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Fall Design Issue

Contenders to the Throne

Ever Since Herman Miller's High Design Aeron Chair Arrived on the Scene, Many Have Tried to Depose It, but Few Have Come Close

September 29, 2002|Preston Lerner | Preston Lerner last wrote for the magazine on Caltech physics professor Kip Thorne.

Ever since the dawn of the office, chairs have come in two basic flavors: work chairs and thrones. Or as they're known today, task seating and executive chairs. And never the twain shall meet. At least, not until the rules changed in 1994.

Eight years ago, the office chair hierarchy was stood on its head by the introduction of Herman Miller's seminal Aeron chair, which set new standards for ergonomic efficiency while emerging as an I'm-so-cool icon for high-powered, high-styling dot-com executives. Not only was the Aeron chair named to the Museum of Modern Art's design collection before it went on sale, but even more implausibly, it also entered the larger public consciousness. And by merging the utility of task seating with the status of a throne, it forever changed the landscape of the modern office.

"It was a controversial design," says Don Chadwick, who co-designed the chair with Bill Stumpf. "We had developed a comprehensive rationale for selling it. But people didn't care. They just said, 'Give me the chair!' " Chadwick ruefully shakes his head as he lounges in a sleek black Aeron chair in his studio in Santa Monica. "You could understand it appealing to the A&D community--architects and designers. But the public glommed onto it as well. It grew into something with a life of its own."

The elevation of a mere office chair to an object of desire highlights the radical change the workplace has undergone during the past generation. Corporate environments have become more egalitarian and informal. Home offices are no longer curiosities. There's a computer on every desktop. Thanks largely to the ubiquitous PC, the oversized executive throne with its tufted leather upholstery and self-important tilt-swivel now seems as passe as the mahogany credenza and the three-martini lunch. Instead, the contemporary seat of power is a new breed of chair that stands at a unique crossroads of style and performance, comfort and cachet.

The modern office, as we know it, moved into the 20th century in 1914, when the Metal Office Furniture Co. patented the steel wastebasket. In 1915, building upon the success of this newfangled product, the company sold its first metal desks. During the next half-century, the Metal Office Furniture Co.--now called Steelcase--would become the top dog of the contract furniture industry, and offices would be dominated by gleaming metal-topped desks that whispered Corporate America just as insistently as the clatter of manual typewriters and the rustle of gray-flannel suits. Radical change arrived in 1968, with the debut of Robert Propst's Action Office--a Herman Miller furniture "system" that spawned the development of the open-plan, modular office that's still with us today. Nevertheless, office seating continued to languish in the Dark Ages. With few exceptions, chairs were marketed on the basis of status, with secretaries getting the smallest ones and bosses the biggest, beefiest, most ostentatious executive units. ("My, that's a big one!") Comfort wasn't a primary design objective. In fact, the very notion of a comfortable office chair seemed to be incompatible with efficiency nostrums and the Puritan work ethic.

Ergonomic seating didn't reach the workplace until 1976, when Herman Miller introduced the appropriately named Ergon chair, designed by Stumpf.As the Information Age created a new class of knowledge workers, ergonomic office chairs--once the property solely of the clerical masses--percolated up into middle management. But the Aeron was the first chair to successfully integrate ergonomic performance with aesthetic drama--a design triumph that has made it as highly prized in executive suites and corporate boardrooms as it is in word-processing pools and home offices. It's no coincidence that the marketplace is now awash in Aeron knockoffs, Aeron wannabes and would-be Aeron-slayers that blur the line between working-class seating and chairs fit for a king.

Already, a few motifs have become so commonplace that they risk becoming design cliches: Mesh fabrics. Sculpted surfaces. Exposed skeletons. But if there's one feature shared by the new chairs, it's the determination to out-Aeron the Aeron, so to speak. It won't be easy. The Aeron chair was a textbook example of the right product in the right place at the right time. "Silicon Graphics bought a bunch right after it came out, and Silicon Valley spread the gospel," Chadwick recalls.

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