimental items such photographs), to serious ‘knock-on’ effects including burglary, identity theft as well as emotional impacts.
How did our research lead to new designs?
Although the original design brief set by Gamman was aimed at generating new anti theft bags designs, it also identified how café and bar furniture can be complicit with crime. Indeed, the design brief based on visual documentation of chairs used in cafés and bars delivered by Marcus Willcocks, went on to encourage designers to continue to observe where people left their bags, and to figure out how best to respond to typical behaviour in public places. DAC’s visual observations as well as customer feedback interviews, indicated that many bags were stolen when customers were distracted whilst seated on chairs. Customers either simply forgot where they had put their bags, or were distracted in some way, from keeping guard over their belongings. Consequently this made bags vulnerable to thieves, who tend to steal them in particular ways. For example, it is common for the bag to be pushed away by the thief’s foot from a position on the floor, or lifted/dipped when hanging over the back of a chair. In the latter instance, we found the design of many kinds of chair was actually complicit in theft, i.e. the furniture allowed or even prompted insecure bag placement on the floor or over the back of chairs in position outside of the owner’s field of view.
How does this design approach constitute “social design” or “social innovation”?
The original aim of the initiative was to demonstrate – to designers, manufacturers, stakeholders from bars and cafes as well as government, the police and end-users – how everyday objects could be given a ‘securing’ function without compromising their aesthetics or practicality, or excessively raising the spectre of crime. For this reason, the original design team; Lorraine Gamman, Jackie Piper and Marcus Willcocks collaborated to produce a whole series of chairs. The plan was to show how classic designs such as the Thonet bentwood chairs and the Jacobson Ant style ply chair could be adapted to include a security function, whilst remaining completely ‘in-style’ and making little overt ‘fuss’ about the crime prevention aspect. There was recognition that the securing function for the bag could also be read as a tidy aspect and aimed at keeping bags off the floor out of the way. The securing function for a whole range of chairs was conferred by a simple cut-out in the front edge of the seat. This allows the strap of the user’s bag to be effectively locked beneath them and secured by their legs and those of the chair. This adds the advantage of bags being sited within the user’s personal space where few thieves would venture and users are able to respond quickly.
These customised anti crime chairs were first exhibited at Designer’s Block, Kings Cross in 2000, together with visualisation of perpetrator techniques that typically accompany bag theft. The security principle common to the chairs was the idea was that human beings have an innate sense of what Oscar Newman called “defensible space” related to the body. Consequently, by locating the bags to be sat on, at the front of the chair, positioned between the legs of those sitting on the chairs, the defensible space of the body could be involved effortlessly in the protection of belongings. It brings the user’s bag within the field of vision or body space, makes it awkward and obvious should a thief try to remove a bag, whilst remaining easy for the user to sit on. The chairs were shown at a range of exhibitions, culminating in SAFE: Design Takes on Risk at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2005-6), where two designs were purchased and incorporated in the permanent collection.
The Stop Thief Chair is a social design because it provides a simple way for bar and café customers to keep their things clean, off the floor, out of the way and importantly, out of reach of thieving fingers (to reduce opportunities for bag crime). This stylish approach to caring for customers also helps bar staff keep venues clean and avoids jeopardising the image of venues where it is used, since designs are kept on-brand.
What are the strengths of the design?
A straightforward and easy-to-use securing function has been incorporated at little cost and with little interference to the aesthetics and construction of a classic chair design, without presenting an exaggerated concern with crime. The Stop Thief Chair has been marketed with Dan Form, the renowned Danish furniture manufacturer, and also with Kian. Further trials are planned with Starbucks, Victoria in 2011.
What are the weaknesses of the design?
The plywood chair design is well suited to the slots cut in the chair, yet for some seats with single-directional grain, other bag holding chair designs that have been concepted by DACRC may need to be pursued.
Where to find more information