The Ultimate Task

What are you doing right now? Are you at the office? If so, most likely you are sitting in a task chair. It seems like the office chair has always been and will remain a firm fixture in the everyday working life. Yet this ubiquitous object is probably one of the most important pieces of machinery you will come in contact with today.

Sitting tight

The task chair’s origins are inexorably linked to that of the office itself, whose history can be traced back to the time of the railroad in the mid-to late 19th century. As new markets opened up thanks to the explosion of the rail traffic, there came a need for more employees to handle the increasing administrative tasks that went along with growth, and a need for more space to contain those employees.

But early office conditions were downright Dickensian, compared to today’s environments. This was due to the rise of scientific management, a concept more responsible than any other in shaping the office environment in the first half of the 20th century. Developed by American engineer Frederick Taylor, it regarded the office worker as barely more than a cog in the machine of business.

One of scientific management’s most lasting and damaging precepts was that worker productivity could be controlled right down to the minute. The longer you kept employees at their desks performing highly specific and repetitive tasks – as opposed to variable tasks that might require moving between office equipment – the more money a company would make. Put simply, the first office chairs were designed to keep people sitting and working.

The chairs that came to fill this need typically had a swivel base, a wooden saddle seat and slatted wooden back, occasionally fitted with armrests. A few models had adjustable knobs and levers that gave the occupant a certain amount of control over his or her seat. This office chair would remain unchanged for the first two-thirds of the 20th century, with little more than minor design tweaking.

What defined the task chair during this time was not comfort, but status: employers sat in armchairs while their clerks sat in task chairs. But eventually, experts came to the realization that sitting and working in the same place and in the same position for extended hours actually leads to a decrease in employee motivation and productivity. This led in the early 1970s to the emergence of a new branch of engineering science in which biological research was used to study the relation between workers and their environments. It was called ergonomics, and it revolutionized the chair industry.

A seat for Homo sedens

The life of office workers took an upward swing in 1976, with the introduction of the Vertebra office desk chair for Krueger, by Italian designer Giancarlo Piretti and Emilio Ambasz of Argentina. The Vertebra chair was the first desk chair to provide passive ergonomic body support. Its success stimulated subsequent development in the area of ergonomically designed office furniture, which continues to this day to be the primary influence in chair design.

A basic rule of ergonomics is that there is no such thing as an “average” person; however, providing a chair specifically designed for each individual is obviously not practical. The solution is to provide workers with adjustable chairs that can accommodate a maximum range of people. To do this, a designer uses, among other tools, anthropometric data to determine the size and shape of a chair. Since anthropometric data for most body dimensions for men and women overlap, typically a designer uses sizes that span a range that excludes the lowest five percent of female body measurements and the highest five per cent of male body measurements for each body dimension. This covers about 90 per cent of the population.

Anthropometrics give a helpful range, “but existing anthropometric data resources inevitably are limited because they are always outdated, they are collected for young, healthy adult samples from certain ethnic groups or geo-specific areas, and they focus on skeletal dimensions but exclude soft tissue contours,” explains Alan Hedge, a professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, Cornell University, New York. “Consequently, even when a designer uses the best anthropometric data currently available, there can be mismatches in fit between user dimensions and chair design standards.” This is why such contract furniture trade shows as NeoCon (held annually in Chicago) and Orgatec (held every two years in Cologne, Germany) exhibit a dizzying array of new chairs that aim to bridge that gap through the addition or subtraction of functions – some intuitive, some complicated – that allow varying degrees of customization.

One of the chairs on show at Orgatec 2006 (TakeOver by Dauphin) actually takes some work off the user’s hands: sensors installed in the seat surface detect when the chair is occupied and switches on lights, computers, and other pieces of office equipment. To ensure that this convenience doesn’t descend into laziness, the chair also reminds the user by employing a light or audio signal when it is time to get up and move around. Aiming for that “one size fits all” office task chair, Teknion introduced the Fitz at NeoCon 2007. Created around ISO 9241 (a.k.a. the Ergonomics of Human System Interaction), the chair boasts one of the most extended range of adjustment features available on the market and can accommodate 95 per cent of world’s office population.

Many new models from a variety of manufacturers unveiled at both NeoCon and Orgatec have features that allow the chair to recognize the user (or at least his or her weight), and then provide the correct amount of resistance in the backrest to support the lumbar region (especially useful for places like call centres, with a constantly rotating staff who use the same office equipment).

“Weight-recognition technology is a good development, but it’s not a panacea,” says Kees Breeuwsma, vice president of seating for Teknion. “Weight distribution is different for every person, and affects how one sits.” The answer, Breeuwsma believes, is that everyone must understand the need, and make the effort, to adjust his or her own chair.

Indeed, all too often it seems that users will adjust their body to fit the chair rather than adjusting the chair to fit their body. Teknion found in a recent study that 61 per cent of Dutch office workers and 24 per cent of 236 Spanish office workers never made any adjustments to their office chairs. What was most surprising is that a large majority of users reported never using the available adjustments when aware of the adjustment possibility.

Most designers will tell you that the Holy Grail of office chair design is a one that scans the user and adjusts itself automatically to that user’s ergonomic needs. However, as Breeuwsma points out, while “intuitive seating designs help take some of the responsibility off the user, there will always need to be some level of personal adjustment for every chair.” Breeuwsma feels strongly that it is the responsibility of employers to provide employees with training on how to use their chairs appropriately.

Sustainable seating

New ideas and continual refinements in the study of ergonomics continue to be the driving force behind office chair design. Even newer ideas are coming from holistic health approaches, which insist that body and mind are one. However it will probably be a long time, if ever, before something comes along that will change the way we sit as ergonomics did in the ’70s. In fact, Breeuwsma believes that at this point we can’t expect any new paradigm shift in our chair future; rather we will see endless fine-tuning of established models. However, the chair industry is not static, and is currently undergoing a revolution that affects not how we sit, but how our chairs are made.

Most of the major office furniture companies are incorporating principles of sustainable design into their producti
on processes, particularly by adopting life-cycle thinking. Drawing heavily on William McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” axiom, this means looking at every step in the production of a product, from materials selection to production, transport, use and end-of-use.

Steelcase, for example, worked with McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) to create a materials assessment protocol to guide it in choosing environmentally responsible materials. Other companies are doing similar things. For example. Herman Miller’s Kira chair fabric is a biodegradable corn-based product. Haworth’s Zody task chair is certified as a Cradle to Cradle Gold product by MBDC; its materials contain up to 50 per cent recycled content, and Zody’s assembly energy is offset with Green-e certified wind energy certificates.

Weighing only 27 pounds, Liberty by Humanscale is lighter and made from significantly fewer parts than most other chairs in its class, so fewer materials and manufacturing processes are used in its production. Made predominantly of 100 per cent recycled die-cast aluminum, which has high scrap value and can be infinitely recycled, Liberty is made from more than 54 per cent recycled materials overall and is 95 per cent recyclable.

We’re also seeing the elimination of off-gassing adhesives and finishes, which are being replaced with fasteners. Both Global’s Aspen chair and Now by Nienkmper have eliminated the use of adhesives in their construction, and Herman Miller converted from metal wet-coat paint to powder in 2003, reducing VOCs by 67 per cent. Additionally, most of the new models unveiled at NeoCon and Orgatec are Greenguard Certified and can contribute toward several LEED-CI Certification points.

“Today, many companies are not sure what to do with their furniture when it reaches the end of its useful life to them, or when it no longer suits their organization’s needs,” explains David Rinard, director of environmental performance for Steelcase. Can a product be refreshed or upgraded in the field? Can it be repaired? Can it be easily and quickly disassembled, ideally with common hand tools, to facilitate next use or recycling? (Relate by Allsteel, to illustrate, has replaceable seat and back upholstery, arm pads, and overall back assemblies that can be replaced in minutes, by anyone, with a standard screwdriver). At the very least, are there programs for donating furniture after a company has finished using them? These are all questions manufacturers are addressing in new models.

Are you sitting down?

Considering how much we know about how people sit, have we invented the perfect chair? Obviously not. Despite the wide range of specialties involved in seating design, basic concepts of beauty and comfort elude definition. In part this is because, as Breeuwsma points out, no chair “can account for sitting preference.” People like to sit in ways that are not necessarily healthy; we slouch, loll, sprawl and do the things our mother told us not to do, as opposed to maintaining the neutral posture that experts agree is the least damaging.

In fact, there is considerable evidence to suggest that all chair sitting is, actually, harmful. “We may be out of touch with this reality,” suggests Galen Cranz in The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design, her 1998 analysis of the chair as both a functional object and cultural artifact. “Psychologically, we may feel a chair is comfortable even as it is harming us physiologically. So rather than face that possibility, we spend more and more time and money trying to find or create ideal ones.”

Can we at least speculate what that ideal chair would be like? Most designers agree that innovative chair designs should demystify chair adjustments, reduce the apparent complexity of controls, be more user-friendly, and be supplemented with improved user education on both the use of chairs and appropriate sitting postures.

Most of us sit behind a desk for up to eight hours a day, or longer, in modern office chairs that attempt to do most of that. And yet many of us still suffer from tension, back pain, tendonitis in the arms, headaches and other ailments. While sedentary work is the obvious culprit, how much blame should be placed on the very nature of the apparatus that supports the seated body?

“Insofar as the chair stabilizes posture, it contributes actively and directly to disorders of the eye, back and wrist,” writes Cranz. Even more startling, she argues that “People cannot take advantage of ergonomic chairs, with some capacity for movement built in, because their eyes and hands become entrained with the keyboard and screen they are working on. In this case we cannot really blame the chair, it is simply part of an integrated complex of chair-keyboard-person-screen, which together forms a new machine.”

A new machine? Sounds eerily familiar to the rhetoric of Frederick Taylor and scientific management, which saw the worker as just part of the machine of business. Ironically, ergonomics was once defined as the interaction of man and machine. Today, is there any real interaction? Cranz believes that “It is exaggerating only a little to say that man has become part of the machine and no longer disengages from the keyboard and terminal.”

Winston Churchill once remarked that “we shape our buildings and afterwards, our buildings shape us.” In truth, this adage applies to everything humans create: we shape them; but once built, they shape us. Chairs included. Chairs have powerfully shaped both the social and physical dimensions of our lives: influencing our concepts of status and power, contributing to a whole new branch of scientific research, and responsible for medical maladies unique to the modern world.

But like any relationship, it takes two to succeed or fail. You are the other half of this chair-sitting relationship. So ask yourself, now that you’ve sat and read for a bit, are you comfortable? Should the chair be adjusted? Perhaps it is your posture that should be adjusted? Or better yet, why not get up and take a stroll?