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QUARTZ OBSESSION PODCAST

Office chairs: Engineered for extreme sitting

two office chairs on a blue background
Photo by Eric Helgas; styling by Alex Citrin-Safadi
Published Last updated

Everyone working from home knows just how painful it is to sit in the wrong kind of chair. Over the course of centuries, the modern office chair has emerged as the pinnacle of ergonomic comfort and support. Today, as a growing number of jobs are behind desks and computers, that design is more important than ever.

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Featuring

Kira Bindrim is the host of the Quartz Obsession podcast. She is an executive editor who works on global newsroom coverage and email products. She is obsessed with reality TV.

Anne Quito covers design and architecture for Quartz. She is obsessed with flags, fonts, and Milton Glaser, whose biography she is working on.


Show notes

Kira’s kneeling chair

A Taxonomy of Office Chairs by Jonathan Olivares

Anne Quito’s history of the office chair

Herman Miller’s Ergon chair

Frank Lloyd Wright’s chair for the Larkin building

Herman Miller’s Aeron chair

The Measure of Man: Human factors in Design by Henry Dreyfuss, 1960

Humanscale by Niels Diffrient, 1974

Steelcase Karman with its Intermix fabric

This episode uses the following sounds from freesound.org:
Office Ambience.wav by Dean-Raul_DiArchangeli
Door Open Close by amholma
Door, Wooden, Close, A (H1).wav by InspectorJ
Coffeemaker by MrAuralization
20131113_flipbook_H2nextXY.wav by Soundscape_Leuphana
2018-11-15 by Doctor_Dreamchip
rolling-office-chair.wav by elonen
chair hydraulic.wav by tim.kahn
Keyboard Typing by katfolker


Transcript

Kira Bindrim: When the Quartz office went into lockdown last spring, I knew immediately what I’d miss the most. Not my colleagues, who I still see every day online; not the snack drawer; or the free coffee, or the unlimited supply of Post-Its. Nope—within one week of working from my apartment, I was desperately missing my office chair.

Before the pandemic, I hadn’t given that chair much thought—it was just where my butt went while I was working. But since then, I’ve done research. My chair at the office is a mesh multifunction task chair with adjustable armrests, lumbar support, forward tilt control, and a 20-inch seat width. It has wheels that won’t scuff the floor, and pneumatic seat adjustment, which is what makes that fun little noise when you change the height of the chair. To sit in my office chair is to participate in nine hours of meetings and tasks without even a glimmer of neck pain.

We didn’t always cherish this kind of office chair. In the Victorian era, sitting on an uncomfortable chair was actually a sign of virtue and willpower. But in the modern economy, business often hinges on sitting and staring at a screen for eight hours a day for years. That makes comfortable, functional chairs a crucial part of the $71 billion market for office furniture. Nothing brought that reality home—literally—like the pandemic. Now, millions of people who once took things like forward tilt control for granted are working from home on whatever seating they have lying around. And that shift is finally forcing questions about an industry few of us ever considered. Does it really have to be this hard to find an affordable, comfortable chair for work?

This is the Quartz Obsession, a podcast that explores the fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas, and what they tell us about the global economy. I’m your host Kira Bindrim. Today: Office chairs, and what our seating says about us.

I’m joined now by Anne Quito who is with me here in New York. Anne is a reporter with Quartz at Work who focuses on design. And even though we’re at a studio, I want to ask you first: What kind of chair do you use working from home?

Choosing the right chair for work from home

Anne Quito: My choices are so sophisticated. I’ve been researching chairs for seven years. So I sit actually on a step stool—well, I sit on a stepladder. It’s one of those foldable ones and you know. It’s like, work mode, and then if I have to reach something, it’s ladder mode.

Kira Bindrim: Have you always sat on that chair? Or is that a pandemic thing,

Anne Quito: I’ve never had to sit erect at my kitchen table for so long until covid.

Kira Bindrim: I kind of move around my apartment. So I do the couch, I do a patio chair, I will also lay on the floor, I will also lay in bed. And then I eventually invested in a kneeling chair—which, for those of you who aren’t familiar one, just Google it because it’s a sight to see—but it’s basically like you’re sitting on a forward-tilted stool with your legs tucked under you on these sort of like shin pads. So you’re effectively kneeling while sitting up and there’s no back support, but it forces your posture to kind of stay upright. And I can do that for about eight hours, if I must.

Anne Quito: I’m against this.

Kira Bindrim: Why is that?

Anne Quito: Do you feel like a supplicant? What is that, kneeling?

Kira Bindrim: I’m not praying. I’m just in a kneeling position.

Anne Quito: This is an anti-feminist chair, period.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, well, we can’t do an entire podcast on my seating, even though clearly we could. So my assumption is, especially since you sit on a stepladder, that you got really interested in this topic by virtue of being a design reporter.

Anne Quito: Yes. Honestly, I’m sitting on a stepladder because it’s my holdout solution until I find the perfect chair that works for the home and the office and my home office and my life.

Kira Bindrim: I see. So you’re actually pretty invested in this sort of journey. You’re just at the beginning of it.

Anne Quito: Big time. And actually, it’s partly inspired by one interview with a writer who wrote a book A Taxonomy of Office Chairs. And he said, after surveying hundreds of chairs, his favorite office chair is a stool by Achille Castiglioni. It looks like a mushroom—basically it’s a mushroom chair, but the name in Italian translates to sharecroppers chair. Basically, it’s the seat of a tractor on a stilt, just propped on an L basically. And he said, it’s just a stool and, like, working isn’t sitting forever. So he says, ‘I sit there for a couple of hours and then my back hurts and then I get up and then I sit on something else.’ And I totally subscribe to that idea. And at the beginning of the pandemic for Quartz at Work, I thought, ‘Man, the perfect office chair hasn’t been invented.’ So I spoke to Steelcase’s ergonomics expert, and he says, ‘The perfect stance isn’t sitting, but moving.’ So he says, he encouraged me to sort of like, get up, move around. So I’m all about that.

History of chair design

Kira Bindrim: I want to talk a little bit about the history of office chairs, or at least as I understand it. So if we look back into chair history, let’s say, we see evidence of special stools that Egyptians were using that was discovered in 1900 BC. We see Julius Caesar traveling with his own little foldable stool, which is a fantastic mental picture. We see Charles Darwin in the 1840s basically slapping casters onto his fancy office chair and creating the first office chair on wheels. And then in the 1920s is when we really start to see office chairs being designed with productivity in mind, and kind of with preserving the health of the worker in mind. But when do we start to see what you and I would think of as the office chair today, the one that is actually in our office? When does that start to emerge?

Anne Quito: If you think about an office chair, you probably have in your imagination some, I don’t know, sneaker-like foam and mesh and sort of like on wheels that can be adjustable, right? But think about it, what is a work chair, or what is an office chair? So what we’re imagining is actually called a task chair, basically designed in the, I don’t know, 70s 60s, where ergonomics came to play. And I think ergonomic office chair is basically a great symbol of the time when offices or workplaces cared about people’s health.

Kira Bindrim: I want to establish some fundamentals of what we mean when we’re talking about an office chair, which as you said, is basically, we’re usually talking about kind of white-collar task chair for people who sit at desks for most of the day. What do those types of chairs typically have?

Anne Quito: A task chair is a butt perch designed for extreme sitting. So something with good back support; something that’s hight adjustable probably to accommodate all kinds of workers; something that moves so you can purportedly, you know, roll around the office.

Kira Bindrim: Is there a chair that is like the first modern office chair? Like the moment when the stage is set for the rest of them?

Anne Quito: Yes. It’s called the Ergon chair by Herman Miller. And if you think about the 80s chair, it’s sort of like full on, it kind of looks like fully padded—to me, it looks like two hash browns sort of like welded together, it appears kind of just comfortable and cushy, but also sort of nice. But it’s sort of a pillowy chair, but it really sort of like—or so they say—supports your back.

Kira Bindrim: And comfort is obviously paramount. And that makes sense, we’re staring at screens, we’re sitting—extreme sitting, which is just a fantastic phrase. But as I mentioned at the top, comfort hasn’t always been so important? Like in the past, it actually was considered a sign of virtue to be uncomfortable on your chair?

Anne Quito: Totally. In the Victorian era, it was a virtue to sort of sit like this, sort of sit erect, right, and like to bear the pain. In fact, Frank Lloyd Wright designed these custom office chairs for the Larkin building because Frank Lloyd Wright, if you know, he wants total control of the whole environment. And they were so unwieldy that people fell off. It had a nickname, it was called suicide chair. And then he sort of defended it by citing Victorian virtues. ‘Deal with it,’ basically.

Kira Bindrim: I feel like you have to design a really bad chair for people to actively fall off of the chair. You touched on this a little bit: When did this ‘task chair,’ this sort of modern white-collar worker chair, become so popular and ubiquitous?

Anne Quito: So in 1994, Herman Miller debuted this alien-looking chair called the Aeron chair. It was so out of the norm, it didn’t look like a stuffed potato or like a hash brown on wheels. It had mesh, it had—it basically looked like a machine. It was designed by Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf. And the chair developed from their research for the elderly, actually. They observed that people were getting blood transfusions, basically, were just on Laz-E-Boys, and the chair was their universe in a way, and could we improve that? So they came up with this technology and this sort of idea that instead of like overstuffed pillows or hash browns, they said, maybe it could be made of mesh, maybe it could sort of evoke this kind of aesthetic and also be comfortable. And it was so strange that it stopped people in their tracks, honestly.

Kira Bindrim: But from like the 20s or so to the 90s when this magic chair comes out, there is still a healthy office chair craze—like that part isn’t new, people are now in a place where they’re expecting their chair to be a place they sit for long periods of time, and that it’s comfortable.

Anne Quito: Yes, and that it’s all—yes.

Kira Bindrim: And then Herman Miller comes in in the 90s snd is like, “I have the chair.”

Anne Quito: The thing that turned industrial designers to chair design, I guess, there are two seminal books in 1960 in 1961. One is by Henry Dreyfuss. And another one is by Niels Diffrient, it’s called Human Scale. So basically, they translated the tenets of ergonomics to industrial design. So 1960/1961, and then in the 70s, you see all these gambits on ergonomic chairs.

Do ergonomic chairs really work?

Kira Bindrim: You keep mentioning ergonomics, and I want to dig into it a little bit. Because yeah, I mean, I hear about it too. And I think one of the things that’s unique about this, I want to say post-pandemic, but mid-pandemic period, is that so many of us are suddenly looking to buy office chairs. What is ergonomics? Is that science? and I’m doing up-talk because I don’t know, hoping you can clarify for me.

Anne Quito: It is science. On the most fundamental level, it’s the study of the human and their work conditions. And it’s not always in the office. In fact, ergonomics was developed for military planes. There were early studies on how the cockpit could be more comfortable, how you can reach things. So it’s not just always about the office, but it’s about man and the environment they’re in. Before there was this notion that you had to change to adaptive design, but this is a shift where, “oh, maybe this is at fault, not me,” you know.

Kira Bindrim: Are there any parameters that make something ergonomic? Or can anyone just say that? It’s kind of like when I’m shopping for natural food, and it’s like, “Well, it says organic, so that’s good.”

Anne Quito: Well it has to sort of explain why it makes things better for your physique or your physiology, instead of just a cinderblock and your butt, right?

Kira Bindrim: Or a stepladder.

Anne Quito: Fine, a stepladder,. It needs to try, and I say try‚and we can dig into the marketing of chairs, which is a whole kind of thing—it needs to try that, I think to earn the dollar signs, dollar signs.

Kira Bindrim: I absolutely want to dig into the marketing of chairs. So let’s talk a little bit about that. Again, pre-pandemic, this is an industry that the average person was paying zero attention to. Like, if you work in an office, your chair’s probably already there, your company probably bought them in bulk, they probably subscribe to the tyranny of black chairs. And so you have sort of this uniform look to chairs. I guess my first question is, what are the big companies in the world of office chairs? Herman Miller is still one I imagine. Are there any other big players we should know about?

Anne Quito: Yes, Steelcase is the world’s largest one. Human scale, Vitra in Europe, Hawthorne, and a whole bunch of other companies. And I guess IKEA sells them.

Kira Bindrim: You guess.

Anne Quito: No, they do. They actually sell gaming chairs.

Kira Bindrim: Ok so we’re circling the idea that this is a crowded marketplace. There’s lots of chairs out there, there’s lots of options. There’s a big spectrum of value from Ikea up to super fancy. What does the office chair arms race—see that little pun I did —actually look like? What is this competition space? You’re alluding to the fact that it’s actually quite cutthroat.

Anne Quito: It’s definitely competitive. And in fact, if I can share a story: I attended a chair unveiling last week. And it was supposed to be in person, but you know, COVID. So it just had to be on Zoom. And I’m always on tight, tight, tight, tight embargo. Do not tell Kira do not tell anyone until it, you know. So it’s with Steelcase. The Zoom begins. Open, two people, and like a covered object. It’s totally secret, right?

Kira Bindrim: And it’s like, obviously a chair. It’s just covered in cloth.

Anne Quito:100%. Anyway, of course, this chair—so they unveil it. It’s called the Steelcase Karman, named after Jeff Bezos’s greatest achievement, which is reaching the Karman line, right, like the imaginary border between space and earth. So they name it because it’s weightless.

Kira Bindrim: I was gonna say, not a place you need chairs really.

Anne Quito: No, but the feeling, you know. So they explained the virtues of this chair, and the greatest thing is it’s Steelcase’s first mesh chair. So all this mesh talk in the past, Herman Miller had sort of like, you know, the market on mesh because of Aeron.  Steelcase is all about intuitive seating—basically, you sit on it, you don’t have to fiddle with it so much, that’s their gambit—intuitive seating and usually made of plastic or aluminum of some sort, but never mesh because they’re thinking it’s an inferior material. And then comes Intermix, this Steelcase patented mesh, which purportedly when you sit on it, it distributes your weight across the seat, not just sort of, like, kind of concentrates like a lump of coal in the middle. So that’s their gambit, and it’s sustainable and all that. But there’s great fanfare. And of course, I asked the usual questions, nanana. And in the end, I said, “Hi”—this is my reporter’s sign off all the time—”Hi, may ask a goofy question?” And asked, “I don’t mean to be insulting. But why is this a big deal?”

Kira Bindrim: Anne!

Anne Quito: “Why are you using curtains to conceal this chair?” And then they’re like, “Oh, yeah.” And they’re like, “You know, IP. And this is a highly competitive market.” And apparently, factories for Herman Miller, for Steelcase—they’re all in Michigan. So they hear about each other sort of like, in real innovation. So it’s top secret, for sure.

How to find a high-quality office chair

Kira Bindrim: After the break, how to pick the perfect office chair.

[ad break]

Kira Bindrim: Okay, so we’re talking a lot about the almost, like, spectacular aspect of this industry. And I have the same reaction you do, which is like, who cares? Why are we spending so much energy unveiling office chairs? But now that I am sitting at home all the time working from home and thinking about my office chair, maybe I should care. Maybe I should be paying attention to the new hot releases in the chair world. And my question for you first is, am I right to think that because of the pandemic and working from home, a lot more individuals are buying or looking into buying office chairs, who would not in an office environment?

Anne Quito: Absolutely. It used to be office chairs were bought by, you know, usually an office manager. And they would buy it in bulk and the sales pitch was once, and that’s like 1,000 sales. But now, consumers are discerning with every aspect, every part of the chair. And in fact, it’s like the office chair in a ways under scrutiny. At no other time has ever been under the spotlight. So I still contend that the perfect office chair for home offices hasn’t been invented yet. But they’re trying. But every chair is an answer to a problem. Every chair reflects the obsession of the zeitgeist. So yeah, for sure.

Kira Bindrim: So over the course of years or decades, the need that the modern worker has is going to be reflected in the chairs that are popular at that time.

Anne Quito: Absolutely.

Risks associated with too much sitting

Kira Bindrim: And so right now, our needs are our necks hurt, our backs hurt, we’re sitting for very long periods of time.

Anne Quito: Now it needs to look good at home. And like designers—there’s a horrific term for this sort of category called resimercial.

Kira Bindrim: No.

Anne Quito: So designers have been working on that for decades. And now it’s like, important more than ever, because people without the luxury of having an enclosed home office need to live with a back-supportive chair that looks good in their kitchen table.

Kira Bindrim: And we’re seeing that now in chair design, like a reflection of that?

Anne Quito: They’re trying.

Kira Bindrim: So for the at home worker right now who maybe agrees with your assessment that the perfect chair has not been invented yet but yet must sit for work all the same, what are some of the things that you would say someone should look for if they’re about to meet or task chair purchase, let’s say.

Anne Quito: We’re going shopping now?

Kira Bindrim: In our minds, we’re going.

Anne Quito: Okay. I mean, that is such a philosophical question, Kira.

Kira Bindrim: I didn’t mean it to be.

Anne Quito: Okay, I have like a three-step formula for shopping for anything, basically: Zoom in, zoom out, and then zoom closer in. Zoom in: Look at the details of the chair. You know, like, if you can really sit on it, but it’s really hard to get an impulse buy if it’s $3,000. But they tried to meet the chair in person. Inspect it, twirl it. Look at the wheels—some wheels are better for like high pile carpet, you know, just sort of consider it. Consider this idea. Zoom out: What do your surroundings look like? Because the chair it’s funny, like I think Apple and other companies have done this to us—they’ve cropped out objects and sell it to us in a white plane. We never considered the environment. So think about your home, think about your office—will work there? Will look good there? Maybe you can also zoom in your bank account if you can afford a very expensive one. And then zoom in-in: What does your heart say? I think shopping, and design, and design and shopping—they’re emotional decisions. And designers are often trying to romance us, and also talk to us in rational terms at the same breath.

Kira Bindrim: So it’s like logistics, aesthetics, and emotion, and love.

Anne Quito: And love. Yeah.

Kira Bindrim: Here’s a question that sort of related but afield: How much should we be sitting in the first place? Like, say I work an eight hour day—how many of those hours should I have my butt in any sort of chair?

Anne Quito: I mean, it depends person to person. But the ergonomics expert I spoke to said move as much as possible. Move every hour, whether it’s walking, getting up drinking water, whatever. So it’s that act of moving.

Kira Bindrim: Do you find you move more working from home or working from the office?

Anne Quito: I move more working at home, sadly, because I’m reaching for snacks.

Kira Bindrim: Fair enough. If the key is to keep the snacks far enough away that you have to walk a little bit to get to them, and then you canceled it out, it’s fine.

Anne Quito: Exactly.

Kira Bindrim: In the course of missing my own office chair, I’ve been trying to think about why I miss it so much. It’s funny that you say it’s kind of, it’s not even like the best chair. And I think it’s because it’s comfortable. But it also speaks to this idea of like ownership, like it’s my chair at work. And I had my desk and my space at work. And I had all these little knickknacks at my desk, and my chair had its own little settings that I had set. And that has been a really interesting part of this transition to remote work—for me, I was a real office creature before the pandemic. And you’ve written about this, too, that the hot desking phenomenon where you don’t have a fixed desk, you lose something, you lose a little bit of your place at work. Do you think that chairs are a part of that too, that it’s one of those things that you just like, “Well, this is this is my little space, that I exist here.”

Anne Quito: Of course, we have a connection to our chair. In fact, if I can confess, I sometimes, when people are resigning, I eye their chair. Is it newer? Is it cleaner? Is it better? But yes, there’s a connection to a chair. But also, there’s also an egalitarian spirit to the models of ergonomic chairs these days. So the other thing that Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick introduced was this notion that everyone in the office can be equal. They basically eliminated the idea of having a boss chair.

Kira Bindrim: And those are the Aeron guys?

Anne Quito: The Aeron guys, and also the Equa and Ergon guys. Basically the pioneers of this field, or one of them. In the past, there used to be basically a throne for the boss, right—high-backed, Dr. Evil, maybe kind of chair—to signify that I am in charge. This is just my guess, but I’m thinking that they were inspired by the throne, right? Sitting used to be sort of this elevated stance in a way because okay, you serfs stand up; Julius Caesar, I sit here and judge you. So the boss chair emerged sort of this aura around, aura of foam around you to basically project you’re in charge. But when we got, you know, ergonomic seats, and the way we think about the ergonomic seats that Herman Miller and all these sort of other manufacturers sold, everyone kind of had the same. So you wouldn’t know who the boss was.

Kira Bindrim: So it’s simultaneously gives you some sort of sense of place and ownership, but also puts you on an even playing field with everyone else.

Anne Quito: Yes. But I do still, I’m particular about which kind of same chair I get. So.

Kira Bindrim: Where does gaming fit into this? Like, if I think about extreme sitting, I am thinking about work, I’m thinking about binge watching, and I’m thinking like gaming—people who are sitting in a chair for many, many hours playing video games, and so need the utmost concentration and comfort. Is it fair to assume that there is some cutting-edge chair technology happening in the gaming space?

Anne Quito: Yes. So most of the major manufacturers have released gaming chairs in 2020 or 2021. For example, Herman Miller partnered with LogiTech to purportedly redesign one of their stock chairs, or a few of their stock chairs, to be even more comfortable. So gamers are extreme-extreme sitters, right? IKEA had this idea a few years ago, they were selling this model called Ubik, where they also partnered with an ergonomics company. And the scheme was, you can go to an IKEA store and get your butt scanned. Yeah. So it would sort of like, you would have a cushier seat, a more supportive seat. And they would mail you this insert, and you can put it in your IKEA chair. And that’s their gaming chair gambit. I don’t know if it ever launched, but they were all about this.

Kira Bindrim: I have one more question for you.

Anne Quito: It makes me it makes me think, though—but maybe you can ask your question.

Kira Bindrim: No, no, what does it make you think?

Anne Quito: If money, time, and logistics are not a factor, what would be your dream office chair?

Kira Bindrim: I mean, you’re gonna hate my answer, because I really was happy with my office chair.

Anne Quito: The supplicant chair?

Kira Bindrim: The kneeling chair I like for the reasons you said—like it fits in my apartment, it’s small, it’s aesthetically pleasing. And it forces me to have good posture. So that’s as close as I’ve come. But I think the thing that that I have come around to during the pandemic is the movement part—that, like, sitting is a big part of our work, or it is difficult for me to do a lot of our work while standing or moving around, but moving from chair to chair, moving from bed to floor—that is a way that I can sort of break up my day and put a little less emphasis on the one chair that will solve all of my problems, at least until this magic future remote work chair that you allude to is finally invented.

Anne Quito: The magic future work chair’s a shape shifting chair.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah. Oooh. that’s just a beanbag. Okay. Is there any last fun fact about office chairs that we just did not get to, but that you must get out of your system?

Anne Quito: Many.

Kira Bindrim: Pick one.

Anne Quito: One? Can I get two?

Kira Bindrim: Alright.

Anne Quito: One: It’s really hard to throw away office chairs in Japan, or chairs in general. And people just sort of throw away office chairs and that amounts to like millions of tons in landfill every year. But in Japan, I was chatting with a friend, it’s actually very hard to throw away seating. And the Japanese agency asks you, “What chair? Is there a chair? What kind of chair?” and whatever it is there, it’s a schedule. So okay, so we’re throwing away a lounge chair, like make sure you do this. And like really, that putting hindrances on this throw-away culture makes us, I think—makes them, or make people—value what they have, and really rethink this urge to treat furniture like how we treat fast fashion. It makes us value and makes us really rethink our decisions and also relationship with objects around us. And if we can repair things, why can’t we, instead of throwing them away? The second fun fact is: Do you know that some chair manufacturers box office chairs pre-inclined depending on the region, they’re shipping the chair to? For example, in Japan, they’ve studied that Japanese workers like to sit on the edge of the chair, so the back is sort of slightly kind of inclined towards the sitter. And Americans like to lean back. So it’s sort of like, reclined.

Kira Bindrim: That is super interesting. Are you lean forward or lean back yourself? I guess you’re on the step stool so you’re…

Anne Quito: I’m a belly flop.

Kira Bindrim: This has been fantastic, Anne. Thank you for joining me.

That’s our Obsession for the week. This episode was produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. Our sound engineer is George Drake, and the theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to Anne Quito and Alex Ossola in New York. If you liked what you heard, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening. Tell your friends about us! Tell them to sit in their most virtuous uncomfortable chair and take a listen. Then head to qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s Weekly Obsession email and browse hundreds of interesting backstories.

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