Housewatch: Tired of Sitting? Try a Different Kind of Chair.

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, June 20, 2009

As I write this, my body posture defies easy description because I am sitting on one of Peter Opsvik's Variable Balans chairs.

It does not look like an ordinary chair. It has no back or armrests. The seat, which tilts downward, is on rockers. It has knee pads, which are also attached to the rockers. I have one foot extended forward, while my other foot rests on a knee pad. This has raised my knee, which now supports my right elbow as I tilt forward at my desk and write my first draft by longhand.

It's the sort of contorted position that I thought only a texting teenager could achieve, but it's so easy with this Variable Balans, I wasn't even aware of my raised knee until I started describing it. Though this feels a bit odd, I am quite comfortable as I gently rock back and forth. The rocking motion helps my circulation and facilitates blood flow to my brain. As any ergonomist will tell you, this should improve my mental acuity, a good enough reason for this writer to try almost any chair at least once.

I've changed position again. This time both knees rest on the knee pads, so that the angle between my thighs and torso is about 120 degrees, a much more comfortable position than the one we assume when we sit in most chairs, with our backs straight up, at a 90 degree angle with our thighs.

Given my sitting experience with the Variable Balans, you might suspect that this Norwegian designer has a complex approach to ergonomics and chair design. In fact Opsvik applies a very simple formula: "A chair should allow both balance and movement."

Opsvik explains this in some detail in the recently published American edition of his "Rethinking Sitting" (W. W. Norton, $40) -- possibly the best book I have read on chair design -- as well as on his Web site, http://www.opsvik.com.

Opsvik connects the need for balance and movement in our chairs to our basic natures. For most of human history we have been continually in motion, as we sought food and shelter. Fast-forward to 2009 in the industrialized West, and most of us spend most of our days sitting. But, he emphasizes, our need to move, squirm, fidget, turn, rock, twist and tilt remains. We need chairs that provide good balance to prevent our backs, necks, arms and hands from becoming unduly stressed. At the same time we need chairs that allow us to move because, as he put it in a recent interview, "no one stands or sits like a statue."

Opsvik's approach to ergonomics is somewhat unorthodox. He does not favor any particular sitting position. He tries to design chairs that incorporate as many of them as possible because, he said, "every sitting position is wrong after five minutes."

Opsvik does differ from American ergonomists in his focus on mobility over adjustment and his use of the feet, which he called the "ignored extremities in ergonomics."

"If you let your feet and legs control the movement of a chair, instead of doing it by moving your torso," he went onto explain, "you will move more easily and you will be more comfortable."

Opsvik developed his Variable Balans design in 1979. He has since refined it, adding modifications such as a backrest to the Thatsit Balans that allows you to lean back or sit sidesaddle.

At the end of his own workday, Opsvik heads for his Gravity Balans, which is larger than the others in his Balans series, with angled rockers. In it, you can sit upright to work on a laptop, read, watch TV, nap or sit at a dining table. When this chair is tilted all the way backward, I can personally attest that a sitter will be as close to weightlessness as is likely possible for an earth-bound non-astronaut.


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