Seated Smartly

Office chairs have evolved from rigid and uncomfortable to self-adjusting, ergonomic wonders that know what the sitter wants.

Focus On Furniture

April 04, 2004|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

Freshly sprung from college in 1979, I was giddy with excitement after landing my first "real" job. Hired as a publishing house secretary, I could barely comprehend all the perks coming my way. Paid vacation! A business card with my name on it!

My elation fell flat, however, when I saw the hand-me-down office chair parked in front of my desk: a lumpish gray cube, upholstered with what seemed a hybrid of burlap and sandpaper. Dubious stains splattered the seat, which was so low-slung that while typing I looked like a chimpanzee swatting at bananas above my head.

There have been many jobs, of course, and many seats since then. Until recently, however, when I began to furnish an office of my own, I hadn't realized how many new chair styles were available.

"An office chair is one of life's most personal things. People are very opinionated about their chair," said Jennifer Barnes, associate vice president at RTKL, a Baltimore architecture engineering firm. "Every time we work on a job, we suggest people test drive at least two or three models, so they can [decide] what's best for them."

This is excellent advice, though limiting oneself to two or three choices is difficult. In fact, over several recent days, I sat in dozens of chairs designed by some of the world's best-known manufacturers (see ratings at end of story). What I discovered is that office seating has now settled into two historical epochs: B.A. and A.A, or before Aeron and after Aeron.

For those who've been perched atop a milk crate on Mars, Herman Miller launched the Aeron Chair in 1999, after the company asked its designers, Don Chadwich and Bill Stumpf, to come up with a totally new type of seat, but one that would achieve several specific objectives. A modern office chair, they were told, must adjust naturally and easily to an occupant. And, it should be ergonomic, or work to better the sitter's health and posture, no matter what position he or she sat in. "The human form has no straight lines, it is biomorphic," said Stumpf. "We designed the chair to be biomorphic, or curvilinear, as a metaphor of human form in the visual as well as the tactile sense."

Relax into any of the non-rectilinear chairs that are effectively "sons of Aeron," and you can see that Stumpf's theory is now gospel. The "Life" chair from Knoll has a back that bends like a fun-house mirror. Ypsilon from Vitra has a mesh seat that appears to be doing the tango with a giant insect. These chairs are essentially a plastic frame around which a mesh or webbed fabric is stretched. Manufacturers talk of a chair's "breathability," and the new buzzwords are "structure without stiffness."

Before Aeron, or B.A., most office chairs had rigid wooden or metal superstructure and fabric wrapped around foam cushions. The assumptions were that all human bodies were pretty much shaped alike and that there was one proper way to sit -- upright, back inflexibly straight.

The reason why Aeron was such a tremendous success and forever changed the office chair industry is that it arrived just as the U.S. workplace was undergoing a perfect storm of sociological shifts. First, as Americans became steadily more obese, it was less tenable to design one-size-fits-all office furniture. (Aeron comes in three sizes: small, medium and large.) Second, the nature of the white-collar work force was drastically changed by the personal computer. Not too long ago, secretaries did the typing. Now practically everyone -- from administrative assistant to CEO -- sits at a computer, tapping out their own correspondence and e-mail.

Studies show that today's office workers stand up less, and sit for longer hours each day. Hence, a rising need for furniture to be designed ergonomically, to alleviate ailments such as carpal tunnel syndrome and lower back pain.

Today's chairs are designed to be foolproof, and require fewer adjustments by the sitter, said Mark Falanga, a vice president at Chicago's Merchandise Mart Properties, which produces NeoCon, trade fairs where such state-of-the-art office furniture is introduced.

"Many chairs require some knowledge of where the seat should be, where the lumbar support goes," Falanga explained. "If you set these things improperly, all the good thinking that went into the chair goes out the window. You might as well be sitting on a paint can."

Thus, AllSteel's #19, HumanScale's "Freedom" Chair, and "Leap" from Steelcase only require a sitter to adjust the seat and arm height. Everything else happens through "passive ergonomics," or automatically.

Such hi-tech furniture is even showing up in home offices. "Like a Sub-Zero refrigerator or a Rolex watch, people are now seeking these chairs out by name," said Lou Ghitman, director of interior architecture at Baltimore's Design Collective Inc. "This didn't happen five years ago, but these chairs are the new status symbol."

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