A chair for 40 hours
von Mathias Remmele | Dec 5, 2011

No other piece of furniture plays so great a role in the lives of so many people as does the office swivel chair. And no other item is, in terms of its properties, comparably defined so exhaustively in terms of norms and security regulations. Functional criteria have always been at the forefront of designing office chairs (and they've long since been seen as the most important working tool, as they are closest to our bodies). Since the beginning of the 20th century, ergonomics has provided the decisive scientific basis for this type of furniture. The underlying goals of ergonomics are to adjust tools as optimally as possible to the human physiognomy in order to enhance productivity and pre-empt damage to people's health. While these goals remain the same, the idea of what constitutes an ergonomic office chair has changed considerably since then.

Not only have the standards expected of such chairs constantly risen, but the doctrine of what is the "right" (read: healthy or at least not damaging) sitting posture has changed. While in the typewriter age a good, meaning straight back, indeed stiff back, was considered ideal in the workplace, toward the end of the 20th century the insight has gradually prevailed that changing sitting positions and even consciously leisurely, relaxation-craven lounging about (quite inconceivable in the past and highly out of place in an office) is far more in line with the complex ways in which the human body moves and requires support. Thus, today it is the doctrine of "dynamic sitting" that forms the basis of developing office chairs – it is even said to be beneficial for our intellectual faculties. One can link this change to the spread of the PC, which, unlike a typewriter, allows for different working postures: the keyboard and even more so laptops can be placed leisurely on your knees while you lean right back. The new seating code can also be associated with the changed social notion of work, which accords employees a greater degree of individual scope in certain areas.

An understanding of the office chair as a tool and the constantly growing functional requirements made of it swiftly led it to morph into a kind of "machine". Today's reference models are complex technical structures with refined mechanical workings and countless controls to allow for individual settings. Moving on castors, such chairs invariably have pneumatically cushioning, swivel and height-adjustable seats that are linked the backrest by a synchronizing mechanism. Molded to fit the body and with a height-adjustable lumbar support, the backrest tends to boast pressure settings that hold even when you lean right back, with a sometimes firmly integrated at times optional head/neckrest taking the strain off the neck and shoulder muscles. Armrests, often optional and as a rule individually adjustable, round out the key functional features of today's office chair. Hardly surprising that all parts of the chair that come into direct contact with the body are made of soft, flexible material that guarantees enduring comfort even when you're working long hours.

Users' constantly changing and forever growing expectations of office swivel chairs spawn a market fixated with innovation, and the individual models usually have only a relatively short span of life. Office chair classics such as the "Aluminium Chair" by Charles and Ray Eames (1958) or model "3217" from the legendary "Series 7" of Arne Jacobsen (1955), which for all their already advanced age and their low-tech worlds remain well liked – in fact their popularity is still on the up. But they're the exceptions to the rule. And they are usually to be encountered in plain vanilla offices, but in executive zones or home offices.

Milestones in recent office chair history, such as "Synthesis 45" by Ettore Sottsass (1973) or Wolfgang Müller-Deisig's "Vitramat" (1976) – it was the first to use the synchronizing mechanism developed by long-standing Vitra Head of Development Egon Bräuning – have, by contrast, long since disappeared from the market. The "FS" line devised by Klaus Franck and Werner Sauer 30 years ago for Wilkhahn has long since become a classic – a highly-flexible seating shell automatically adapts to any change in posture.

Over the last two decades, deliberately technoid seating machines have won the day. One of the most successful models in this category is the "Aeron Chair" developed by William Stumpf and Donald Chadwick, since copied and varied by many. Another in this lineage the "Ypsilon" dreamed up by Mario and Claudio Bellini, which when seen from behind resembles abstract ribbing to sit on. Most recently, "On" created by by Designbüro Wiege for Wilkhahn caused a real stir in the industry with its quite remarkable concept for chair movement. The functional features of have been refined down across the decades to such an extent that users almost feel they need instruction manuals to adjust the chair to their own body size and seating needs. Most recently, the technical upgrading of office chairs would appear to have reached (a probably but temporary) end. One indicator of this are the latest designs that no longer primarily prioritize technical innovations and focus instead on other office-chair qualities. The "Worknest" designed by the Bouroullec brothers first and foremost seeks to give the person sitting on the office chair a sense of home, of snugness, and by means of calibrated color versions enables the office being to identify with their workstations. Antonio Citterio's "ID Chair", and with it he has developed a new modular office chair system, likewise gives center stage to issues of identity and individuality. A quite different approach is taken by Konstantin Grcic with his "360°". In order to enable flexible sitting in as many different variations as possible, he created a piece of furniture that looks bulky and with a reduced almost symbolic formal appearance that masterfully ignores all the fuddy-duddy conventions of office chair design.

Find a comprehensive overview of office swivel chairs here:
Office swivel chairs at Stylepark

Already published in our series on product-typologies:
"Everything that is furniture" by Thomas Wagner
"Do not lean back!" on stools by Nina Reetzke
"On tranquility and comfort" on lounge chairs by Mathias Remmele
"Foam meadow, stays fresh for longer" by Markus Frenzl
"In Chair World" by Sandra Hofmeister
"All the things chair can be" by Claus Richter
"The shelf – furniture for public order" by Thomas Edelmann
"How the armchair got its wings…" by Knuth Hornbogen
"Pillar of society" by Thomas Edelmann
"The rocking chair as a phenomenon for the arcades" by Annette Tietenberg
"The small world of multi-functional furniture" by Nancy Jehmlich
"Now stop jumping on the bed! The bed as a place for work, rest and play" by Annette Tietenberg
"It's set" on tables by Sandra Hofmeister
"The Couch. A psychoanalytical fantasy" by Thomas Wagner

"Aluminium Chair" by Charles and Ray Eames, produced by Vitra, photo © Vitra
"Aluminium Chair" with ottoman, photo © Vitra
"Series 7" by Arne Jacobsen for Fritz Hansen, photo © Fritz Hansen
"High Leap" by Steelcase, photo © Steelcase
Technical writing specialist, historic photo © Fotothek df_n-36_0000002
"On" by Wiege for Wilkhahn, photo © Wilkhahn
"Modus" by Wilkhahn, photo © Wilkhahn
"Solis" by Wilkhahn, photo © Wilkhahn
Drawing of a tilt-mechanism by Wilkhahn, photo © Wilkhahn
"Think" - dismounted - by Steelcase, photo © Steelcase