A very brief history of adaptive design
A Slate article on the "secret" history of the Herman Miller Aeron chair -- ubiquitous in offices -- reveals that it originated as a reclining chair for the elderly:
It seemed like a tantalizing market opportunity. The American populace was aging quickly, assisted living facilities were rare, and hospitals lacked ergonomic furniture suited to long-term care. In each environment, [the Herman Miller designers Bill] Stumpf and [Don] Chadwick observed the surest sign of an opportunity: furniture being used in unintended ways. The homely workhorse common in both medical and residential settings was the La-Z-Boy. In hospitals, the elderly often got dialysis in semireclined La-Z-Boys; at home they spent hours in them watching TV. ...
The La-Z-Boy was terribly suited to both settings. The elderly, with weakened legs, had to back up to the chair and simply fall backward. The lever for reclining was awkward to reach and hard to engage. And, worst of all, the foam stuffing, often upholstered in vinyl, spread the sitter's weight unevenly while retaining body heat and moisture--potentially causing bedsores.
Stumpf and Chadwick created their ergonomic model partly as a response to these failings of the repurposed La-Z-Boy.
But just as the La-Z-Boy was designed for general use but adapted to a niche one in hospitals and nursing homes, the Herman Miller design, which was intended for a niche market, only succeeded when it was marketed to a general one. Slate's article reveals that marketing of the foam-upholstered original model hit a dead end precisely because the company planned to sell it as an old person's product rather than as general-use seating. Only at that point did the designers and Herman Miller come to understand that it could be repositioned -- with its bare, uncushioned polymer mesh suspension -- as an ergonomic chair for high-tech office workers in the free-spending dot-com economic climate of the middle and late 1990s. So far, so good. But the article misses the bigger story of ergonomic furniture, which has a long historic relationship to disability and illness.