A revolution in chair, work station design

Journal staff reporter

For many of us, the office chair is literally a home away from home. We spend dozens of hours each week seated at desks and in cubicles typing proposals, calling clients and sorting invoices. And, as with Shakespeare's good King Lear, an uncomfortable chair can be maddening, not to mention hazardous to our health.

Like nearly everything else in the office today, the chair has caught ergonomic fever. Creating a marketable and comfortable chair is not so much a simple question of material and padding as it is a product of engineering, support and adjustability.

Ergonomics has inspired many furniture designers to return to the drawing board in search of a chair that can accommodate these new concerns.

Dale Schmitz, marketing manager for Steelcase's Seating Solutions Division, says that ergonomics has created nothing short of a revolution in chair design. "The past 10 years have brought the most drastic changes to chairs we've ever seen. Before that, chairs were basically the same for the past 100 years."

But determining what makes an chair ergonomically sound is difficult. Ergonomic research, like the fruits of so many other cutting-edge fields, is often picked by the public and the media before it has time to ripen properly. For many people, ergonomics is still green, raw and a little hard to swallow. You'll see the word plastered across everything from chairs to cutlery, but exactly what makes a product "ergonomic" is often a mystery.

The ergonomic craze has been fueled by the muscular conditions that can result from task-intensive work common to today's computer-based offices. Carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive stress injuries, not to mention back and neck pain, are the bugaboos of today's office worker.

"I see ergonomics as an extremely important issue in today's office," said Anne Cunningham, an associate for NBBJ Architects' interiors department. "When you consider the amount of time people spend at their desks, comfort is a key issue."

Help defining sound ergonomic design may be on the way. In 1988, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Human Factors & Ergonomics Society established a list of ergonomic standards for office furniture, called the ANSI/HFES 100. And while these standards have helped to define a variety of ergonomic issues, they have also been criticized for not being based on scientific research.

Currently, a revision to these standards is being drafted based on a large body of data and studies compiled over the past seven years.

Marilyn Joyce, director of The Joyce Institute, a division of Arthur D. Little, is one of the subcommittee members working on the draft revision. She said that, while some people may feel unsure about what makes a good ergonomic product, the new standards should help to codify the mountains of studies and statistics currently being tossed around.

"The research that the new standards will be based on has shown us a few basic things about ergonomics," said Joyce. "There's a variety of appropriate postures, from upright to sitting forward to sitting back. And the most important thing to do is to vary your posture. Sitting in the same position, whatever the position, for an extended period of time sets the stage for long-term health problems," Joyce said.

The draft revisions for the ANSI/HFES 100 standards are due to be released in late October. A one-year review process will follow. After the review period, the standards will be re-evaluated before the final set of standards are presented in late fall of 1996.

"Chair designers are definitely going in the right direction," said Jeff Nelson, an ergonomist for The Joyce Institute. Nelson says the key to creating an effective ergonomic chair is adjustability, which he sees as one of the key issues in chair design today.

But Nelson said many "alternative" chair designs solve some ergonomic problems, but also create others. The backless "kneeling chairs" that allows the user to sit in a forward fetal position by tucking his or her legs behind a pad below the seat helps to relieve pressure on the lower back, but can also put extra stress on the knees. And the stand/sit chairs, popular with postal workers, also help with back support, but put excess stress on the ankles.

"Adjustability is the most important thing to consider," said Nelson. But often, Nelson said, it isn't the chairs limitations that make them uncomfortable, but rather the user's inability to properly adjust the chair.

Instruction cards are required to be attached to each chair sold, but Nelson says this is usually not enough. "If I'm an employer, and I'm going to spend several thousand dollars on chairs, I'm going to want some training on using them," said Nelson.

The latest and greatest chair designs are already reflecting the changing attitude towards ergonomics. Support and adjustability are the headliners for the latest crop.

Steelcase, one of the office furniture industry leaders, introduced the Rapport chair earlier this year (list price unavailable). The Rapport is the company's new benchmark in the highly adjustable seating market.

Designed by David Hodge, the Rapport's selling points are twofold. Simpler, more varied adjustments are based around The Ergo Activator, a cylinder running under the seat of the chair that consolidates all the chair's major adjustments. At each end of the cylinder is a set of controls that adjusts, among other things, seat height, seat depth, seat angle, arm height and angle, and back tension.

The second major distinction of the Rapport's design is an inviting, almost residential feel. With a solid, rectangular back and an abundantly padded seat, the Rapport bridges the gap between the "space-age" look of most ergonomic chairs and the formal look of more traditional office chairs.

"Steelcase is now offering chairs that are equally comfortable in the office and at home," said Anne Cunningham. "The residential styling and padding makes them a popular choice for people who work at home."

Herman Miller's latest design, the Aeron (list price: $700 - $1,200), also emphasizes adjustability, but has a completely different style than the Rapport. Designed by acclaimed designers Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick, the Aeron has been heralded as a breakthrough in office chair design.

Rather than mask the hi-tech look of an ergonomic chair, the Aeron takes it to a new, intriguing extreme. The controls, which give the user an abundance of adjustment options, are anything but hidden, and form a mechanical, jutting jaw that protrudes from below the seat.

Aeron Chair The Aeron (46k jpeg)

"The Aeron chair is one of the most innovative designs I've seen," said Cunningham. "The chair's aesthetic is based around its design mechanisms." While some people may be intimidated by the Aeron's unusual, minimalist design, Cunningham thinks others, especially hi-tech companies, will find the look very appealing.

Herman Miller reported spending over $35 million on research in the past year, and it seems to be paying off. The Aeron was recognized in June with an industry award for its innovative design, and has been shown in several museums.

Adding to the chair's strange appearance is the material called Pellicle. A meshed, thin webbing, it stretches tightly across the seat and back to create a suspension system that Herman Miller claims is more comfortable and durable than the traditional foam seat pad.

And for something that goes beyond a simple chair, there's the Clipper CS-1, an integrated, enclosed office space made by New Space Inc., a division of Gilbert International, of Fort Worth, Texas. With a streamlined exterior resembling a classic sailing ship, the Clipper is a 4-foot by 7-foot capsule that provides a comfortable, private space in which to work.

Designed by Canadian Douglas Ball, the Clipper (list price: $6,000) fills a void that Ball saw in office space design: a chair and workstation that function together as one unit. Modeled after airplane cockpits and automobile interiors, the Clipper uses its chair and the surrounding architecture to provide optimum support for the user.

Margaret Savagin, president of New Space Inc., says the Clipper is the perfect solution for someone who needs to get away from office distractions. "After an interruption, it takes about 20 minutes to focus back on your work," said Savagin. "By eliminating these distractions, we have found that the Clipper can improve efficiency by 20 to 40 percent."

Entering from a partial side door, the user slides the Clipper's seat back on its track which resembles the mechanics of a rowing machine. Once seated, the user slides the seat forward until he or she is at a comfortable distance from the computer. An adjustable foot rest provides ample support for the legs. With a firm push off the foot rest, the seat can be tilted back. At the same time, the seat will slide forward, keeping the distance between the user and the computer constant.

To create a less claustrophobic feel, the clipper is covered with a translucent material called Lexan that stretches across a rib cage of maple struts. Inside, diffused lighting keeps the Clipper bright without creating unnecessary screen glare, and a fan keeps things cool and provides soothing white noise. To round out the conveniences, desk surfaces on either side of the user provide a well-supported place for a mouse.

The Clipper has received notable recognition for its innovative design. It won an APEX award earlier this year, and has been selected to be shown in museums in London and Chicago.

Savagin says the Clipper's ability to help create a more efficient office makes it practical. "Our company is relatively small, and we're competing with some of the largest furniture companies in the world," said Savagin. "We can't afford to create unnecessary products just to be innovative."

But for all the bells and whistles on chairs such as these, the problems that result from repetitive tasks such as typing will still come up if workers aren't more conscientious about avoiding a single position for a long period.

"Ironically, smokers actually have less chance of developing carpal tunnel syndrome because they take so many smoke breaks," said Schmitz, pointing out the importance of frequent breaks while working.

"Most ergonomic chairs are pretty good," said Nelson. "But if you're sitting for eight hours [in the same position], the quality of the chair won't matter."

Perhaps then, after sitting on a throne for so many years, there was nothing that could be done for poor Lear. What a tragedy.

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