Jan 032013

It’s hard today to separate the thought of office work from the image of the mesh-backed computer chair. They’ve become an iconic staple of the forward-thinking business. However, the origin of mesh chairs had a much different focus.

The Sarah Chair

Mesh ChairAt the office furniture design firm, Herman Miller, two designers, Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick, were determined to make a better chair for the elderly. What was used in hospitals and living rooms alike to seat the elderly whether receiving dialysis or watching the tube was the La-Z-Boy. Despite its popularity, the La-Z-Boy was not well suited for the task. It required users to fall back into it (or perform a rather athletic squat) because the footrest didn’t allow users to get their feet directly under them while sitting. The lever to elevate the footrest was also difficult to manipulate. Finally, the foam stuffing spread the user’s weight unevenly while not allowing the material to breathe, causing the retention of heat and moisture. With these operational difficulties and potential for bedsores, Stumpf and Chadwick set out to address these issues.

Their eventual answer was the Sarah Chair. The footrest of the Sarah tucked fully beneath the seat, so there was room for users to put their feet to support their weight while getting into and out of the chair. The footrest itself was a set of fins, like those on a wheelchair, which supported the bottom of the foot rather than pressing up against the calves. This helped maintain circulation through the legs. Finally, instead of relying on a wooden box spring to support the upholstery, the Sarah Chair was built on a mesh of plastic fibers stretched across a plastic frame. Thinner padding could be used because the mesh provided support that could contour to the body.

Despite the success of the design, the marketers at Herman Miller couldn’t figure out how to sell a high-end chair for the elderly, so the project was scrapped.

Redesigning the Office

Although the Sarah wasn’t pursued, developers asked Stumpf and Chadwick if any part of the design could be repurposed for an office chair. After examining how office workers positioned themselves throughout the day, the designers found that workers moved through a variety of postures, leaned back, held keyboards in their laps, and so on. Seeing this, they kept the reclining feature of the Sarah, which allowed for the seat and chair back to move independently to open the chair up rather than tilt the chair up. They also discarded all of the foam padding because they believed the right mesh would mold to a person’s body. Eventually, the Sarah gave birth to the Aeron Chair. Although the strange-looking design was a hard sell to executives at first, it was finally accepted.

The public was more enthusiastic. The ergonomics, the streamlining, and the economy all caught on fast. With the success of the Aeron Chair, mesh chairs began to be developed by other companies, and offices embraced their airiness and modern style of these innovations. Unlike traditional leather chairs, mesh designs were often highly adjustable office chairs, making them a better investment for offices and a more comfortable option for workers. Today there are countless models of mesh chairs for office workers to choose from.