Bottom line: From Sigmund Freud’s handmade seat (second left), office chairs have become elaborate affairs designed to boost productivity
In the beginning, there was wood, cast iron and—if you were lucky—rattan. Until the mid-19th century, white-collar workers sat on dining chairs: stiff four-legged hulks borrowed from the homes where many small businesses were still based. Then came the railways, linking coast to coast, city to city, suppliers to markets and capital to everything. In their wake mushroomed purpose-built office buildings; companies with shareholders and management hierarchies; rooms filled with tens or hundreds of clerks, typists and administrative assistants. This new world demanded new and unnatural feats of endurance and immobility, and furniture duly evolved to enable them. In the 1850s, the primordial dining suites sprouted rolling castors and swivelling seats. The office chair was born.
We may spend more time with them than with our partners, pets, friends or, most days, our mattresses, but most of us give little thought to the cocktails of polypropylene, aluminium and nylon mesh we’re pressed to for eight-plus hours daily. The strongest reaction they provoke is tame delinquency on the liberating-stationery or borrowing-milk level: wheeling down hallways after hours, sneaking a colleague’s coveted “special” seat. Yet in their neglected 160-year history we can, apparently, trace the story of modern capitalism—and our own development from hunched corporate minion to ergonomically liberated, autonomous “associate.”
Design consultant Jonathan Olivares is on a mission to rescue office chairs from our thoughtless lack of fascination with them. His new book, A Taxonomy of Office Chairs (Phaidon Press) is an Origin of Species for Aeron freaks: “the first taxonomy of an industrialised object,” he claims. (It’s no coincidence that his first example of a work chair on wheels is a William-IV-style armchair modified by Charles Darwin for his study in the 1840s “so he could move from specimen to specimen with greater ease.”) Olivares offers a teleological view of our progress from Peter Van Eyck’s bare-bones, laconically-named “Sitting Chair” of 1853 to the advent, in 2009, of Formway’s Generation (below, far right). This multi-directionally flexing, electromagnetically welded wonder supports a range of casual postures from the classic slacker recline to reverse straddles and sideways yogic contortions—none of which you’d want to witness at 9.45am on a Monday.
The trouble is that all the supposed humanism of such $800 designs (which in any case haven’t yet made it to the offices of magazines) stems from a single imperative: increasing productivity. The “ergonomic revolution” of the late 1970s and 1980s was driven by fear of litigation and the soaring cost of back and neck injury—the same factors that, until recently, saw even mid-range companies tremulously shelling out for high-end Pilates lessons, onsite physiotherapy and chair massages at the mere mention of RSI.
Earlier employers were harder-nosed. Apart from the flamboyant chairs created for the CEOs and the wealthy—such as the handmade, totemic chair Sigmund Freud commissioned for his Vienna office in 1926 (above, second left)—early models made little attempt to disguise the view of workers as disposable, interchangeable drones. The austere clerical stools captured in a 1924 photograph of the US Government Bonus Bureau are rigid and inflexible, offering only adjustable seat height so that shifts of employees could occupy the same chair. Man is most definitely serving machine.
The 21st-century generation of chairs, in contrast, promise the ultimate in personalised comfort. Head and arm rests, lumbar supports, seat height and tilt, backrest angle and resistance—all are adjustable to your own dimensions and preferences, offering a perfect simulacrum of individuality and freedom. From these lofty customised perches, we can pity our enslaved forebears: with luxury for all and seating hierarchies flattened, we’ve arrived at the perfect democratic workplace.
But real life is more like Joshua Ferris’s 2007 tragicomic novel Then We Came to the End, in which employees steal, exchange and haggle over marginally superior chairs vacated by fired colleagues. Inequality is built right into our office chairs—from their promise of a slight advantage over a deskmate to their mass-production by far-away workers who will never get to strike a studiedly casual pose in one.
Olivares’s aim, as with Alain de Botton’s specious odyssey in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, may be to reveal the wondrous in the seemingly mundane—but he’s similarly unconvincing. The publishers proudly describe A Taxonomy of Office Chairs as “insanely geeky,” a design-junkie’s counterpart to the postcards of boring towns beloved of noughties hipsters. But even the most diligent reader must falter somewhere between “Single Connection to Backrest with Posts” and “Backrest and Seat Tilt on Four Pivot Points.” Olivares and his team of researchers devoted four years to tracking down, analysing and cataloguing tiny modulations in office furniture. It’s the kind of repetitive, extravagantly pointless task with which the corporate world has made us all familiar—the perfect partner to any office chair from 1850 to the present day.