It’s an odd time in the history of the office chair. On the one hand, as businesses become more and more mobile, on-the-go work trends are changing office spaces making way for open-plan offices, standing tables and hand-in-hand with a wave of awakening to our increasingly sedentary lives, people are embracing lives of as little sitting as possible. Yet, on the other hand, it’s also a time when legendary furniture brand IKEA is all set to launch an super customisable, ultra-ergonomic chair “for the world’s most extreme sitters”. Apparently there’s space for both extremes.
History tells us that as far back as the time of Roman Empire under Julius Caesar saw the ruler using a curule chair, which was probably one of the first “office chairs” that he took everywhere with him. A look at the way in which the office chair has evolved, is a telling story of the way in which humans have evolved as a species. As we have moved from purely agrarian lives that were spent on the move, tilling the land, to the Industrial Revolution that forced us indoors a fair bit, to increasingly sedentary lives where businesses and home scenes saw chairs of all sorts keeping us sitting a whole lot more. At the workplace, the chair was one of the key tools in helping to keep employees chasing sales and industrial targets, thereby spending more time at work.Cosmetically and ergonomically, the office chair has moved huge leaps ahead from then, impacting human productivity and office decor alike.
It is said that seems the earliest swivel chair was the one in which Thomas Jefferson drafted the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776! The Centripetal chair gained popularity as the quintessential American armchair and formed the basis for what was to become the modern office chair. Otto von Bismarck, said to be another ardent supporter of the office chair,apparently distributed huge numbers of them in his parliament. By 1851, it was even seeded amongst the a greater population in London, thus setting off a journey of its evolution in design and looks, while still addressing the some fundamental issue that sparked its invention: providing a comfortable way to sit while at work.
Renowned architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to design a chair for the Larkin Administrative Building. This chair was developed to be the staple for typists but was soon discovered to be unpredictable, and unstable, and gained the name “suicide chair” before its use was ramped down.
The 1920s Wassily chair designed by Marcel Breuer continues to this day, to be one of the most well-designed and balanced chairs. Along with the Barcelona chair, both still sold by Knoll, are legendary milestones in this journey. By 1939, Artek Alvar Aalto’s Lounge Chair 406 made an appearance and continues to be a timeless piece of furniture that provides extreme comfort for its extremely minimalist design. It also formed the framework for many other inspired creations. Possibly one of the first innovations in the bucket-style, the Tulip chair, which came around in 1956 has since become an iconic element in offices. It was first introduced in the office of the Knoll Company in New York City.
It’s impossible to discuss the journey of the office chair without talking about Charle’s Ray and Eames, who ushered in the era of moulded plywood used with leather and/or fabric for Herman Miller. The classic lounge chair along with an ottoman are still hugely coveted designs. An office variant of this, made in moulded plastic and raised on castor wheels was introduced in 1950.
With multiplying chairs in so many variants, it wasn’t long before someone sorted the storage issue. In 1964, David Rowland designed the 40/4 stacking chair that even to this day forms the standard prototype for all stackable chairs. Herman Miller’s Aeron Chair – still America’s best-selling chair – made its appearance in 1992 and has changed the face of the office chair ever since with its modifications to the swivel, tilt and incline, as well as the height adjustments. It’s going to be interesting to watch where we go from here, particularly since workspaces are employing emerging trends of eschewing chairs altogether!