Apple design chief Jony Ive keeps a low profile, but he’s social with a handful of Brits who sit atop the world of industrial design, including Jay Osgerby and Ed Barber, founders of the studio Barber Osgerby. A few years ago, the duo paid Ive a visit. Over a pint, they shared what they had been working on: a new office chair that would be the first from the furniture maker Vitra in several years. The pitch around the design wasn’t that it was technical or flashy. Rather, the idea was that it was “quiet,” with soothing curves that could blend in anywhere, even a home. Ive perked up, raised an eyebrow, and said, “That’s interesting.” Several months later, Apple became the first customer for the Pacific Chair, which it ordered for every work station in its 12,000-person campus designed by Foster + Partners.
Barber Osgerby’s idea for a calm office chair was, of course, catnip for Ive, who has strived to make Apple’s design so simple as to seem “inevitable.” But even more than that, the calm office chair was a reflection of a paradigmatic shift in our attitudes toward work. The Pacific Chair is meant to blend in with and defer to an interior design, in a way that office chairs almost never do. Compare it to the Aeron Chair, which came out in 1994 and looks the exact opposite of calm, and you get a microcosm of how radically our ideals about work have changed in the past three decades.
In the 1990s, we still assumed that your best work was done at your desk, so you needed a machine heavily engineered for your comfort. That was the Aeron: a machine whose exoskeleton was meant to conform to your own, so that you could sit for hours on end in supreme comfort. Today, you may have noticed, the prevailing ideal is that you spend most of your day collaborating with other people, that meetings and conference calls are the center of the workday. What quiet time you do have is spent wherever suits your mood.
“Younger generations are spending a lot of time at work, so we’re trying to create a residential vibe,” says Primo Orpilla, founder of Office O+A, which has designed interiors for tech giants ranging from Uber to Microsoft. “The blurring of work and life is at an all-time high. For younger generations, work represents who they know and how they socialize.”
Moreover, there’s a sense in which offices are being designed to flatter the way that millennial workers would like to see themselves: Not as office drones, but creative types with side hustles and Instagram followers. The offices that companies aspire to, says Orpilla, are those that look creative and make workers feel like they’re part of a creative organization. “People have their own Pinterest pages and personal brands,” he adds. “We’re creating this backdrop for making them feel like creators themselves.” #Influencers don’t clock in. They make #impact from the throne of a lounge chair, not the confines of a cubicle.
In that light, the disparate origins of the Aeron and Pacific present a telling contrast. “The Aeron came out in 1994, but was really built for the 1980s computer office,” points out Jonathan Olivares, the industrial designer and author of A Taxonomy of Office Chairs. At that time, the laptop was still a fetish item for the few people who could afford them.
The Aeron’s designers, Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf, had initially set out to design a better lounge chair for the elderly, after they noticed how so many retirees spent their entire days in Lay-Z-Boys. One innovation was to be a better reclining mechanism that supported the body in any position. Another, crucial one, was a system of mesh support, which would comfort to the sitter’s body so that no pressure points would build up. The project was shelved, but the mechanism was resuscitated when the duo was asked to design an office chair. “We started realizing that because of the computer, people were slouching at their desks, sitting in all kinds of positions,” Chadwick told me in 2012. “We thought we had a pretty good solution to people working at computers all the time. It turned out, there were many other industries that would become computer-driven.”
The Aeron’s mesh and reclining mechanism spawned dozens of patents. To emphasize how carefully the Aeron had been engineered for computer programmers, Stumpf and Chadwick cast it in a monolithic gray, meant to evoke industrial machinery. To emphasize how radical this new worker was in the new pecking order of the corporate world, they did something else radical: They eliminated the typical hierarchy found in office chairs. Even to this day, most task chairs come in a low- and high-backed version, which are descended from low-backed secretarial chairs designed for upright typing, and high-backed chairs for senior (male) managers who lean back and listen to the middle managers reporting to them. The Aeron, by contrast, didn’t hit the market with any finish options. There were only three sizes, to fit people’s bodies. “The Aeron was anti-status,” adds Olivares. “It was about comfort and posture and blood flow and health. That story is gone from the Pacific.”
Barber and Osgerby first began thinking about a chair such as the Pacific while designing interiors for the first Ace Hotel in London, which opened in 2013. “In America, people were already starting to work everywhere with their laptops and coffee,” recalls Ed Barber. “But in Britain, it was alien to be designing this lobby for people to work in even if they weren’t staying the hotel.” Moreover, the offices at companies such as Uber and Airbnb were far more similar to the Ace Hotel than they were to the Seagram Building. So when Vitra came asking for ideas about the future of work, Barber and Osgerby argued that if work spaces were coming to resemble living rooms, then work furniture had to take on an entirely new look. “To get the best people you have to have an environment with less formality,” says Osgerby.
Five years later, those trends have only accelerated: Today we have WeWork, a billion-dollar startup founded on the idea that freelancing has become a way of life. And today, there are more and more offices that use hot desking—that is, no assigned seats for anyone, so that each worker can cozy up to the place that suits them best. It’s all to easy to forget how old the idea was, and how stupid it looked for many years: In 1993, when Jay Chait, founder of the Chiat/Day ad agency, announced that everyone in their new, Frank Gehry-designed office would have laptops and no assigned seats, workers staged an open revolt.
I asked Jay Osgerby if the fact that people were now working from hotel lobbies didn’t reveal a kind of new uncertainty in people’s long-term job prospects. After all, the Aeron was designed to keep someone in place for as long as possible; the Pacific suits an interior that a worker might never enjoy again. Osgerby waxed optimistic. “Yes, there are people who argue that the freelance economy brings insecurities, and that there’s no guarantee of a job forever,” he conceded. “But isn’t that a relief? With that instability comes the flexibility to feel more human.” Osgerby mentioned that in his own work, he’s noticed that younger people who come on job interviews are more often concerned with their days off than their pay. “Our generation needs to get our heads around this. The subsequent generation is going to sit different than we did 20 years ago.”