Your average furniture designer would like you to believe his products will change your life. Most don't, of course, but for millions of desk jockeys in offices around the globe, one task chair has done precisely that: the Aeron by Bill Stumpf (1936–2006) and Don Chadwick for Herman Miller.
Originally conceived as a product for the elderly (Stumpf was the son of a gerontology nurse which undoubtedly influenced his approach), the task chair came to symbolize of a shift in the way offices conceived of furniture for employees. Everyone from a secretary to a CEO could have his or her own throne that represented the most thoughtful details and advanced engineering of the time. The design was an instant hit. MoMA acquired one for its collection before it debuted on the market in 1994.
The idea of the chair was that it would conform to the sitter's needs, not vice versa. So the seat is made from breathable, stretchable fabric that's suspended like a supportive hammock on an aluminum frame. There are numerous adjustments—seat height, arm height and angle, tension of the reclining seat back, lumbar support position and depth—to accommodate myriad users. Need to have an impromptu meeting with a coworker? The Aeron is set on wheels to make moving it around a breeze.
The Aeron was based on the following tenets, which still inform the design and development of new task chairs for Herman Miller:
1. A chair should be perceived as comfortable before, during, and after sitting upon it. Comfort is as much a matter of the mind as of the body.
2. A chair should enhance the appearance of the person sitting upon it.
3. While allowing postural movement, the chair should also embrace the body.
4. The chair should provide correct support for the sacrum as well as the lumbar region of the spine.
5. The chair should provide a simple means for height and angular adjustments. A chair should be friendly to all parts of the body that touch it.
Take Yves Behar's Sayl chair: it's 3-D back—inspired by suspension bridges—performs similarly to Stumpf and Chadwick's design, but eliminates the need for a separate lumbar support thanks to its supportive yet pliable structure. The Aeron has also inspired knock-offs that seek to imitate its signature design elements, like the mesh construction. But the true testament to the chair's enduring influence could also be measured in pop-culture references. When the Simpsons depicted heaven in a March 2005 episode, God was perched in none other than Stumpf and Chadwick's masterpiece.
Of course, the Aeron's legacy isn't all roses. As some keenly point out, the chair came to represent startup era excess. And thanks to its ergonomic design, the chair offered previously unheard of comfort—so much so that it actually encouraged people to remain sedentary for extended periods, not the healthiest of behaviors.
Still, you have to give credit to a guy who managed to get people excited about a chair. Today would have been Stumpf's 80th birthday. And while the Aeron is what he'll be remembered for, it wasn't the only design he produced for Herman Miller: the manufacturer has sold over 10 million of his ergonomic chairs—seven million of which are Aerons—through the decades. We salute his contributions to making offices suck a little less.
Read more about Stumpf at hermanmiller.com/why.
All Images: courtesy Herman Miller