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What makes curved pews so special?

By Amanda Opdycke

SCIENCE BEHIND SEAT ICONWhat attributes of a curved pew not only provide a place to sit during the sermon, but also enhance the experience? Why should you consider curved pews in your sanctuary? (And come to think of it, when did the use of curved pews begin?)

The Protestant Reformation has been attributed with the onset of consistent use of pews in the sanctuary.

As the sermon has become the focal point of the service over the years, it’s thought the idea of pews originated from the time of Christ, when it was common to have long, bed-like cushions in which people would recline while eating their meals to celebrate “the breaking of bread’” (Acts 2:46). Many historic churches from the 19th and early 20th centuries used curved pews. The use of curved pews echoes a feeling of tradition, but the design of the pews can be traditional or contemporary, depending upon the congregation’s aesthetic.

sanctuary-back-lft_0012A variety of experiences can be done so “in-the-round,” which simply means the audience is placed on three sides of the stage. To create an in-the-round experience, floor planning and layout is crucial. A seating plan in a circle or semi-circle keeps the focal point on the cross, altar or communion table where the message is usually delivered. This type of seating layout creates a more intimate way to engage worshipers, drawing each member into the service and allowing each parishioner’s seat to be as near as possible to the platform. Churches who have already adapted this layout experience an enhanced sense of unity as they are able to interact with each other visually, as well as hear each other better. “From a functional perspective, it ensured that all members of the congregation were facing and ‘centered’ on the focal point of the church and mass — which is the Eucharist on the altar,’” explains David Prada, AIA, Senior Director, Building and Properties at Archdiocese of Miami.

Every floor plan can be created to be truly unique based on the degree of the radius or curve. The concentric radius is determined by the size and the optimal seating capacity of the sanctuary. Another key element of curved pews is the ability to complement the architecture of the church. The shape of the room, the shape of the altar and platform area — as well as the presence of other curved elements in the sanctuary — can be echoed in the use of radius curved pews. “From a design perspective, [curved pews] softened the rectilinear nature of the church building geometry,” Prada says. “[They also] worked in communion with the curved ceilings and flower designs found on the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

Focus on construction — and comfort

While the design concept of radius curved pews is stylistically appealing, of equal importance is the construction method used to create the curved pews. It’s important for the construction of the curved seat to use staves or a vertical wooden post / plank which are bent. This is a critical component as it allows for a true bent seat.

For additional comfort, an ergonomic seat curve should be included which relieves the popliteal contact behind the knee. This contact can cause discomfort while seated for extended periods of time. The option of an upholstered seat and back can add to parishioners’ comfort level.

“When meeting with the architect about our new sanctuary design, we decided on a traditional look and feel,” says Bob McCurdy, chairman of the church building committee at First United Methodist Church in Ada, OH. “Adding seat cushions has been a big plus and given us another opportunity to express our color palate with our seating.”

Finally, it is imperative that the back, seat and cap of the pew is routed into the pew end. This provides additional strength and durability to the pew, as well as an overall finished look.

For centuries, churches have continued to withstand the test of time, reminding us of our shared history and love for Christ. “For length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you,” (Proverbs 3:2). While this verse speaks directly to our relationship with Christ and the peace we feel every day, so too are our houses of worship. Through attentive comfort of curved pews, we are able to achieve a greater understanding of the sermon.

Amanda Opdycke is Worship Market Manager at Sauder Worship Seating in Archbold, OH. She holds a BFA, Art History, from Ohio University and has written and contributed to several articles about church seating. Opdycke presented her first class at WFX Reach in San Antonio, TX, recently: “Attentive Comfort: The Ergonomics of Worship.” Its content was based on article the “Science Behind the Seat” Series in Church Executive Magazine.


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