In the late 1970s, William H. Whyte, a journalist and urban planner, was commissioned by a foundation to write up a set of recommendations for revitalizing the underutilized green space at the corner of 42nd Street and the Avenue of the Americas. Whyte had spent hours meticulously documenting the habits of people in Midtown's public plazas and came away with the dispiriting conclusion that for all of its conviviality, "New York is a tough town to sit in."
Among the things that the park needed, he said, were movable chairs.
It was a seemingly simple solution, but the plan lay dormant for more than a decade.
Then in 1991, Andrew Manshel saw a job listing to become the associate director of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, the nonprofit founded in 1980 by Dan Biederman and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund that was spearheading the park's renovation—and Whyte's vision. Manshel, a former attorney with no planning experience, applied and got the position. Soon after, he set out to pick a chair.
It would take him eight whole months. He examined endless specimens, and after whittling down the selections to a dozen, he made the democratic gesture of lining them outside his office for other staffers to weigh in.
The one that got the most votes was a French green steel-framed folding chair fitted with wooden slats. Those who picked the chair liked it for evoking the chairs used in Paris's Luxembourg Gardens. But it was not particularly comfortable, nor was it Manshel's or even Whyte's choice. (The latter preferred a light mesh variety used by the New York Public Library in its public plaza.) To make things more difficult, the model that everyone liked was available from only one manufacturer named Fermob whose factory was located in a small village in southeast France.
On top of everything else, city officials were aghast at the plan to unleash hundreds of chairs in the heart of Midtown Manhattan.
"People thought the chairs were going to be stolen," Manshel recalled. "They thought we were crazy."
In spite of all the obstacles, in April 1992, Bryant Park officials debuted 2,000 green bistro chairs in Bryant Park.
And just as Whyte had predicted, people did something that was both ordinary and extraordinary—they sat in them, moved them, and as he would say, "schmoozed" in them.
"The chair is a metaphor for the management of public space," Manshel said. "It's one of a whole suite of things that you need to do to communicate that the public space is civilized and appealing."
Over the years, the green chairs of Bryant Park would become one of the most iconic and recognizable pieces of outdoor furniture in New York City. They helped propel the turnaround of a once seedy park dominated by drug dealers and eventually reclaim the surrounding business district that has since made room for residents. They were so popular, Bryant Park officials at one point put them up for sale to the public.
Other parks and cities quickly latched on to the idea. Today, movable chairs are in hundreds of public spaces, from Williamsburg's Domino Park to a sprawling open space in downtown Houston called Discovery Green. The company Fermob, which was overwhelmed with orders, now has a U.S. headquarters in Atlanta.
"Bryant Park is the most influential project in making that specific piece of furniture a public amenity in this country," said Philip Winn, vice president at Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit group that was founded in 1975 by Whyte's research assistants, Fred Kent.
According to Winn, what Whyte realized was that a public amenity has the power to change the "social temperature" of a space. Unlike bolted down chairs or other forms of hostile or unfriendly architecture, free-floating chairs provide park goers with an implicit sense of trust, and with that, a freedom to improvise.
"The chair itself is not magical but what it can achieve in the right circumstance is," Winn said.
He added: "It shows a lot of respect to the user. People come into the space and instinctively understand the basic code of behavior."
In 1979, Whyte produced a documentary called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, which would go on to become a cult-favorite among urban planners and enthusiasts. Included in the footage are scenes of unwitting New Yorkers in public spaces adjusting chairs as if they were scratching an itch. "Even when there's no apparent functional reason of any kind, people move chairs," intoned Whyte, the documentary's wry narrator.
Beginning around the 2000s, Bryant Park greatly expanded the breath and style of its furniture. According to Jerome Barth, who started working at the Bryant Park in 1998 and now serves as the president of the Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District, there are more than 6,000 pieces of movable furniture. The varieties includes green chairs without backs, stools, and chairs and tables of varying heights.
All of the different pieces work to broadcast "subtle cues" to park users about the setting and experience, Barth said. High chairs around tables surrounding a kiosk suggest a place for eating. Colorful pieces near ping pong tables represent an area designated for play.
Manshel, who is now 63, no longer works for Bryant Park, but his reverence for Whyte inspired him to write a book on his experiences. Published by Rutgers University Press, Learning from Bryant Park: Revitalizing Cities, Towns, and Public Spaces, comes out in April. On the cover is a picture of the famous and beloved chair that Manshel helped select and procure.
He said he hopes the book will raise the profile of Whyte, who, as an editor of Fortune magazine helped promote the work of Jane Jacobs, but remained far less known himself. "He's an insiders person," Manshel observed.
He said that Whyte, who would often come into the offices at Bryant Park, rejected the spotlight. "He was a quiet and humble and observant person," he said.
But as his documentary and writings reflect, he was one of the early urbanists in New York City who was keenly attuned to how humans interact with their spaces. Whyte was also, in the words of Barth, "a New Yorker through and through," who understood the desire of his fellow denizens to see and be seen.
In the above cited 1979 essay for the New York Times titled "Please, just a nice place to sit," the city planner wrote an appeal that was eminently relatable.
Throughout the city we can vastly increase the amount of useful space for people, with more plazas, more street space, more nooks and small oases; and for merchants and businessmen as well as every one else, it would be a lot better if we did. It wouldn't be paradise—New Yorkers would be miserable in such a place. But there'd be more of what gives the city its edge—more shmoozing, more picnicking, more kooks and screwballs and pretty girls to look at.