No design studio is complete without one: Daniel West traces the history of the Aeron chair
Office chairs are seriously dangerous writes Daniel West. Superficially they seem benign; flimsy levers and autistic wheels hardly warrant an FBI Most Wanted entry. But this blandness is illusory. Their pathetic construction is the cancer of workplace health and safety – a silent epidemic of negligence that is ruining livelihoods everywhere.
The problem is shockingly common and shockingly simple. Take America. Every workday, 40 million white collar workers use office chairs, yet the design principles behind most of those chairs are fundamentally flawed. Mass-market furniture is aimed at the middle ground: a set of generalised physical parameters that supposedly encompasses 95 per cent of the population. That means two million Americans every day are sat in the wrong chair; equal to the employees at General Motors, PepsiCo, Ford, ibm, and General Electric combined. On top of this, another eight million are estimated to have maladjusted chairs, meaning 10 million people a day risk workplace injury in the US alone. To some eyes that’s unprecedented corporate abuse…
This ongoing scandal inspired a design classic. The Aeron chair, released in 1994 by Herman Miller, was an ugly miracle grounded in empiricism. “It came to signify a new paradigm in office chairs,” says Paola Antonelli, the curator who brought the Aeron into moma’s permanent collection. This new paradigm was inclusive design. Designers Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick began with the anthropometric data common to all office chairs. The ‘95 per cent’ dogma dictated they aim for the median at the expense of the periphery. Instead, Stumpf and Chadwick recognised they were not designing one chair, but three.
Previous designers had sought a holy grail of universality, a chair that would fit all bodies irrespective of shape or weight. “One chair to fit all sizes would have been a horrible compromise, but using three sizes we could serve a much wider demographic,” says Chadwick. The concept was old – shoes, suits, beds – its application to office chairs revolutionary.Differentiated chairs had been used in schooling for years. A 1940s study of Australian schoolchildren found that, even among kids in the same year, variation in body size warranted six different-sized chairs.
But the office furniture sector was driven by profit, not benevolence. Chairs broke down into two blunt categories: executive and budget. A few thousand pounds bought a walnut-veneered, calf skin-covered boardroom throne; stools would do for the staff. This plutocracy had a particularly chauvinistic twist: most secretaries are female, most women are smaller than men, thus female secretaries not only sat on cheaper chairs, but chairs that were designed for larger-bodied men.
It was a fact not lost on Chadwick. “Female secretaries sat in terribly uncomfortable chairs, but sat in them longer than their superiors,” he says. “The philosophy behind Aeron was democratic: the person who sits longest deserves the most comfortable chair.” It is certainly arguable just how democratic a $1,100 chair can be, but the Aeron’s launch price was mid-market nevertheless.
The innovation didn’t stop at sizing; the Aeron’s materials and form were groundbreaking too. Rather than beginning with a sketch or a fabric swatch, Stumpf and Chadwick committed themselves to whatever substances and shapes were best suited to the task – not an easy choice for two aesthetes. In place of spongy foam lozenges they developed a supportive plastic weave that allowed air to circulate to the back and thighs while sitting.
This material, named Pellicle, was also more environmentally friendly than traditional solutions as less of it was required. The Aeron’s forgiving waterfall lip, high back and arm rests afforded flexibility to the sitter, presenting numerous body positions that were both healthy and relaxing. This was orthopaedic coercion in the gentlest sense, not a brittle Victorian straightjacket of ‘perfect’ posture. It’s a result that recalls Charles Eames’ point that chairs should be designed for how people sit rather than how they should sit. Herman Miller called it topographical neutrality.
The Aeron was refined and progressive, but no chair is perfect. Much adjustment ‘functionality’ owed more to patented gimmickry than essential customisability. Herman Miller has reams of online documents about how to maximise the Aeron’s potential with arm angling, tilt limiting and PostureFit™. Should a supposed design classic be this complex? “The adjustments on the chair were due to the brief,” admits Chadwick, “History has shown that a lot just aren’t used.” So the Aeron conforms to the old 70/30 design conundrum: the average customer will only use 30 per cent of total functionality. Despite this, the Aeron’s unique Goldilocks triplication ensures that less adjustment is necessary.
The Aeron’s true value wasn’t its texture, shape or sizing. It was a triumph for empiricism over aestheticism, proof that beauty is illusory in the case of tools. Because that’s what a work chair is: a tool to keep you comfortable, safe and supported – not seduced. “The Aeron doesn’t have a pretty face, but like an intelligent mind it projects beauty,” says Chadwick. Mies van der Rohe once remarked that it was easier to design a skyscraper than a good chair. In the World Trade Center lobby – the most posthumously iconic of all corporate spaces – Aerons were the chair of choice.
Yet ironically, the Aeron may be best remembered as shorthand for the dotcom years; internet start-ups were filled with them. Its legacy outlived their failure though. The chair is still selling in showrooms worldwide and even online, in Second Life.
More details on the history and development of the Aeron chair available at hermanmiller.com/aeron
This feature appeared in our interiors supplement that came with the last issue of Creative Review. Daniel West is a writer and curator, daniel-west.com