The Difficulty of Engineering a Task Chair

There’s a reason I waited 40 years to design my first chair. It’s really hard. – Yves Behar at SOLIDWORKS WORLD 2016

A Design 40 years in the making: Yves Behar's SAYL chair for Herman Miller.
A Design 40 years in the making: Yves Behar’s SAYL chair for Herman Miller.

Chairs are all around us. They carve out space in our homes, they’re a part of the structure of our workplaces and they’re even important in recreation. Without overstating it, the sheer ubiquity of chairs is astounding. But what makes these objects so daunting to designers is that for each situation, for each environment, chairs have to blend function and aesthetics more seamlessly than most other objects.

Just think about it.

When a chair is empty, it has to be beautiful, effortlessly fitting into the scheme of a space. When a chair is occupied, it has to be comfortable, ergonomic and customizable. What’s more, it often has to be both practical and economical.

Needless to say, those are distinctly difficult design constraints to overcome.

The Origins of the Task Chair

Over the years, designers with pedigrees like Charles and Ray Eames, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid have attempted to create successful seating solutions. But no matter how well any chair design is received, it seems to always be broken by the unending pressure of people’s changing habits. Nowhere is the pressure of those habits greater than in the workplace, where a certain type of chair, the task chair, has ruled supreme.

But what’s a task chair?

Put simply, a task chair is a seating technology that makes it easier for a desk worker to access the furniture, files and paraphernalia required to do their task. One of the most common characteristics of task chairs is their set of wheels and the ability to swivel. But if you think that task chairs must be a 20th-century invention, you’d be wrong. Task chairs aren’t new. In fact, they’ve been around since the mid-19th century when it was rumored that Charles Darwin invented the very first task chair by attaching wheels to the legs of his chair so that he could reach his specimens with greater ease.

Since Darwin’s time, the task chair has evolved, and one of the biggest factors shaping task chair design has been the changing nature of work.

Over the last half century, the U.S. economy has changed dramatically. The United States has shifted from being an industrial giant to one driven by services and information. With these shifts, people have changed the way they work in an office, and offices themselves have adopted new configurations. Not surprisingly, office furniture has changed to match these new environments.

At one time, executives sat behind powerful, heavy thrones, while work-a-day employees toiled away in squeaky padded chairs. Those standards changed over the years, and different furniture rolled in and out. No furniture solution seemed to stick.

But then something happened. Designers started to think about the seats they were creating. They began to wonder, could their designs support a more comfortable workplace existence? Alhough this idea made designing a chair more difficult, it created an opportunity where a chair could be built that would satisfy the needs of an office in constant flux.

Though it took decades of design work to find a solution, one chair seemed to have broken the spell that doomed earlier seating designs.

You might even know it by name.

The Chair That Would Be a Standard

An Aeron chair, the would-be king of seating.
An Aeron chair, the would-be king of seating.

In 1994, Herman Miller introduced the Aeron chair, and almost overnight, the consensus view of what a task chair had to do changed.

The Aeron chair’s debut came at an auspicious time. Silicon Valley was taking off, and tech firms bubbled over with young, smart, ambitious engineers who looked at the office differently. For many of these people, working in front of a desk with a rigid chair at their back just wasn’t going to work. Armed with laptops and a tendency to slouch or assume postures unfamiliar to traditional offices, the Aeron chair offered an adjustable back, arms, lumbar support and other options that made odd postures comfortable.

In addition to its adaptability, the Aeron chair was made to be one of the most environmentally friendly task chairs ever built. In fact, 94 percent of every Aeron chair can be recycled, making it cheaper to retire than almost any other task chair ever built.

To say that the Aeron chair served its users well is an understatement. Within a few years of its debut, Aerons were everywhere, and Herman Miller was producing one every 17 seconds to keep up with demand. But that demand wasn’t generated by accident; it took years of development including materials research, ergonomics assessments, tortuous load tests and dozens of mechanical design reviews.

Throughout a multi-year design process, the Aeron chair’s engineers, lead by Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf, faced showdowns with Herman Miller’s management, multiple prototype redesigns and other obstacles that come part and parcel with designing something as versatile as a task chair.

Although the Aeron chair continues to be a mainstay in offices across the globe, more modern competitors have started to sneak up on the venerable piece of technology, attempting to threaten its seat as king of the task chairs. For these new task chair models, the ideas of a static working posture has driven their design, and it appears that the notions of mobility and technology are only pushing seating into new realms.

Even though its golden age has ended, with nearly a quarter century of faithful service, the Aeron came as close to being a perfect task chair design as any other seat had in the past.

The Future of Sitting

Today, the idea of sitting for extended periods in a task chair has not only become passé, it’s also come under scrutiny. In 2014, a media storm about the dangers of sitting reached a fever pitch with some outlets touting that “sitting is the new smoking.”

With those currents driving the fashions of today’s workplaces, task chairs are likely to face a new era of redesigns that will likely be as difficult as the last. With people looking to recline more in relaxed offices and mobile technology such as tablets and smartphones replacing laptops and desktops, future task chairs may take on radically different forms than they have in the past.

So, why’s a task chair so difficult to design?

The answer has to be that people are ever evolving, and the ways we interact are evolving too. Because chairs are critical tools that help define how and where we work, finding the right balance of aesthetics and function becomes an intimate game of blending engineering with prescience.

That seems like a really difficult task.

About the Author


Kyle Maxey is a mechanical designer and writer from Austin, TX. He earned a degree in Film at Bard College and has since studied Mechanical and Architectural drafting at Austin Community College. As a designer Kyle has had vast experience with CAD software and rapid prototyping. One day he dreams of becoming a toy designer.

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