April 1, 2006
Aeron Chair – 1994
It revolutionized the task chair and in the process became an enduring cultural symbol.
In the 12 years since it descended on the unsuspecting Orgatec furniture fair, the Aeron chair has transformed the world of office seating. Spurned in focus groups, ridiculed by some experts (“What a joke,” wrote ergonomist Dan Kelso in BusinessWeek in 1999), and dubbed with the dubious honor of being poster child of the dot-com era, the Aeron has weathered a storm of resistance and a sea of adulation to become the king of office chairs. In that time it has changed the design language of furniture—and our expectations of chairs. And although its inevitable bit parts in movies and TV shows (Will & Grace, Zathura, Meet the Parents, Twelve Monkeys) cast the chair as futuristic and elitist, the Aeron has made a good start on its promise to provide a comfortable task chair for everyone. If you or your employer can’t afford an Aeron, you can at least benefit from the impact on the market as a whole: its knock-on effect among knockoffs.
Think back to 1994: ergonomic chairs were discussed among the savvy and provided by a few (including Equa, Vertebra, Sensor, and Persona). Office seating is for the most part a class-ridden society—from the big flexible executive chair down to the small rigid secretarial chair. The people who do the most keyboard-intensive work and who sit the longest hours in their seats have the least dynamic, least comfortable chairs. Naturally, with the rapid proliferation of desktop computers and laptops, there has been an increase in back problems and related injuries.
The Aeron’s designers, Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick, were initially commissioned by Herman Miller to investigate living environments for the elderly, including seating for a “limited universe” of activity, as Stumpf described it. Old folks tended to sit in big squashy seats surrounded by the objects they needed (glasses, remote control), and suffered the discomforts of heat and pressure buildup in much the same way as task workers who sit in chairs all day typing. The elderly chair was mothballed, but Stumpf and Chadwick’s research into fabrics that “breathed” became the seeds of the Aeron’s “Pellicle” mesh fiber of elastomeric polymers. Inspired in part by the wooden-bead seat covers used by cabdrivers, the mesh provided comfortably displaced support for a wide variety of back shapes and sizes. The Aeron also introduced the idea of a selection of different seat sizes for different-size people; not executive, middle manager, and secretary but the less loaded A, B, and C. And it capitalized on an idea that had been batted around among seat designers for years but had gained a more pressing urgency in the age of the screen-bound worker needing a circulation boost: to provide a deeply swinging recline by pivoting at the hip and knee, and tilting at the ankle.
Experts still question the merits of these innovations. The ankle tilt makes for a great ride but pulls the sitter’s eyes below the level of the screen; the various seats create a problem when a large employee takes over a smaller one’s position (or vice versa). And as Edward Tenner writes in his book Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity, “The pellicle lets air circulate around the body but does not allow full cushioning of the seat edge and needs a movable block for lumbar support.” Most problematic is that studies have shown that people can’t figure out how to adjust their ergonomic seats, and the Aeron makes adjustment more arduous with a tension knob that takes about 100 revolutions to adjust from least resistance to most.
Yet even Herman Miller cannot seem to remove its king of chairs from the throne. Despite introducing a less pricey, more environmentally friendly, easier-to-operate chair in the Mirra, the Aeron remains its best-selling seat and the dominant player in the “performance” seating market it virtually invented. The reason has to do with less quantifiable things than performance; it has to do with the chair’s mythology.
Performance chairs in the wake of Aeron, however, have picked up on one aspect of that mythology that holds great promise. Ergonomic chairs have long been heavy mechanical beasts, but the airy Aeron was a symbolic step toward the dematerialization of the object. It set the stage for lighter seats with reduced environmental impact (even though ironically its pellicle mesh was the hardest part of the chair to recycle). In second-generation mesh chairs like Knoll’s Chadwick, Humanscale’s Liberty, and Steelcase’s Think, less material is used, and they are designed to be easier to take apart. Think weighs 3 pounds, about 12 pounds less than the largest Aeron, it can be disassembled in 5 minutes, and 99 percent of it is recyclable—genuine progress. If only the same could be said of the personal computer.