After the great dot-com bust of 2000, there was one lasting symbol of the crash: Herman Miller’s Aeron chair. The ergonomic, mesh-backed office chair was launched in 1994, at the start of the bubble; at a cost of more than $1,000 at the time, it quickly became a status symbol in Silicon Valley—spotted constantly in magazines and in cameos on TV and film. Then, as the dot-coms failed, the chairs went empty. As one information architect told New York magazine years later, he remembered them "piled up in a corner as a kind of corporate graveyard." He went on: “They’re not in my mind an example of hubris as much as they are an example of companies trying to treat their staff more generously than they could actually afford.”
The Aeron was a throne perfectly tailored to Silicon Valley’s vanities. With a frame of high-tech molded plastic, a skin of woven plastic fibers pulled taut, and mechanics that accommodated slouchy rebels, the chair flattered the people who bought it. It was the best engineering money could buy, and it seemed purpose-built for squeaky-voiced billionaires inventing the future in front of a computer. But the Aeron’s origin story isn’t so simple. The apotheosis of the office chair—and perhaps the only one ever to become a recognizable and coveted brand name among cubicle-dwellers—was actually the unexpected fruit of a 10-year effort to create better furniture for the elderly.
One the Aeron’s designers was Bill Stumpf, the son of a gerontology nurse and a preternaturally keen observer of human behavior. So he was well primed in the late 1970s, when the American furniture company Herman Miller began casting about for growth prospects and hired Stumpf and Don Chadwick—who had done several pieces for Herman Miller—to investigate the potential of furniture for the elderly. It seemed like a tantalizing market opportunity. The American populace was aging quickly, assisted living facilities were rare, and hospitals lacked ergonomic furniture suited to long-term care. In each environment, Stumpf and Chadwick observed the surest sign of an opportunity: furniture being used in unintended ways. The homely workhorse common in both medical and residential settings was the La-Z-Boy. In hospitals, the elderly often got dialysis in semireclined La-Z-Boys; at home they spent hours in them watching TV. “The chair becomes the center of one’s universe. These sorts of realizations at the time weren’t just overlooked, they weren’t [deemed] important,” says Clark Malcolm, who helped manage the project. Those observation studies and focus groups “made Bill and Don focus on seating, in a way they never had before.”
The La-Z-Boy was terribly suited to both settings. The elderly, with weakened legs, had to back up to the chair and simply fall backward. The lever for reclining was awkward to reach and hard to engage. And, worst of all, the foam stuffing, often upholstered in vinyl, spread the sitter’s weight unevenly while retaining body heat and moisture—potentially causing bedsores.
Stumpf and Chadwick addressed all of those problems with the Sarah chair, which was finally completed in 1988, as part of a larger study of in-home medical equipment dubbed Metaforms. To solve the falling-backward problem, they settled on a footrest that, when closed, folded in under the seat, leaving the sitter with room to curl her legs under the chair as she sat down, thus bracing herself. When a sitter was fully reclined, fins flipped up, supporting her feet—like the fins on a wheelchair—and keeping them from falling asleep. The lever was banished in favor of a pneumatic control inspired by the recline buttons found on airplane seats.
But the chair’s greatest innovation was hidden: Its foam cushions were supported not by an upholstered wooden box, as was typical at the time, but by a span of plastic fabric stretched across a plastic frame. The foam could thus be thinner and more able to mold to the body. And because the foam’s backing was exposed to air, the design mitigated heat build-up.
“People became emotionally attached to that chair,” says Gary Miller, who headed Herman Miller’s R&D department at the time and eventually oversaw the Aeron project. Everyone who sat in it seemed to mention a parent or a sibling who needed it. But Herman Miller’s management balked at how futuristic it was. No one could figure out how to sell it, since there weren’t any stores selling high-design furniture to the elderly. The company was in far greater need of high-margin office chairs, so they killed the Sarah.
Stumpf and Chadwick were personally wounded, and drifted out of contact with Herman Miller for a period. Inside Herman Miller, people who’d seen the Sarah chair as well its accompanying Metaforms products grumbled that the company was being short-sighted. But eventually Herman Miller did come back to Stumpf and Chadwick, asking delicately if there were anything that could be saved from the Sarah work and applied to the office.
“They licked their wounds for some time,” says Gary Miller. “They resolved to come in with guns blazing.” Stumpf demanded one condition: that he and Chadwick could pitch directly to the executive board, rather than just the company’s design director, who had battled Stumpf over a fundamental disagreement about whether design at Herman Miller should focus on problem solving, as Stumpf believed, or on aesthetic refinement, in the vein of the old-line European furniture houses.