Design for Purpose: Generation by Knoll

PURPOSE: Task chair for the younger set I’ve never liked to think of myself as a Millen­nial, a member of Generation Y, that demographic cohort now in its teens and twenties. No doubt you’ve heard about us: we’re informal, tech-savvy, approval-hungry Facebook addicts, hopping from job to job in search of personal fulfillment and a […]

PURPOSE: Task chair for the younger set

I’ve never liked to think of myself as a Millen­nial, a member of Generation Y, that demographic cohort now in its teens and twenties. No doubt you’ve heard about us: we’re informal, tech-savvy, approval-hungry Facebook addicts, hopping from job to job in search of personal fulfillment and a sweet work-life balance. Most of that is marketing garbage. Still, I was intrigued to learn that one of America’s most storied furniture manufacturers is unveiling a task chair tailor-made for my capricious, attention-craving coevals. Generation by Knoll takes some of the most popular assumptions about twentysomething workers today—we’re collaborative! We wear flip-flops to the office! We listen to iPods at our desks!—and tries to accommodate them in an innovative, ultra­flexible seat designed to support an unprecedented range of movement and postures.

But it’s not just “a Gen Y chair,” says Alana Stevens, a senior marketing director for Knoll. “This chair is just true to human nature and the way people sit. There is an expectation that we’ve observed with Gen Y that they want to work more informally, and this chair certainly speaks to that.”

In April, I sat down with Stevens; Benjamin Pardo, Knoll’s design director; and two prototypes of Generation, which the company is launching at NeoCon this month. It’s a handsome chair with a somewhat deceptive appearance: what looks to be a hard-plastic mesh back is, in fact, a resilient, flexible elastomer borrowed from industrial applications. (It’s used in dishwasher hinges and for shock absorbers in 18-wheel trucks. Knoll won’t reveal the name of the material or its vendor for fear of knockoffs.) As a result, the back moves and flexes much more than a typical office chair’s—most dramatically at the top, which folds down if you want to sit sidesaddle, with one arm slung insouciantly over the backrest.

Even if you’re not feeling quite that jaunty, Generation allows for a variety of casual work postures. “Not everybody today works at an IBM Selectric typewriter,” Pardo says. “The standards are still based on the fact that women wear three-inch heels. That’s a little bit nutty. I have nothing against three-inch heels, I think they’re great, but the reality is that is not the way everybody works now.”

Indeed, the genesis of Generation lies in observational research of how people actually do work. In late 2006, New Zealand’s Formway Design—which created the chair with Knoll—commissioned a research outfit to videotape workers sitting at their desks for hundreds of hours. The subjects came from different work­places and represented a sweep of job roles and ages. Later, the recordings were computer-tagged by action (typing at the computer, say, or talking on the phone) and by posture (reclining or sitting sideways). Those tags were then tallied to create a data set of how people really sit during the course of the day.

The results shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has logged a few hundred hours at a deskbound day job: people moved around in their chairs a lot. They fidgeted, slumped, stretched, and, yes, threw an arm over the backrest to gab with colleagues. When they talked on the phone, they moved and gestured as if there were a person in front of them. Only for part of the day, it turns out, do workers sit “properly”—facing forward, feet on the floor, hands on the keyboard.

And it didn’t seem to matter what type of chair they used. People changed postures continually throughout the day whether they had ergonomic seating or not. For the designers at Formway, this posed a distinct challenge. How do you create a chair that accommodates a wide variety of postures and movements—but still provides classic lumbar support and proper ergonomics for those times when users need to face forward and perform concentrated work?

It’s a problem that Formway had already begun to confront with its first Knoll chair, Life, released in 2002. Life has a “live” back, which provided a high degree of flexibility, and a special seat whose front edge folds forward to relieve pressure on the underside of the legs. “Life introduced this ‘live seating,’ with more movement in all dimensions of the chair,” says Kent Parker, Formway’s lead designer. “We wanted to take that further. We were after something that moves more humanistically, trying to make it move in a way that, say, muscles and ligaments allow movements to happen, rather than mechanical joints.”

The high-tech elastomer provided this “humanistic” flexibility. But it’s not just in the chair back. Under the seat, the designers eschewed the traditional bundle of springs and levers—typically concealed in a black plastic casing—in favor of what they’re calling “dynamic suspension control.” And that suspension relies again on the top-secret elastomer used in the flexible back (this time in a more rigid grade). Four specially engineered “flexors” allow for subtle shifts in the seat position. When you lean back to talk on the phone, the right or left side rises and falls imperceptibly. “One of the things that was important to us,” Pardo says, “was that the majority of everything you do just sort of happens.” There are some specific adjustments you can make to seat height, tilt tension, and the seat-pan depth. But, Pardo says, “Beyond that, the chair should figure it out.”

Sitting in a Generation prototype at Knoll’s showroom during our initial interview, I got a taste of this intuitive movement. The chair does seem to flex with you and provide support for whatever position you settle on. When you sit sideways, the curving armrests become supplementary lumbar supports, and the 270 degrees of front-edge seat flex means there’s no hard piece of plastic or metal digging into your legs.

So maybe the chair is an ideal match for Gen Y workers like me (and, yes, my working posture is atrocious). Knoll’s timing, however, couldn’t be worse. The waves of layoffs coursing through virtually every sector of the American economy are disproportionately affecting twentysomething workers, who often lack the seniority to survive major downsizing. And those Gen Y–staffed businesses that do survive the downturn are drastically cutting costs. Generation lists for $995–$1,380, which makes it slightly cheaper than Herman Miller’s Aeron. At that price, even a chair perfectly tailored to Gen Y’s unique disposition and working habits is a luxury my generation will unfortunately have to do without.

Design for Purpose:

Whitelines: Sketchbooks for persnickety designers

Setu: To bring ergonomics to everyday seating

Generation by Knoll: Task chair for the younger set

Handle Easy: Cell phones for seniors

Custom Flooring: Carpet produced on demand

Recent Programs