Today’s office chairs are marvels of modern engineering, with complex systems of springs, pivot points, and mechanical elements that can be adjusted ad nauseam–people tall, short, large, and small can manipulate the chair so it’s comfortable for them. But the furniture brand Steelcase, maker of high-tech office chairs, is going back to basics with its latest offering: a new task chair called SILQ made partially of carbon fiber that has only a single lever to adjust for height.
It’s also a chair designed for the flexible workspaces of today’s office, where workers move from meeting room to communal work area, and maybe stop by their desk on the way. SILQ marks a transition from the endlessly customizable task chair of the past decades, designed for an age when people were expected to sit at one desk all day long. Steelcase’s VP of design and engineering James Ludwig believes that when work is dynamic, office furniture should be just as flexible. “If you move from space to space, if the environment is more intuitive and responsive without you having to worry about it, it’s more successful in letting you do what you need to do–which is not decode your environment and figure out how to personalize it,” Ludwig says.
Steelcase, a 105-year-old company based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has long built its reputation on endlessly adjustable office chairs. But back in 2008, Ludwig had an idea for something different. He sketched out a chair suspended on tendril-like feet with an elegantly curved back. The idea was that the material of the chair would be able to replace some of the machinery. He handed it off to his engineers and asked them to make it for him, but they were unable to find a way to reduce the complexity of the machine the way Ludwig imagined.
The design was filed away until 2016. With advances in materials science, Ludwig found the perfect material to bring his vision to life: the lightweight but strong carbon fiber, which is also used in airplanes and high-end cars. And now Steelcase is debuting a new office chair with a carbon fiber back. By taking advantage of carbon fiber’s properties, Ludwig and his team were able to eliminate many of the mechanical elements in the chair. The result, called SILQ, has only 30 parts, when your average task chair has more than 250 parts. But with the simplicity of the design comes an even simpler idea–people don’t really want to adjust their chairs at all. But that’s a difficult problem to solve when people come in some many shapes and sizes. Because of the flexibility and strength afforded by the carbon fiber back, every other part of the chair adapts to the person sitting in it, whether they’re six-foot-three or five-foot-three.
“It’s all material-based,” Ludwig says. “There are no hidden springs, no pivot points, no mechanical elements. There’s no machine. This is all based on the geometries, materials, and all the way we’ve handled those forces are based on the energy that you’re putting into it.”
The SILQ, which will be available for preorders later in the spring, has a curved, narrow back supported by a cradle of carbon fiber. Two wings meet below the seat and curve up to form the armrests. In essence, that back cradle functions like a compliant mechanism, where the flexibility of the materials themselves provide the support for your body. That means that when you want to lean back in your chair, it’s not hinges that are allowing you to do so–instead, it’s one curved piece of carbon fiber that bends. And when you’re sitting up, the tension created by the angles in the chair is what gives you back support.
Carbon fiber isn’t cheap. Neither is the chair. While official pricing hasn’t been set yet, Steelcase confirmed it will cost more than $3,000–similar to what you’d spend on an original Eames lounge chair. But Ludwig, knowing that a chair at that price point would be more of a C-suite perk than an everyday office worker’s necessity, also tasked his team with creating a carbon fiber substitute so Steelcase could sell the SILQ’s design to the mass market. Ludwig calls the material “performance polymer,” and says it was developed using computer modeling to ensure it had similar properties to carbon fiber and would function within the chair in the same way. Unlike carbon fiber though, which must be meticulously layered before being pressed together, the polymer is manufactured using a twist on traditional injection molding. Ludwig says his team has filed multiple patents for the material and the process and wouldn’t share any more details. The less expensive version of SILQ costs $970, which is still more than other high-end office chairs like the Aeron.
I was able to briefly try out one of the 30 or so prototypes the company had of the mass-market version of the chair in December 2017. It felt mostly like sitting in a good office chair–comfortable, with some nice support for my lower back. I’m an average-sized person, so I wasn’t able to tell if the chair worked as advertised to accommodate a wide range of heights with no adjustments. But as someone who never remembers or bothers to adjust my task chair, there’s a certain appeal to not needing to deal with the rather intimidating dials and levers that undergird my current chair.
This element of SILQ’s design gestures toward a shift in thinking about how our spaces should behave. Instead of adjusting endless dials and buttons to achieve a personalized environment that works perfectly for us, we want the room to know us already. It’s the idea behind ambient computing, where a computer embedded in the walls of your space knows who you are and your preferences already because it has tracked them over time, no screen necessary. Both are trying to achieve similar goals–to reduce the mental load that comes with a world of choices (and help employees be more productive). It’s the same tendency that makes it so difficult to decide what to watch on Netflix, or the over-customization in the Altwork Station, which allows you to configure your desk at any moment in any way you want–including laying down.
“Personalization I think has gone so far as to actually become a cognitive burden,” Ludwig says. “Not only are there too many types of toothpaste, but there’s too many features on pretty much everything we use today.”
Of course, in a world where it’s been shown that sitting is the new smoking, the SILQ is still just a place to sit. But Ludwig hopes that it will fit more easily into the 21st century office, where more people are moving around in flexible spaces, because even standing desk junkies need a break at some point.
“Ultimately our goal is to continually remove friction from people’s work lives,” he says. “You don’t want to spend time thinking about the work space.”