What bit of office furniture better stands in for the oak-solid authority of work getting done than the desk? “From the desk of…” reads the stationery of some tony executive; a desk reference book has all the information you could possibly use. Beatles favorite Harry Nilsson even penned a paean to his humble work space, the tune “Good Old Desk.”
Yet what of its undersung cubicle mate, the office chair? If a desk suggests work, then the office chair suggests its uncompanionable companion: working. And when compared with lazy loungers, chummy chaises, and sophisticated sides that sit idly by in overstuffed recline, desk chairs have trended toward a technical web of mesh seat plates, full-tilt articulation, and aesthetically awkward maneuverability.
The establishment of a design ethos largely synonymous with technology has come with significant benefits. Increased adjustability, lightness of materials, and unblinking attention to user experience all contribute to a seating subset whose trajectory has more closely followed performance sneakers than the vagaries of fashion.
In the more than 15 years since its debut, Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf’s Aeron chair has done more for upper-middle management’s upper-middle backs than Blue Cross and Blue Shield combined. Chadwick, the don himself, advises, “Work styles have changed a lot. They’re far more flexible than they used to be, and understanding how you work before you pick out a chair is very important.”
Joan Kuenzi, an ergonomist who owns Practical Ergonomics, LLC, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, concurs. She encourages the office-bound to “think of your chair as part of your whole work system. If you can adjust the height of your table, or move your cabinets around, that will affect what you need your chair to do. If the chair is the only thing the worker can control, full adjustability is critical.”
Rather than rest on our design laurels, we’ve sat our way through the office chair canon from the high-tech—Itoki Design’s wheeled SP chair, which sat the high-rolling backsides at the 2008 G8 Hokkaido Toyako Summit—to the classic Herman Miller’s Eames Aluminum Group, to the avant-garde in Konstantin Grcic’s 360˚ Chair, which looks as though it might have been designed for condors.
Once you’ve determined just what kind of work style you’ve got, and just how malleable your workstation is, remember Chadwick’s sage words when the time comes to make your selection: “Usability. Comfort. Ease of functionality. Ease of adjustability. That’s what you need.” And to truly get those, you’ll just have to give a sit.
Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.
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