A bean bag chair is essentially a large vinyl or leather sack filled with actual dried beans or, more commonly, synthetic polystyrene beads. The user places the bean bag chair in a chosen spot on the floor and centers his or her body over the bag before falling into it. The user's weight is supported by the beads and the outer shell basically forms around his or her body. The bag should continue to provide support as the user changes positions. This is the theory behind bean bag chairs, at least.
A bean bag chair is often associated with dorm rooms and first apartments, primarily because of its low cost and appeal to younger furniture shoppers. A bean bag chair can be carried home in a standard car, and it can be handled easily by one person. This makes it appealing to students and young adults who need to supplement their home furniture for guests, but aren't as concerned about creating a formal look with standard furnishings.
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The informality of a typical bean bag chair, however, can also be viewed as its Achilles heel. Once a person has fully sunk into the bag, it can be notoriously difficult to float back out. Lumbar support is minimal with most bean bag chairs, and the natural or synthetic bean stuffing can become compressed and less accommodating over time. Any tear or rip in the outer vinyl or leather shell can cause the filling to spill out and render the chair virtually useless.
The overall popularity of a bean bag chair tends to run in cycles. The original bean bag chairs were known as Saccos, and became very popular during the late 1960s. The outer shells could be dyed any number of colors, including psychedelic shades and animal prints. Bean bag chairs were far less imposing than standard furniture, encouraging users to congregate organically instead of in regimented arrangements.
Over the intervening years, bean bag chairs largely fell out of favor because of their poor lumbar support and stylistic limitations. A person might place a bean bag chair or two in a den or entertainment room, but it would be completely out of place in a formal living room. Bean bag chairs, much like light organs or lava lamps, became closely associated with a dated 1970s style.
Improvement in bean bag chair technology, however, helped improve its appeal in the late 1990s. The outer shells could be removed and washed, while a waterproof inner lining protected the beads from damage and leakage. The material used for the outer shell was also improved to reduce the dreaded adhesion problem many former users had with the vinyl or leather outer shells.
Modern bean bag chairs are largely marketed towards the same collegiate/young adult demographic as before, although many younger children now seek out these chairs to use while playing video games for long periods of time. While bean bag chairs may never become as popular as they were during the 1960s and early 1970s, they can still be found in the home furnishing department of many major retail stores.