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When offices die, how do you design an office chair?

Office chairs have gone from corporate status symbols to afterthoughts. Here’s how one furniture manufacturer is adapting.

When you look around at your office, what do you see? Maybe it seems like just a bunch of chairs and tables, a few conference rooms. But that entire set up is built on an assumption about what work means, inherited from the 19th century. If your office has invested in spacious desks for every employee, and Aeron chairs customizable by every owner, what your employers are really saying is: We expect that most of your work happens at your desk, because you’re working on your little piece of the puzzle, like in a factory.

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But then, consider the lobby of any Ace Hotel, the lobby of the coworking space The Wing, or the recently opened Public Hotel in New York City, designed by Herzog and de Mueron. They’re all meant to be a free, open spaces for creatives to come and dream up their next big idea. The most prominent thing in each place are the couches, and there aren’t personal desks. The idea is: Working isn’t about sitting alone. It’s about meeting people, finding your personal space, doing your own thing—and not necessarily just the work your boss has assigned you.

If you’re the furniture company Herman Miller, which has minted billions of dollars in profit off of office chairs such as the Aeron, this is more than just worrisome—it’s like a meteor 20 years away that could vaporize your business when it finally hits. And so the company has planned for the possibility. This summer, Herman Miller produced two fascinating office chairs that assume that the “office” as we know it is dying.

Sam Hecht and Kim Colin [Photo: Gerhardt Kellerman for Herman Miller]

The first is the Lino, debuting next week and designed by the design firm Industrial Facility, best known for the soulful minimalism it’s imbued into projects for Muji. The project began with an outright threat to Herman Miller. The strategists there had noticed something odd, as office designs increasingly started to resemble living rooms. “For progressive offices to retain their staff, there has to be softer ancillary spaces. But it’s not like they’ve got bigger budgets,” explains Sam Hecht, who founded Industrial Facility with Kim Colin. As the interior-design budgets for new offices was getting eaten up by things like sofas and cafe tables, there was simply less money to be spent on what office chairs remained. As a result, Herman Miller resolved to dip into the super-budget conscious world of chairs priced at around $300.

That’s easier said than done for a company that still makes almost all its chairs in America. And so, instead of inventing new materials and processes, like a furniture maker might with a typical office chair, Industry Facility embarked on a study not just of ergonomics, but Herman Miller’s own manufacturing processes. The point was to limit complexity in any place possible. Maybe the cleverest way is a design feature that subtly corrects your posture so that the chair doesn’t need to be adjusted so much—and thus doesn’t need all the moving parts that make other task chairs expensive. There’s a beam that pushes forward on your sacral area—the small of your back, more or less. Doing so naturally makes you sit up, doing away with the need for a lumbar support and making the chair simpler to produce.

A detail of the Lino chair’s sacral support, which nudges you into better posture. [Photo: Gerhardt Kellerman for Herman Miller]
The other clever details lie in the manufacturing itself. Industrial Facility watched workers on the line, so they could design a chair that would be ergonomic for the worker to build. The point is, easier assembly means the chair is easier to make quickly—and time is money in a factory. To take one example: Instead of relying on expensively stitched seams, the fabric cover has a drawstring; to create a perfectly smooth seating surface, the drawstring simply has to be tightened in the factory, cutting out hours of production time. The Lino bespeaks an era in which office chairs aren’t worth investing $1,000 into anymore, and therefore have to be ultra affordable if they’re going to earn a place in the office.

Meanwhile, the Cosm by Studio 7.5, assumes that even if you do sit in an office chair, it won’t be yours all day. And so it has to be perfect, with no adjustments, for anyone who might sit in it.

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Studio 7.5, based in Germany and founded by Burkhard Schmitz and Carola Zwick, had already designed two best-selling office chairs for Herman Miller, the Setu and the Mirra. They first saw the need for something different almost a decade, when they visited the headquarters of an Australian bank that had moved to a hot-desk arrangement, where no one had assigned seats and instead found whatever corner of the office suited them best that day. They’d seen this before in the Netherlands. There, in one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the rationale had been to keep costs lower by eliminating the empty desks that result from people being out of offices for various reasons. Seeing that idea once again in Australia—one of the least populated places on the planet—suggested that something radical was about to happen in how companies everywhere thought about office design.

The Cosm chairs most obvious innovation is its arms, which offer hammock-like support without any adjustment. [Photo: Courtesy Herman Miller]

“Spending most of your day in meeting rooms and also not having an assigned place to sit means that instead of absolute comfort, you need instant comfort, in a chair that isn’t dedicated to you,” explains Zwick. After years of research, the studio eventually came up with two main inventions: the first, a recline mechanism that never has to be adjusted. The recline assembly is the most complex part of any task chair. It’s complex because the recline resistance usually has to be adjustable, based on how much the sitter weighs. But in the Cosm, the recline resistance is automatically calibrated as soon as you sit, thanks to a clever counterbalancing mechanism. The chair’s other innovation is more unusual: those strange elbow rests. Instead of being height-adjustable pads, they’re actually more like elbow hammocks that can fit anyone, without needing any tuning at all.

When you look at both the Cosm and the Lino, what leaps out is how quiet they both are—how minimal and soft looking, how they’re designed to blend in rather than stand out. That’s in keeping with the idea that the office chair isn’t the heart of the office experience. Rather, the chair should be subservient to it—and to a greater, communal ideal about knowledge work. In that way, both chairs suggest something novel in an era when AI is threatening to take our jobs–that what makes humans irreplaceable isn’t what they can do alone, but what they do together.

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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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