How the Office Chair Came to Be

A very brief history of adaptive design

A Barcalounger ad from 1955 (jbcurio/Flickr)

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.

The Aeron was only the most recent of an extensive list of common furniture types originally developed for the sick and the frail elderly. As Ralph and Terry Kovel wrote about the 18th-century wing chair:

The wing chair or easy chair originally was used by those who were old or infirm. It was designed for comfort. A large space was left in the lower part of the chair back and filled with horsehair, lining and feather cushions. The front of the frame between the legs also was padded. An elderly occupant of the chair actually was seated on a fabric sling holding the softest stuffings. The easy chair usually was kept in the bedroom, not the front parlor.

In the 19th century, American inventors and manufacturers produced many variants on the reclining "invalid chair," both fixed and collapsible. Despite their associations with illness, the chairs were sometimes cross-marketed as luxury library furnishings, complete with built-in bookstands and oil lamps. (The Smithsonian Archives Center has a number of trade catalogs.)

In the 1930s, a number of famous designers created unupholstered paramedical lounge chairs that are still in production today (for example, the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto's model for a tuberlosis sanatorium). At the time, the German brothers Hans and Wassili Luckhardt, working with the Hungarian entrepreneur and designer Anton Lorenz, created a molded wooden Siesta Medizinal chair for the international furniture giant Thonet. (Incidentally, Thonet's rocking and reclining couches, popular 100 years ago, featured cane -- a premium-priced woven mesh that was the low-tech predecessor of the Aeron chair's "pellicle" fabric.) Lorenz, while stranded in America at the outbreak of World War II, licensed the syncronized back- and footrest system of the Siesta Medizinal to Barcalounger, a Buffalo company that became La-Z-Boy's major rival in the 1950s. Barcalounger's chairs weren't specifically target at the old, but were intended to appeal to tired middle-aged executives in search of relaxation, Early ads touted its allegedly heart-saving, "floating in water" natural position. In Lorenz's archives at the magnificent Vitra Design Museum in Weil-am-Rhein Germany, I found albums of doctors' prescriptions of Barcaloungers, which were initially tax deductible as medical devices!

Stumpf and Chadwick, like Lorenz, were as much reinventors as pioneers. And the Aeron was hardly so ergonomic that people were sitting in it too long. The mesh needs extra devices to support the lower back naturally; the chair is wonderful as a rocker-recliner, less so in locked upright position for task work. (At least that's my conclusion after many hours of sitting in Aerons at the New York Public Library's science branch.) Some people also find that the hard front edge of the polymer frame restricts circulation in the legs. Only with the designer Nils Diffrient's World Chair was mesh material cut and tailored for proper back support.

Details of design history do matter. It's important to recognize that adaptive design, and its adoption by people without disabilities, has a history going back at least to King Phillip II of Spain in the 16th century. With great respect for Stumpf, Chadwick, and Herman Miller, justice demands due credit to other designers and manufacturers.

(I've previously posted about ergonomic seating here.)