The Aeron Chair Was Originally Designed as the Perfect Seat for Granny

The way things look.
Nov. 5 2012 3:45 AM

The Secret History of the Aeron Chair

It wasn’t originally designed for office warriors. It was intended for the elderly.

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Aeron prototype.

The design concept that Stumpf presented in 1992 took the lessons of the Sarah to their logical extreme. “We started to realize that people were interacting with computers and keyboards in all sorts of positions. They’d have the keyboard in their lap. Or they’d be at their desk slouching back, semi-reclined,” says Chadwick. So they proposed a reclining mechanism based on the Sarah’s, one that allowed the seat pan and chair back to move in concert. And, most importantly, they came up with the idea of getting rid of the Sarah’s foam altogether. The right fabric mesh, they argued, would mold to any person’s shape—what prevented bedsores would also keep people comfortable. In the end, the chair’s oddball looks would be a direct expression of its engineering.

Stumpf and Chadwick also argued forcefully that the design would benefit both the environment and the bottom line. The executives recognized the truth of this argument intuitively. “The chair plant was filled with foam hanging from the ceiling and curing in the open air, everywhere you looked. It smelled horrible,” says Gary Miller. “You had to wonder, ‘Where’s the end to this? How can this scale?’ ” Chairs at the time were mainly foam; foam was a huge part of their cost. Without it, the chair’s economics would change radically. “Green wasn’t an issue at the time,” says Chadwick. “But instinctively, we felt the importance of getting more performance from less materials.”

Herman Miller’s CEO, Dick Ruch, stewed on the decision for a few days. Finally, he signed off. It was an enormous risk: Because of the company’s production schedule, the inordinately expensive plastic molds for the frame would have to be made before the engineers even knew if they would be able to find a suitable fabric. Chadwick eventually led the invention of one, and the chair gradually came to life in increasingly futuristic prototypes.

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When the Aeron was finally done, Herman Miller’s executives had warmed to Stumpf and Chadwick’s problem-solving rigor, but remained leery about the chair’s weird looks. They turned out to be a major selling point, making the chair seem incomparably advanced. One dealer in Hollywood, shortly after its unveiling in October of 1994, reported putting his first floor sample in the window, and hearing cars screech to a halt upon seeing it. By 1996, the orders were already dwarfing Herman Miller’s expectations. Pop culture had made it a phenomenon: Will, on Will and Grace, spent an entire episode trying to get an Aeron. Then the crash came. The dot-com-era profits helped keep Herman Miller alive in the early 2000s, and sales eventually bounced back. Nearly 7 million Aerons have been sold to date, and another one comes off of Herman Miller’s lines every 17 seconds.

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Aeron prototype.

Even without such mainstream success, the Aeron would have become a design classic simply because it tells so many stories about the industry’s changing mores. It anticipated the move toward dematerialized, more sustainable products. Together with the first Dyson vacuum—produced in 1993—it embodied a function-forward, engineering-heavy ethos new to product design.

But today the chair also embodies an embattled assumption about office work. Stumpf and Chadwick knew that it wasn’t healthy to sit in a chair for hours—you had to get up and walk around periodically—but the Aeron’s comfort nonetheless encouraged it. And that sedentary work life is killing us: One study, conducted over 13 years, observed that women who habitually sit for more than six hours a day were 94 percent more likely to die during the study period than their most active peers. (For men, that figure was 48 percent.) Likewise, another study found that those who sit the most compared with those who sit the least have twice the risk for diabetes—and working out during the non-sitting hours doesn’t help.

The Aeron obviously isn’t the cause of “sitting disease,” no more than it was the cause of the dot-com bubble. But it is, along with so many of the chairs that followed its example, and enabler of it. As a result, we now see a wave of products that you might call the anti-Aerons—many of which, incidentally, were first popularized in Silicon Valley. There are exercise balls that some people use for office chairs; desks (some of them designed by Herman Miller) that let you work standing up; desks attached to treadmills; and desks integrated with chairs that make sitting always slightly precarious. One of the most lauded designers alive today, Konstantin Grcic, actually designed a stool that’s too uncomfortable to sit in for long periods.

If designs like these become mainstream—and if we can find no better solution to sitting disease than intentionally uncomfortable chairs—then the Aeron might one day look less like a design masterpiece and more like the modern descendant of a perfectly designed Bauhaus ash tray: beguiling in its perfection, but necessary only because of a waning, deadly habit.

Cliff Kuang is the editor of Fast Company’s Co.Design.