When Choosing Chairs, Take Your Office Attitude Home With You

The Caper chair, designed by Bill Stumpf, weighs nine pounds and comes in several bright colors.
The Caper chair, designed by Bill Stumpf, weighs nine pounds and comes in several bright colors. (By Herman Miller)

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, May 21, 2005

Bill Stumpf has spent his professional life designing chairs that are comfortable and good for your body. This may not seem so unusual, but when he started nearly 40 years ago, it was a novel concept.

Stumpf was one of the first industrial designers to apply rigorous ergonomic analysis to furniture design; his early work was with office furniture.

Part of his research included hours of observing what felt comfortable to people of widely differing body types, as well as working with orthopedists and vascular specialists to understand the physiological effects of sitting for long periods.

The Ergon, his first office chair, was introduced in 1977. It looked odd, and it didn't gain wide acceptance initially. But over time, office workers and their employers began to understand the rationale behind the funny shape. This chair not only was more comfortable but also helped them perform their jobs more effectively, because when they sat in it they assumed a posture that reduced fatigue. At the end of the day, they were far less tired.

Twenty-eight years and many office chair designs later, a look around any office shows that Stumpf's approach to chair design has transformed the work environment. But most people have yet to apply the lessons learned about chair comfort at work to their furniture choices at home, Stumpf said in a recent interview.

There is plenty of comfortable and ergonomically sound furniture available, but most people put looks first, he said.

Unfortunately, when looks become the main criterion for selection, people end up with a houseful of furniture that doesn't fit them, Stumpf said. The seats are too high or too low for their body type, the cushions are too soft to offer back support or too hard, with no give at all.

The notable exception is a La-Z-Boy-type recliner. Its popularity attests to its comfort, not its beauty. It's big and clunky and a lot of people, including designers, think it's disgusting, Stumpf said. But even casual observation shows that it accommodates the position that most people want to assume when they come home from work -- semi-reclined with their feet raised.

When there's no La-Z-Boy in the house, most people do the next best thing: sit in a chair or on a sofa, take off their shoes and put their feet up on a coffee table.

When buying other furniture, people should use the same intuitive sense of comfort that led them to the La-Z-Boy purchase, Stumpf said. You don't have to be scientific as you try out different chairs. The sensation of comfort will register immediately, just as you sense right away that a room is too hot or too cold.

When you find a chair with "true comfort," however, you won't sense anything -- with this degree of comfort, you won't feel a thing. Stumpf said: "True comfort is the absence of awareness. If your shoes are comfortable you're not aware they're on. If the water is pure you can't taste it. Similarly when a chair is a perfect fit for your body, it becomes 'invisible' and you're not aware of it at all. You may not find that many chairs with true comfort, but there's many that come mighty close."

The try-them-out approach is the best test, but Stumpf offered a few tips. The secret to creating true comfort in a chair is biomorphic contouring of the seat. As Stumpf explained it, "You can sit on a flat board for about half an hour before you start to squirm. If you add a foam pad you can go for another 10 minutes. But if you contour the wood and put a curve that's the shape of your buttocks, you can sit much longer. A chair can be simple and even Spartan-looking but very comfortable if it is contoured correctly."

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