The Secret History of Office Chairs
When it comes to measuring the success of interior design, it’s the things which go unnoticed that often deserve the highest praise. Think about it: do you really want to live and work in places that feel cluttered and like every piece of furniture is vying for your attention?
No, great interior design is about putting together rooms that people can enjoy without feeling overwhelmed by their surroundings.
What this does mean, of course, is that the history of everyday objects goes largely untold. We don’t, for example, read many articles on the history of wall blinds, windowpanes, or ceiling fans.
But if we did, we’d discover that these objects tell us a lot about what good design looks and behaves like.
In order to trace the history of the office chair it’s necessary to start at the point that the office itself came into prominence.
Whilst some historians maintain that the concept of the office stretches as far back as the Romans, the general consensus is that what we now know as the workplace was conceived in the 19th century. Designed for taking care of administrative tasks on behalf of the military, offices were soon adopted by the government and private businesses for carrying out their paperwork.
Whilst the office chairs of this period were sophisticated, they certainly didn’t offer all that much in the way of comfort. Indeed, the ornate wooden designs made for good looks but an uncomfortable sitting experience for clerks.
By the early 20th century, office jobs boomed in popularity and caused furniture designers to reconsider the way that we sit. Convinced that comfort was synonymous with laziness, these designers produced chairs that could be raised and lowered by simple mechanisms but kept secretaries in general agony to make sure they never switched off.
Towards the end of the century, office chairs became a lot more forgiving, and a lot more similar to the ones that occupy our workplaces today. Metal spokes and plastic casters emerged as the most popular materials and the swivel emerged as the most popular function. Whilst they might look familiar, they nonetheless offered a fairly unpleasant sitting experience.
In the 1970s it wasn’t just high-waisted pants and denim that ruled supreme, but ergonomics too. Swept up in the science of sitting, designers of this decade were committed to bringing out office chairs that featured adjustable elements and provided greater back support.
Clearly quite the trailblazers, the concerns of these designers are the very same ones which still inform the design of office chairs today.
The 90s saw the rise of the dot-com bubble and a noticeable shift in commercial design. Keen to create workspaces that felt like clubhouses, the enterprising CEOs of Silicon Valley ushered in an age where pool tables and beer fridges were considered acceptable pieces of office furniture.
It wasn’t all fun and games, though, and the hoody wearing workforce still had to find something to sit on when plugging away on their computers. Wanting the best of everything, they naturally opted for Herman Miller desk chairs.
Quickly dubbed the ‘dot-com throne’, the Aeron chair came to define the office culture of the 90s. Its sleek curves and graceful lines represented a shift from stuffy workplaces to cool ones. It was also the time that Herman Miller went from being a workplace name to a household one.
Since the turn of the new millennium, the design of office chairs has been informed by posture. Dedicated to keeping the workforce healthy, designers are regularly boasting about the health benefits provided by their latest inventions.
It’s crucial to remember that countless research has revealed a link between office chairs and productivity. Specifically, studies have demonstrated that chairs which encourage movement and a healthy posture allow employees to properly focus on their tasks.
Obviously, an office chair that fails to promote a healthy posture means that over time, employees develop aches and strains. These aches and strains translate to the occasional day off which translates to zero productivity.
Ultimately, the office chairs which populate offices should be ones that allow staff to get to work in comfort. By taking some time to understand the benefits of a well-engineered desk chair, employers can look forward to gains in the overall productivity of their workplace.