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How the office chair has changed

01 August 2022

The office chair has had quite evolution over the last 4000 years

The office chairs that we use today are just the very latest examples in a process that has stretched over hundreds of years - and even further depending on how far back you really want to go.

While ergonomics is a relatively new idea, the concept of making chairs comfortable for certain kinds of jobs is one that goes back thousands of years. So the next time you sink down into that marvellous office chair with an adjustable lumbar support, back mesh and height-adjustable armrests, just remember that this is merely the latest in a long, long line of creations that have led to our modern office chairs.

Where it all began

When we think about office chairs we no doubt have in mind any kind of seating that you would find in an office, but if we go back a few thousand years, working styles were very different.

Some of the earliest known chairs that had been specifically designed to aid comfort for those working on them, came nearly 4000 years with the Egyptians. Artisans in the Kingdom of the Pharaohs used tilted stools that pushed the body forward slightly providing the optimal position for them to carry out their work.

Historians often point to Julius Caesar's use of the Curule Seat as one of the earliest known “office chairs,” but while they were certainly beautiful, it’s not exactly clear what kind of comfort value he would have gained from it and it’s often seen more as portable throne from which he carried out official business from rather than a bona fide office chair.

The Victorian Era  

You might think wheels on chairs would be an entirely modern concept, but they were already well in use in the 19th Century. Charles Darwin was said to have attached wheels to the bottom of his chair so that he could scoot quickly around his workspace and access his many specimens more easily.

The industrial revolution saw huge improvements in office chairs as a way of lowering worker fatigue and increasing productivity. Otto Von Bismark, chancellor of the North German Confederation from 1867 to 1871, was a huge fan of well-designed office chairs and insisted that they be distributed throughout the parliament while he was in power.

In 1849, things took a huge step when American inventor, Thomas E. Warren designed the Centripetal Spring Armchair which came with a swivel mechanism and castors making it surprisingly modern for the age. Made of cast iron and upholstered in velvet, the chair was unveiled at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London but sold poorly outside the United States as many in Europe still saw comfortable seating as immoral.

The 20th Century

With the Industrial Revolutions having completely changed how most people worked, the 20th Century saw the introduction of many groundbreaking designs - many of which carried features that we still use today.

In the early 1900s, Frank Lloyd designed the Larkin Building Chair which was created to help typists with comfort and posture and was also height adjustable. Unfortunately, and ironically, the chair was far from comfortable and also came with the rather negative trait of falling over easily, leading it to be eventually dubbed “the suicide chair”.

What we would consider modern ergonomics really got going in the 1970s and it was a chair designed by William Stumpf in 1976 that set a whole new benchmark for office chairs. The Ergon Chair as it was known was the first chair to be specifically designed to improve comfort for the human body and sustain physical health.

While it may have lacked the configurability of modern chairs, it did come with specifically moulded foam, complex spine support, gas-lift levers to adjust height and tilt, and five-star legs with easy-glide castors. It wasn’t exactly what we have today, but it was pretty close.

In 1994, the Aeron Chair was released, also designed by William Stumpf, in collaboration with Don Chadwich and came with more advanced materials like breathable mesh and 3D-aided design.

Into the Future  

Considering how long we have been working to find the most comfortable design, ironically, we may now be going the other way. More and more people are now shunning traditional office chairs for either active seating, or simply choosing to go without entirely and use standing desks instead.   

So does this signal the end of the road for office chairs? Well, not entirely. In 2018, the SILQ Chair was released which has completely redefined how we think about office chairs. It comes with the ability to naturally adjust to the human body without its user needing to adjust levers or handles manually. It is a truly revolutionary concept, but it’s not exactly clear how something like the SILQ, with its huge costs, is going to compete with other more cost-effective options such as standing desks.

The truth is that we spent so much time perfecting comfort we completely overlooked the damage that sitting on such comfort can do to the body. In the Victorian Era, comfortable sitting was still associated with immorality and laziness, and while that may not be the case anymore, too much comfort has come to be associated with musculoskeletal issues and other health concerns.

If we look to the future, it’s unlikely the past craze for comfort can continue unless a balance is achieved that doesn’t contribute to the growing health problems around the world. It’s all been about comfort up until this point, but we are now entering a much more health-conscious period where we are increasingly willing to give up more comfort for a healthier life.