The latest in high-powered office chairs.

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July 1 2003 11:35 AM

Humble Throne

Assessing Herman Miller's downscale Aeron—the Mirra.

Mirra chair
Mirra: a contender?

Earlier this month, Herman Miller unveiled a new chair, the Mirra, at NeoCon, the annual Lollapalooza of the contract furniture industry. The chair won a coveted Gold Award and has already become a cover model, gracing the July issue of Metropolis, which asks: The next icon? There's good reason for all the buzz: This is the first office throne to come from Herman Miller since the Aeron, which has sold millions since it was introduced in 1994, becoming the best-selling office chair in history and earning a place in the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Aeron chair
Aeron: the classic

In the '90s, the Aeron became an emblem of the dot-com boom; it symbolized mobility, speed, efficiency, and 24/seven work weeks. The Aeron was a must-have for hot startups precisely because it looked the least like office furniture: It was more like a piece of machinery or unadorned engineering. The black Pellide webbing was durable, and hid whatever Jolt or Red Bull stains you might get on it. Held taut by an aluminum frame, the mesh allowed air to circulate and kept your body cool. What's more, the chair came in three sizes, like a personalized tool. Assorted knobs and levers allowed you to adjust the seat height, tilt tension, tilt range, forward tilt, arm height, arm width, arm angle, lumbar depth, and lumbar height. The Aeron was high-tech but sexy—which was how the dot-commers saw themselves.

But baby-faced CEOs weren't drawn to the Aeron only for the way it looked. The Aeron was a visual expression of the anti-corporate zeitgeist, a non-hierarchical philosophy about the workplace. An office full of Aerons implicitly rejected the Fortune 500, coat-and-tie, brick-and-mortar model in which the boss sinks back in an overpriced, oversized, leather dinosaur while his secretary perches on an Office Max toadstool taking notes. By the late '90s, the high-performance chair market was teeming with imitators, from Steelcase's "Leap" to Knoll's "Life." The rush up-market left a hole in the middle, which Herman Miller says it will fill with its new offering.

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Call it market segmentation if you want, but it's really market evolution—the Mirra is all about life after the boom, the post-bubble days that tech investor Roger McNamee has coined "the New Normal." It's a return-to-basics, straightforward, do-more-with-less period. The Aeron has a price tag ranging roughly from $800 to $1,200; the Mirra starts at $640, about $150 less than your most basic new Aeron. (Most Aerons run higher.)

Herman Miller hired a small German company called Studio 7.5 to design the chair; the group initially started developing an innovative seat back that could scale from a small woman's narrow frame to a tall man's broader shoulders. But the approach failed, three years into development. Then, in the spring of 2001, the designers hit upon the solution; the Aeron's signature mesh and aluminum construction has been replaced with a less expensive molded polypropylene back that comes in eight colors, from citron to garnet. Aesthetically, the Mirra borrows the biomorphic silhouette and the transparency of its precursor, but the materials are more commonplace. The result is a chair with less attitude; more like an iBook than a Titanium PowerBook.

But at the end of the day, an office chair has to make you comfortable. The new one-size-fits-all chair has managed to pack an impressive amount of ergonomic power into the lower price. In fact, for all the high-end engineering of the Aeron, the Mirra is in many ways more cleverly designed: Its one size had to be able to accommodate the broadest range of bodies possible. And it had to do so with fewer knobs than the Aeron, because the only thing people griped about more than the price of the landmark chair was the time and manual-reading required to perfect the fit. (Ultimately, many users opted to just use the chair as is, unadjusted, defeating its purpose.) For the Mirra, the designers used an independent study—involving scanning thousands of subjects in different positions—to come up with a few simple manual adjustments, easy to tweak while seated. As a result, the chair, though much simpler in presentation, can accommodate 95 percent of human body types, according to its designers. The Mirra has a number of so-called passive features—adjustments that are built into the mechanics of the chair and require zero fiddling: the mesh-seat suspension that coddles your rear; the tilt design that lets your body pivot at the hip, the knee, and the ankle; and above all, the pliable backrest engineered to automatically flex and support your back from thorax to sacrum.

While the furniture pros were schmoozing at NeoCon, I headed to Herman Miller's nearly empty New York showroom for a comparison. I will say that the Aeron is still king in my cubicle, but just barely—especially since unlike the Aeron, the Mirra is a justifiable expense, better suited to the bottom-linedays of the New Normal. It's probably not the next icon, but that doesn't matter. An icon belongs in the MoMA, not in every cubicle across the land. (Have you ever spent eight hours in an Eames La Chaise? The lines are gorgeous but the pleasure stops there.) For all practical purposes, the new chair is more bang for the buck—and in a package that won't give your investors an impression of dot-com indulgence.

Jessie Scanlon is a freelance writer in New York City and a contributing editor at Wired.