The Metamorphosis

Allsteel’s Relate has modular parts that can be changed or replaced to create an entirely new chair.

Task chairs are the subject of a notoriously tricky form of office politics. Quality specimens are often scavenged after a departing coworker’s last day, whereas worn-out chairs tend to live out their lives as castoffs in conference rooms. Broken pneumatic knobs and cracked arm pads are all too common. But just as you wouldn’t throw out your computer if the mouse broke, a faulty detail on a task chair shouldn’t relegate it to a forlorn corner of the office—or the trash heap.

Allsteel’s Relate suite of chairs, by industrial designer Marcus Koepke, responds to this problem by employing easily replaceable and interchangeable parts to extend their life expectancy. “For Relate, comfort, sustainable design, quality, and durability were the main goals,” says Koepke, who has had the opportunity to reinvent ergonomics for the company three times in the past four years. He also designed their highly lauded Sum and #19 chairs. “We named the chair Relate because we felt the modularity really relates to people and their problems, and solves them.”

The resulting family of chairs—which includes several different designs suitable for workstations, conference rooms, and waiting areas—features replaceable seat and back upholstery, arm pads, and back assemblies. “We researched which parts wear out and found that arm pads were a major concern,” Koepke says. “People also want to be able to switch between a mesh and a plastic back.”

Key to this modular process was a system that did not require sending the chair to the warehouse to make changes; easily worn-out components can be swapped using a standard screwdriver right in the office. “Really good design is clever and simple,” says Tom Niergarth, Allsteel’s vice president of seating. “In the 1990s more was considered better, but most people didn’t know what their twelve adjustment knobs even did!” Relate streamlines the settings by combining automatic and intuitive adjustments; the chair immediately adapts to your weight, and a flick of the tension lever acts as manual override.

Allsteel and Koepke didn’t neglect the role of aesthetics in sustainability either. “I am conscious that I am creating part of a palette,” Koepke says. “I want the chair to be beautiful so it fits into the interior.” As a result, the same chair can now adapt seamlessly to multiple environments with minor adjustments, extending its life beyond the next office makeover.

By introducing this level of modularity, Relate ensures that gaggles of office mates will no longer have to war-game covert chair switches or angle desperately for their departing colleague’s seat. Instead, with a simple twist of a screwdriver and some replacement parts, they can keep their chair looking and feeling as pristine and perfect as the first day it rolled into the office.

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