The search for the best desk chair.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Dec. 6 2005 1:55 PM

Sit Happens

A search for the best desk chair.

Modern office chairs have grown far too complicated. Their underbellies have sprouted gnarly forests of knobs and levers. Their instruction manuals have thickened into tomes. On occasion, new chairs are equipped with explanatory CD-ROMs. This is absurd: Since when have we needed an animated schematic to teach us how to sit on our keisters?

Answer: Roughly since 1994—the year of the Aeron.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

The debut of the Herman Miller Aeron chair revolutionized office furniture. Where executive chairs had once flaunted their acres of sumptuous, buttery leather, the Aeron was a sleek skeleton of metal and mesh. All interlocking parts and ergonomic contours. It was the perfect techno-throne for the Internet age, and in the past decade it's taken its place among the most well-known chairs in history—as recognizable as an Eames or an Adirondack.

But all fashion is fleeting. The Aeron is looking very ante-millennial these days. While its presence behind a CEO's desk once conveyed dynamism and with-it-ness, today it suggests that the office may be due for redecoration. There's precedent for this: Remember when the high-tech, overdesigned Nike sneakers of the late-1990s/early-2000s got gradually out-cooled by throwback Pumas? I predict the Aeron will likewise step aside as a slew of simpler, less nerdy office chairs ascend.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The Aeron still remains a spectacular success, sales-wise. And my mission here is not to trend-forecast. It's to find the best desk chair out there. With this in mind, I recently tried out six popular office-chair models at a variety of price points. I brought each chair into Slate's D.C. bureau to be tested—over a period of several weeks—under real-world office conditions. I assessed the chairs based on comfort, how well they adapted to multiple postures, their maneuverability around the floor, and their aesthetics, among other factors. I conducted what office managers term a "chair rodeo," asking Slatesters to try the chairs in succession and then to carefully rank their favorites. By the end of my trials, each chair had been sat on by at least seven different asses. (Or, as they prefer to be called, Slate editors.)

So, which chair is best? My findings, from worst to first:

UNSITTABLE:

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Cachet, by Steelcase, $508 This is glorified lawn furniture. There's no cushioning here—only hard plastic, which (as you might expect) looks, feels, and very much smells like plastic. The design also steals the classic lawn-chair look, with its slatted construction. Unfortunately, as with lawn chairs, your thighs get uncomfortably extruded between those rough ribbons. One of my heavier testers (a 200-pound guy, give or take) reported that the Cachet was almost unwilling to hold his weight. This thing just feels cheaply made. Five-hundy for a lawn chair with wheels? No thanks.

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Celle, by Herman Miller, $629 A lower-cost alternative from the maker of the Aeron, the Celle (pronounced "sell-a") turned out to be the Cachet's stiffest competition. By that I mean: 1) It's really stiff—with padding that is thin and hard, and 2) It sucked almost as bad. This chair is, in a word, unforgiving. The moment I sat down I wished to stand up. The tiny nubs on the chair's back pad prod into your spine, as though it were a torture device rather than a piece of task-oriented furniture. The Celle seems reluctant to recline at all, and it gets quite tippy if you force the issue. Its best feature might be its ample size and sturdiness: One Slate ster described it as a "double-wide big boy," and indeed, it appears it could easily handle an XXX-L office worker.

VERY GOOD, BUT NOT SUPERB:

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Leap, by Steelcase, $924 This is a handsome chair. I tested the black leather model—which manages to exude an executive vibe yet avoids any hint of pomposity. In addition to looking good, this leather chair is quite comfy. But it does that whoopee cushion, air-rushing-out thing when you sit down too fast. This is an embarrassing flaw, and it also makes me worry about the seat's long-term durability—I feel a more solid construction wouldn't count on the seat to compress and reinflate like this. The Leap does recline smoothly, and even at full lean its wheels remain steadily rooted to the floor. At this price, though, it ought to be a radical step forward in office furniture, and it's not—it's just the same old sit.

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Aeron, by Herman Miller, $899 Down goes the champ.

Don't get me wrong—this is a very good chair. Its "pellicle" mesh is the grippiest fabric on any of these seats, and it instantly conforms to your haunches like a futuristic hammock. Many still find the Aeron's iconic style sexy and desirable, even a decade on—at least one Slate editor coveted my sample Aeron from the moment he first laid eyes on it.

But over time, all flaws are brought to light. As I suggested above, I feel the Aeron's look is somewhat dated. There are functional problems, too. If you recline to put your feet up on your desk (my preferred office posture), the Aeron becomes seriously tippy. And if you roll around your office—say, from your desk to an adjunct reading table—you'll find the Aeron's wheels are stiffly resistant to changing direction. They don't swivel smoothly in their casters. Finally, the Aeron refuses to adapt to different sitting styles: The plastic contour rails that shape the seat will allow only standard positions. For instance, if you want to cross one leg under the other, you're out of luck, because the contour's plastic edge will dig into your ankle.

The Aeron's had a fantastic run, but it's time for another top dog.

WINNER—FOR THOSE WHO PREFER HARD, SUPPORTIVE SEAT-BACKS:

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Let's B, by Turnstone, $399 Personally, I'm not a fan of this chair. But it seemed important to make a distinction for those who (like one of my testers) have seen the decades take a toll on their backs. If you want a stiff seat-back that forces you to sit completely upright, this is the chair for you. The lower-back area on this seat is incredibly hard, with no give whatsoever. Don't bother trying to recline—you can loosen the seat-back tension to do so, but the chair doesn't seem to like it.

With its sky-blue, pilly fabric, the model I tested looked like it had been stolen from the bridge of a Star Trek ship. Undeniably cheerful, though. And my testers liked that the fabric was grippy, which prevents your bottom from sliding forward and drawing you into a slump.

Bottom line: This is a tremendous value at this price—so long as you are not inclined to recline.

OVERALL WINNER:

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Liberty, by Humanscale, $955 I can't say enough about this chair. The child of design legend Niels Diffrient (who has worked with the studios of Eero Saarinen and Henry Dreyfus), the Liberty is as functional as it is elegant. This sit is the bomb.

Let's start with the seat-back: pure mesh, with no support beams of any sort that might dig into your back. The seat-back's structure comes simply from the seams of the mesh's three-panel construction, giving the back its shape, its firmness, and its ability to conform to your body. As the Aeron previously showed us, mesh is not only attractive but reduces the chair's weight and increases its airflow (perfect for those who tend to have sweaty backs).

Me, I'm a constant recliner. There's some evidence that reclining is the preferable posture for spinal health. The further you recline, the more your weight gets transferred from your spine to the chair's back cushion. I looked for a fully reclining office chair (a design known as "zero-gravity"—like the position astronauts sit in), but it seems everybody stopped making them about five years ago (you can find zero-gravity chairs for the home here). Even though it's healthier, and for some might be more conducive to high productivity, full recline has failed to catch on—no doubt because it just looks too lazy in an office setting.

Anyway, my fellow recliners will adore the Liberty. The joy of this thing is in its lean. As your shoulders go aft, the chair-back tilts itself so as to press forward against your lumbar region (instead of leaving an unsupported gap there, as most chairs do). No matter how far you recline, the Liberty never feels at all tippy.

And, there are no knobs and levers to contend with. The Liberty is designed to use your own body weight as a counterbalance. You needn't adjust any tension settings—just lean to whichever angle you like, and the chair will comfortably stay there. It feels natural, like it's an extension of your spine.

The total lack of adjustment knobs makes a ton of sense. Most people are not the first to use their office chairs. By the time you get a third-hand chair, the settings have been messed with hundreds of times and the instruction booklet is long gone. Even if you manage to figure out what each lever does, you often feel unsure of yourself—with so many possible adjustment permutations, you always suspect that you've chosen a suboptimal mix.

My one complaint with the Liberty is that they took the anti-knob mania a step too far. There are no adjusters to raise or lower the armrests. This can be a problem when trying to pair the chair with higher or lower desk heights (or for a person with a particularly long or short humerus).

But this is nitpicking. Here we have the Aeron's logical successor. Every bit as sleek, without the superfluously techy features. The Liberty was the most expensive chair I tested, but in this case, it's well worth it to pay a bit more for the good sit. Put that Aeron on Craigslist, and slide your moneymaker into a Liberty.