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LEANING IN

The chair every remote worker wants hasn’t been invented yet

AP/Frank Augstein
AP/Frank Augstein
  • Anne Quito
By Anne Quito

Design and architecture reporter

Published Last updated

As reality sets in for many workers that they’ll be stuck at home for the foreseeable future, many have found themselves pining for a proper ergonomic chair.

A dizzying number of choices are available online, from budget options to sleek designer models. But one problem is universal: Office chairs tend to look, well, office-y. Despite the prevalence of the residential theme trend in office design (referred to as “resimercial” in industry parlance) in recent years, it appears that none of the big commercial furniture manufacturers have designed a convincing high-performance chair that blends in with the rest of our homes.

“It’s certainly top of mind for us right now,” says Meghan Dean, director of ancillary partnerships at Steelcase, the world’s largest office furniture manufacturer. “We’ve certainly expanding our thinking about what is a great-looking ergonomic solution.”

Herman Miller
Aeron evolution.

Many styles today evoke the aesthetic of the Aeron chair, the bestselling $1,200 Herman Miller model that’s become the icon of office ergonomics. Designed by Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf in the 1990s, the Aeron (aka the “dotcom throne”) was sold in three sizes and touted myriad adjustable features for lumbar support. It’s the ultimate “machine for sitting.”

But during the extended lockdown, the clamor for a supportive chair that doesn’t look like a hulking piece of machinery has become acute. This is especially true for those living in small quarters, without the benefit of a separate home office.

“The idea of what a home office is changing and evolving, but what we do know is that people are much happier and much more productive at work if they’re comfortable,” says Dean. “It’s a great question, how can we design a task chair that looks really great at home?”

The answer, it turns out, is that designing an office chair to look like a cushy armchair is trickier than it may seem.

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A tussle between ergonomics and aesthetics

“You can’t take an existing chair that works well in an office environment and try to dress it up to be a home chair,” explains Greg Allison, principal design engineer at the ergonomic-focused brand, Humanscale. “It’s just a different aesthetic and a different size.”

An ergonomic office chair—often referred to as a “task chair”—is designed to keep our bodies healthy through extended periods of sitting. Per the standards set by the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association, the leading trade organization in the US, an office chair must support a person weighing up to 275 pounds, sitting for eight hours a day, five days a week over the span of ten years or longer. (A large occupant chair must support workers weighing up to 400 pounds.)

Allison, who has designed various types of seating—from children’s car seats to high chairs, hospital wheelchairs, and task chairs for various manufacturers—explains that an office chair looks the way it does because of its function. Characteristic details include a wheel base that allows sitters to easily glide across the floor, adjustment levers to accommodate the posture needs of people with various body types, and the sloping “waterfall seat” designed to relieve pressure from the knees and thighs. Ergonomic chairs also have a gap between the seat and the back of the seat to allow the user to adjust the recline angle.

Even before the pandemic, Allison says there was growing interest in simpler-looking office chairs. “Visually, people have come to the conclusion that they don’t want to see all these mechanisms,” he explains. For a task chair that’s being introduced early next year, Humanscale made adjustments to trick the eye away from the guts and levers of an office chair. It has a “softer look” and self-adjusting technology that responds to the sitter’s body position.

But even then, Allison admits to the limits of tweaking the form. “Will someone want to put it in their living room? No,” he says. “But I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction towards making a task chair look right in a home environment.” Other designers have proposed counterpoints to the Aeron aesthetic in recent years—from Vitra’s Pacific chair or Steelcase’s ultra-sleek Silq model—but at the end of the day, they still read “office.”

Knoll

Pro tips on shopping for an office chair

Ideally, you must sit on a chair before buying it. But since most showrooms are closed or limiting capacity due to the pandemic, it’s good to do a bit of comparison shopping before ordering one online.

Alan Calixto, former interior design director of the New York firm A+I, advises shoppers to pay close attention to the chair’s details. Wheels, for instance, can be soft or hard. Soft casters are rubberized and best for hardwood or smooth, tiled surfaces, while hard casters are meant for carpeted floors. “If you get it wrong, it can be problematic and even cause injury,” he says. “If you have hardwood floors and you get hard casters, for instance, you can easily slide. In an office, that can turn into a lawsuit.”

Should we even consider the budget chairs from office supply catalogues? What about cheap knock-offs? Calixto, who uses the Knoll Pollock executive chair and a Vitra AC5 at home, says paying for a well-made model that comes with a manufacturer’s warranty would be the wiser investment in the long term. “You’re investing in yourself and it’s something you can pass down to someone else,” he says. Cheap chairs—or “fast fashion furniture”—tend to break and get thrown out after a few years, adding to the nine million tons of office furniture sent to landfills every year in the US. “There’s a greater philosophical question here on how Americans view design and how much they’re willing to spend on it,” Calixto says.

Benjamin Pardo, design director of Knoll, says that carefully choosing the color and fabric of office chairs can help address aesthetic concerns. “One of the lamentations of an office chair is that it always reminds you of work,” he observes.”Don’t let it be black, unless the other chairs in the room are black.” He favors an armchair designed by Eero Saarinen for his home office.

When shopping for a chair, it’s useful to consider the rest of your room, Pardo explains. Small touches, like adding a throw to the back of your task chair, or specifying a unique upholstery fabric can help.  “You can use a print, a pattern or a plaid on the seat,” he suggests. “I won’t call it camouflage, but acclimatization to a more residential setting is always possible.” Pardo believes that any chair can look good in the home, given the right “collage of objects” around it.

As designers mull the ultimate remote work chair, marketers are already finding creative ways to reach customers. Steelcase, for instance, recently partnered with furniture retailer West Elm to get their office products in stores. Herman Miller, Knoll, and other manufacturers are offering online discounts on their “work from home” solutions.

Steelcase
The Steelcase-West Elm home office.

Calixto also recommends considering smaller furniture manufacturers like family-owned North Carolina company Davis Furniture, Italian maker Arper, or the German brand Wilkhahn.

Evolution of the office chair

The standards for office chairs were developed based on the idea that workers stay seated at their desks for hours at a time. Now that wellness-minded companies promote more active work days punctuated with breaks and walking meetings, some argue that the criteria for what makes an ideal office chair is also up for a rethink. “At home, who’s really sitting down for eight hours?” adds Calixto. “Let’s be real, you’re going to get up to get a snack at some point.” To his point, the Steelcase-West Elm partnership demonstrates how chairs used in lobbies or conference rooms (aka collaboration seating) can work just as well as task chairs for remote workers, since we rarely stay put in one spot during the day.

Pardo concurs that some industry standards follow a defunct image of the typical worker. “Up until 1995, the German DIN standard [which the American chair standards borrows from] was based on women wearing high heels typing on a typewriter,” he says. “We should dig into that…The rules and regulations are kinda ridiculous.”

Allison, the chair engineer, thinks that the next frontier in office seating is perching. “It’s when you’re standing but resting on something at just the right height,” he explains. “In my vision, it will be a chair that you can perch on and also allow you to sit at a normal posture.”

Every chair design is an answer to a particular problem. Its form evolves as our ideas about where and how we’re working morphs. “Think about the mid-century modern guys like [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe,” he says, referring to the architect whose iconic designs include the Barcelona chair. “They were trying to do the same thing, only in the opposite direction—rethinking chairs designed for the home environment as task chairs. Now we’re going back … it’s always about listening to the needs of people at a given time.”

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