Blame the Aeron. Ever since Herman Miller's mesh-backed superseat became a design icon — and a sales smash — in the late '90s, office-furniture companies have been vying to create the next "it" chair. In June, both Knoll and Humanscale will debut next-generation chairs to compete with Herman Miller's latest, Embody, which debuted last fall.
Everyone is fighting for a bigger share of the $2.2 bil-lion office-seat market. But the stakes are even higher in this economic climate. A chair now must be comfortable, functional, value-driven, and, oh, can you make it "green," too?
We asked three armchair quarterbacks — an ergonomics fanatic, a design freak, and a Web guy who likes to code in a prone position — to test-drive each chair. No posturing allowed.
"Sit how you want," the Knoll chair invites. And it means it. The chair, created by New Zealand's Formway Design, has a bendable Flex Top that folds down like an armrest to accommodate sideways sitters and then bounces back to a serious posture when the boss appears. Generation's eco-friendly materials and relatively lighter weight (38 pounds) earn it four LEED points.
Flex Back: "The best lower-back support" of all three chairs, raves our design dude. Our geek agrees, noting that when he "performed a full back stretch" — a posture evidently critical for superior coding — he felt "very secure and trusted this chair not to break, or fall back."
Flex Seat: One of the secrets behind Generation's extreme acceptability — which allows you to sit sideways, back-ward, and so forth — is the chair's seat edge, which is flexible to 270 degrees. "I was so comfortable that I didn't want to perform any work," warns our geek, "but just sit in the chair and relax."
Diffrient World Chair
What a bargain! This "budget" chair designed by Niels Diffrient adjusts automatically to all positions with just one main control for seat height. The armrests are even mounted to the chair's back, not its seat, so they move along as a sitter reclines. And it's an environmental winner, weighing a mere 25 pounds and composed of just eight major parts.
Supporting actor: "I feel like I'm slouching and relaxed, but this chair somehow places my entire body in proper form," says our ergonomista. Our geek agrees, but "the armrests are annoyingly low, and I had trouble figuring out how to adjust them." (We decided not to "train" our testers on these chairs, because new workers just sit down and get to work.)
Slip 'n' Slide: The frameless front edge eliminates stress under the thighs. But that elastomer material? "The fabric was very slippery," our geek groans. Our designer is even less charitable: "I felt like I was going to fall through." We did test a prototype; Humanscale says that the finished chair "will be designed to comfortably hold people in place."
HERMAN MILLER, $1399-$1199
Designed by the late Aeron mastermind Bill Stumpf and his colleague Jeff Weber, the Embody is specifically designed for desk jockeys tethered to their computers for the vast majority of the day. Its Brontosaurus-skeleton-like back mimics a human spine, automatically adjusting to shifting positions, and even purports to increase oxygen flow to the brain. At these prices, it had better.
One size fits all: Our geek — a regular-size guy — notes that Embody conveniently adapts to a range of body shapes and sizes with its adjustable-seat and arm-width controls. Great for people who aren't "standard consumer stock," he says diplomatically.
Instinctive back: "Fits like a glove!" coos our ergonomics gal. "My body falls into a better posture than when I'm standing." Meanwhile, our geek claims he can concentrate for five to six hours without even realizing it. (Must be all that oxygen to the brain.) The only downside? "It's butt-ugly," sniffs our design dude. Of course, that's what they said about the Aeron initially.
"After we went to press, Herman Miller announced a $200 reduction on their price of the Embody chair. It now ranges from $1399-$1199."
A version of this article appeared in the June 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.