Tender loving chairs

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 February, 2011, 12:00am

In our risk-averse society, it seems danger lurks everywhere. Even our office environment comes under scrutiny. You know the drill: is your work chair the right size for your body type? Does it offer lumbar support? Allow your feet to rest comfortably on the floor? Tilt or swivel easily while performing tasks at your desk? If you didn't answer yes to all of the above, you could be on the path to poor posture, which can lead to tension, back pain and joint problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome. But where's the inspiration if our work space looks too clinical?

Some new designs are more out there than others. A Gaiam Balance Ball chair, anyone? (online price US$99). Combining office work with a workout, its aim is to balance the body and engage the core, promoting good posture. Besides, 'it's just plain fun bouncing in the chair occasionally,' says one devotee, who claims to have been relieved of back pain (blogger WebChicklet).

Some make extravagant claims. The Think chair by Steelcase (HK$4,000) is described as 'the chair with a brain and a conscience'. If you believe the marketing spiel, it's 'intelligent enough to understand how you sit and adjust itself intuitively', and 'thoughtful enough to measure and minimise its lifelong impact on the environment'. Right.

Steelcase also makes the ergonomically sound and environmentally friendly Leap chair (HK$6,000), the Amia (HK$4,600) and the Node, a modern take on the classroom chair, budget priced at HK$3,000. All enjoy a strong following.

The ON chair by German company Wilkhahn (from HK$5,000 to HK$15,000, depending on specification and finish detail) is billed as the world's first 3-D chair, mirroring the natural functions and position of the body's hip and knee joints. But that's not the only reason Adam Mundy, director, design international for architecture firm M Moser Associates, chose it.

'The chair suits the differing styles of my work,' he says. 'I can lock it in position for correct posture when I need to complete computer-based tasks. When I am on the phone the chair reclines and relaxes, while still supporting my back. The flexible movement of the seat and back allows me to move freely in the seated position, giving great support ... and to be honest, it looks pretty cool.'

Journalist Chan Keng-siew loves the Embody (Balance Textile, HK$15,015), designed for people who work for hours at computers. Its design, which suits small or large frames and offers armrest-width and seat-depth adjustments - features not commonly found in other chairs - was created for Herman Miller by Jeff Weber and the late Bill Stumpf, who acknowledged that although we should all exercise more, the truth is that we don't.

Choosing a work chair is a personal decision. Take the iconic Aeron, the so-called perfect office chair, also designed by Stumpf, with Don Chadwick, for Herman Miller. It was the first chair to lose the foam, introducing the Pellicle, a specially woven seat and back suspension material that conforms to and cradles an individual's frame. The Aeron (from HK$8,085), which has won many awards and is perhaps the best-selling office chair in the world, is displayed permanently at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Still, not everyone is a fan. Could this be because of our different body shapes? According to chiropractor Jeffrey Lau, there is no such thing as one size fits all when it comes to the chair we spend most of the day in.

'When a person sits on the chair with the low back touching and fully supported by the lumbar support, the back of the knee should have about a 5cm space from the edge of the seat,' he explains.

So it pays to do some Goldilocks-like experimentation. Tall people may love it that the Aeron chair, available in three sizes, can maintain their upright posture securely. The Eames office chair (high back HK$18,370), with its wide seat 'for extra comfort', may be just right for some, while the more diminutive, lighter Setu (HK$5,190), also by Herman Miller, might be preferred by the smaller-framed.

How hard can it be to design a task chair? 'Pretty hard,' says Yves Behar, celebrated industrial designer and founder of fuseproject, the San Francisco-based design and branding company he established in 1999. Behar recently collaborated with Herman Miller to design his first office chair, the Sayl. He describes the process as 'the perfect storm of everything that's complex about design'.

'It's the ergonomics, it's the way it looks, it's the materials - and doing it in an innovative way that hasn't been attempted before,' Behar says. There might be 10,000 chairs out there, but most look like 9,000 other chairs. 'It's the first project designers are supposed to do and, in my opinion, it's the last one I should do because it's the hardest.'

A key feature of the Sayl is its down-to-earth price. Available in Hong Kong late next month, the Sayl range is expected to sell for HK$3,600 to HK$6,600. Jeremy Hocking, vice-president Asia-Pacific for Herman Miller, describes this price point as a breakthrough.

'The affordability of Sayl will inspire and challenge the market because it's the first highly ergonomic chair with a gorgeous design at an accessible price,' he says. 'However, that price point is made possible through fantastic engineering and what we call eco-dematerialised design. Sayl has been designed to use less material in inventive ways. I think we'll see this concept cause a big shift in the market and expectation for task chairs.'

Developed by a team of designers, ergonomists and engineering consultants, the Sayl has a shaped back that mimics the curvature of the spine. The material is thicker in places that need more support - the spine, lumbar, sacral areas - and more flexible in those that require more movement (the sides, and upper back areas).

Hocking then talks anthropometrics - the measurement of human bodies. 'Herman Miller goes way beyond designing for people of a range of heights,' he says. 'We are concerned with a range of body shapes and the size and relationships of the different parts of the body.

'Our chairs are designed to fit females in the lowest percentile of sizes and weights, all the way to males in the highest percentiles. With Sayl, we accomplish a lot with the fine-tune adjustments that each individual user can make to the chair. It offers height and tilt adjustability, a seat pan that moves forward and back, tension adjustments for the back, and adjustable armrests.'

So the art of designing a work chair has been elevated to a science. It's a shift welcomed by chiropractor Lau, whose words will strike a chord with most of us desk-jockeys when he warns that hours on end in an incorrect chair can leave our bodies with a forward hunch - and surely that's not a good look?

Come in and pull up a seat

Think, Leap, Amia and Node chairs from Steelcase WorkLife Hong Kong, 15F Kinwick Centre, 32 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 2520 0160; www.steelcase.asia

Sayl, Aeron, The Embody and Eames office chair, all by Herman Miller, available at POSH Office Systems, 18/F Sui On Centre, 188 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2816 2282; www.posh.com.hk

Wilkhahn chairs from Wilkhahn Forum, Shui On Centre, Unit 907, 6-8 Harbour Road, Wan Chai, tel: 28270800; www.wilkahn.com

Gaiam Balance Ball chair from www.gaiam.com