Decades ago, the symbol of executive success was a lavishly tufted leather throne. That all changed in 1994 when Herman Miller released the Aeron, a sleek, ergonomic task chair intended for CEOs and administrative staff alike. Its innovations—numerous adjustments that let the chair conform to a user, engineered textiles, and flexible support—made it an instant icon; MoMA even acquired one before it hit the market. And it's not just the design establishment that vaunted the chair. It became a pop-culture icon, appearing in a handful of shows like 30 Rock, The Simpsons, and The Office. This week, Herman Miller announced a reengineering of Aeron, but when your seat is worthy enough to be God's throne, why mess with success—and how?
"Our knowledge about the science of sitting and ergonomics has advanced," Brian Walker, CEO of Herman Miller, says. "As we looked at the product, we thought the iconic status of the chair should remain, but there was also a way to move the comfort elements and aesthetics forward."
The Aeron's redesign embodies a contradiction—change everything while keeping it the same. A product development team at Herman Miller—led by Tom Niergarth, vice president of platform development, and included Don Chadwick, one of the original designers—deconstructed the design and thought about ways to apply advancements in engineering, mechanics, and anthropometrics to every part of the chair while retaining the same look. Today's designers have access to more data, newer materials, and more sophisticated manufacturing capabilities, and those all factored into the new Aeron.
Side-by-side, the new and old Aerons look virtually identical, but peek under the hood and they're completely different. For example, the arm adjustments are smoother and move front to back, pivot side to side, and raise and lower (previously users could only raise and lower the arm rests and swing them inward or outward). The tilt mechanism, which lets users recline, is also smoother to operate. The controls let users adjust tilt tension with fewer turns. The casters have a new braking mechanism that keeps the chair steadier when it's supposed to be stationary.
One of the Aeron's biggest game changers was the use of a "pellicle"—a breathable, butt-sweat-busting supportive textile suspended like a hammock in the frame—as opposed to the foam, springs, and upholstery found in traditional chairs. The engineers looked at ways to improve upon this component by varying the density and tension in different zones of the material and created 19,000 different prototypes to perfect the final version.
For areas in the human body where bones are close to skin, the zones offer more give; other areas have less give. Right under your sitting bones, the pellicle has less tension but under fleshy hamstring muscles it offers more support. On the back, the pellicle has more stretch in the areas around shoulder blades and transitions to become more supportive toward the lumbar to support an S-curve in a sitter's back. Herman Miller has an intellectual property patent on the new pellicle design, which may help prevent knock-offs.
"The zonal pellicle is the most value added, the most innovative, and took the most trial and error," Niergarth says. "The different zones support a more healthy and comfortable posture that we've ever been able to create."
Motivation to improve a product often comes from a need to boost sales or reinvigorate interest in a product. When the Aeron was introduced, it was the only game in town, and in the years since, countless competitors have emerged from office furniture brands like Allsteel, Humanscale, and Steelcase. Additionally, office design trends are skewing to a residential aesthetic. A shift from individual desks to diverse, communal workspaces has changed what people need from office seating, as shown in new typologies that are entering the market, like Knoll's portable perch.
Herman Miller did not disclose exact sales trends for the past few years, saying only that over the past 22 years, Aeron has been one of its most successful products, with well over 7 million sold in 134 countries around the world. One of the side effects of over two decades of Aerons in circulation is a strong resale market, which could be influencing the business case to pour two years of R&D into redesigning the chair. Thousands can be found on sites like Craigslist and eBay. Though Walker said he's not really concerned about the resale market for the Aeron chair, the company has pursued legal action against sellers of refurbished versions of the task chair. A reengineered design could convince customers to get the "new and improved" model as opposed to settling for a less-expensive, older, used version.
"One thing we’re proud of is I don’t believe there’s a piece of furniture on the planet that retains its value like an Aeron," Walker says. "We’re happy there’s a robust market for Aeron. The new and old will exist comfortably together . . . the strategy has been to make sure we brought along the current fans and users but at the same time attract some new fans to Aeron."
Long live the Aeron—past, present, and future iterations. The new version will retail for the same price as the old version, starting at about $780.
[Photos: Herman Miller, Inc.]