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Save Your Seat

By Published on . 1

Nowhere does the tyranny of a sedentary office lifestyle generate more curiosity and inquiry than in the issue of chairs. Entrepreneur and current Mahalo CEO Jason Calacanis called the chair "the only thing that matters" in furnishing a startup; indeed, a back-of-the-envelope calculation has an average worker seated 57.5 days a year.

Here at Creativity HQ, that time is spent in a fairly generic chair, comfortable enough, but not at all notable. So when a bright orange loaner of Herman Miller's new Embody, the company's follow-up to the Aeron showed up, heads turned.

The flat, egalitarian-in-mediocrity world of office furniture was disrupted. Our office manager, generally the first to pipe up when any of these sort of wrinkles arise, inquired before the chair was even out of the mailroom. Our mailguys wouldn't bring the chair by until I spoke to him; evidently he wanted to know why I'd ordered a new chair when we'd all received new seats recently.

Colleagues stopped by and asked about the orange oddity. Those with back ailments looked at it like the Lourdes of our cubicle farm. Some were just struck by the shape.

It seemed smartest to organize a rotation, weekly, so everyone could get a chance to evaluate the Embody, at least on our small staff. First off, you tweak the settings according to the included hangtag infosheet. Handles let you pull the seat deck out to further support your thighs to the inner-knee. A crank tightens up the lumbar region. A tiny joystick controls height. The armrests lift and move wider with ease. I was ready to fly a spaceship.

A couple weeks later it turns out we all agree on something: it's a very comfortable chair. The sitter's cradle of comfort, where your posterior meets the fabric, with the lower back and thighs as main points of contact, feels firm yet forgiving. The spinal array of struts and supports comes on with multiple touchpoints, like an alien vertebrate structure.

"[It's] an attempt to produce a support element that is the analog of the human spine: flexible, lively, resilient, stable, and intelligent. Spinal health is the determinate factor for overall health."

That's designer Jeff Weber, who designed the chair along with Aeron legend Bill Stumpf. Stumpf, who co-designed Herman Miller's most influential chair, passed away in August 2006, when the team was deep in the seven-year process of creating the chair.

Stumpf, left, seated evaluating ergonomics in 2004
Stumpf, left, seated evaluating ergonomics in 2004
Part of Herman Miller's tack with the Embody is it can actually make you healthier, as opposed to most office furniture out there. The chair we tried retails for $1645; that the company feels it can create positive value is a pretty good way to mitigate that cost. Weber certainly speaks of it in universal terms ("We attempted to develop the most humanistic chair possible within the existing constraints, such as gravity, our material world, time...") but over 30 professionals worked to create a "health positive" offering. According to Herman Miller, physicians and PhDs in biomechanics, vision, physical therapy and ergonomics were involved in the chair's development.

Stumpf and Weber in 2006 with a prototype
Stumpf and Weber in 2006 with a prototype
"Never, never has Herman Miller [had this much research]," Weber says. Studies were commissioned by the Marquette University Mechanical Engineering and Exercise Science department, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago/ Northwestern University's Department of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences and University of California San Francisco's Ergonomics Lab.

The Aeron chair, Embody's predecessor, came to symbolize dot-com lifestyle; indeed, it's what Calacanis recommends, and still a reliable, exceedingly comfortable chair. But how will the Embody compare? If Aeron represents the go-go '90s, what does Embody stand for?

"I believe we have, or are about to enter into a new era, an era that I describe as the Humanist Revolution," Weber says. "We have no other option but to adhere to the basic principles of humanism, we do this and all else will be taken care of."

To raise awareness of the new chair after it launched at Orgatec last month, Herman Miller worked with Minneapolis' Mono, which in turn worked with Freedom + Partners to create ThoughtPile, a site where users are asked a heavy question every week (like, "What's a green idea that could help the economy?" and "How can we keep our cities vital?") and asked to contribute their ideas. Each week's most-agreed-with idea's creator wins a chair.
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