Many know Herman Miller for its sleek mid-century collaborations like the Eames shell chair. Others know it for modern performance chairs like the Aeron, filled with materials and adjustments to support your body for hours at a computer.
Now, the historic American furniture brand is attempting to combine the best of both traditions. The new Zeph is an office chair that gives a nod to classic Eames lines while offering the option to slide back and recline. This approach isn’t simply a captivating design exercise; it’s also how Herman Miller has produced its cheapest task chair in history. Because the Zeph launches this August for $495.
Inspired by budgets
Developed in collaboration with the German design studio Studio 7.5, the chair was imagined from its earliest days to be more accessible than many of Herman Miller’s other offerings. Studio cofounder Carola Zwick is a professor at the Weißensee Academy of Art in Berlin, where students work on the sort of cheap, stiff chairs she says you may remember from elementary school.
“German [educational] institutions are really poor,” says Zwick. She watched as students—too young and invincible to worry about their bodies—went heads-down on their final thesis projects, largely in front of computers. “We saw them having problems. They’d have these flow moments, when they’d completely focus on graduation work, but they’d get back pain.”
With that problem already planted in the studio’s mind, Herman Miller reached out with a convergent request: to build an entry level task chair. Many of Herman Miller’s chairs built to keep you comfortable at a desk for very long cost upwards of $1,000. (The Aeron technically starts around $1,195, though you can often find it for hundreds less.)
[Photo: Herman Miller]Zwick turned to the seamless molded aesthetic of Eames-era Herman Miller products, because these molded products tend to be easier to produce. But hard-shelled chairs generally don’t move. So, Studio 7.5 began a year-long study of how they could start with a hard shell, but design it to pivot as you lean back. It’s a simple idea that was tricky to execute. Zwick pulls up a series of videos showing how they iterated on a simple mechanism to make this task possible, which functions like a spring-loaded teeter totter. As you lean back, the spring loads with your weight, so that when you’re ready to lean forward, it pushes you back with a natural assist.
A secret to getting the comfort and cost quotients right was to not just place hard pivot points under the chair, but to build that entire under-seat mechanism to bend, complying to your weight. Fewer joints meant cheaper production, and a more natural feel. Once Studio 7.5 was happy with their model, they 3D printed the chair, flew to Herman Miller, and the two teams spent the next three years figuring out how to actually build it on an assembly line.
Wrapping work in color
A shell chair has a clean presence for offices, but Herman Miller and Studio 7.5 had noticed—even before the pandemic—that office chairs were making their ways into more homes, and so they wanted to make the chair softer and more colorful. Their solution was a high tech yarn doily, much like your grandma may have knit. Wrapping over the seat, its expressiveness bucks the approach of Herman Miller’s typical office furniture.
“To be frank, we haven’t done that since the Eames era,” says to Ben Watson, president of Herman Miller and chief product officer of MillerKnoll,
The knit offers a homey feel, but the mechanized production process means there’s nearly no waste, compared to cutting and patterning fabric onto the chair. Each topper fits perfectly. Zwick notes that the team was also concerned about the impact of yarn dyeing on the environment, so they chose a process that required less water. The catch was that this method offered fewer color options than they wanted, but Studio 7.5 found a workaround. By knitting two colors side by side, they could fool your eye just like impressionist painters, blending new colors in the process.
“We [knitted] lines and looked from a distance to see how the mixture would look, and we got really good at that,” says Zwick. “And so we didn’t stop until we got a real palette without any gaps. We were able to create a box of crayons.”
In person, these textiles are metameric, meaning that depending on the lighting, and your position to them, the colors will shift. This array of color will give corporate environments more expression than we’ve come to expect from a crisp office space.
“That used to be a no-go in the furniture industry. You wanted fixed colors,” says Zwick. “But it’s so much more organic . . . everything gets more vibrant.”
All-in-all, the Zeph is a fascinating remix of Herman Miller’s history, and an enticing option for shared workspaces. Because you don’t need to use adjustment knobs to sit in the Zeph, it’s perfect for hot swapping desks.
The caveats are that, no, it’s not designed to be as comfortable for eight-hour work as options like the Aeron (the team chuckles in acknowledgement when I suggest we should all be standing and walking around more, instead of designing chairs that promote our lethargy). And second, while you will be able to buy the chair for $495 when it launches this summer, upgrading the design to include arms and the yarn wrap pushes the price to $645. That edges the Zeph closer to the cost of a stock task chair. But at least it will still look distinct.