Recall, if you can, circa 2019, when American offices were bustling with real, live people, each one seated in a slender black-mesh, ergonomic “task” chair.
Now, cast your eyes into your home office: an ergonomic office chair. Switch on “Billions,” “The Morning Show” or “The Intern” and there it is again.
Come to think of it, it was somehow always there on shows like “24,” “Ally McBeal,” “Sex and the City” and “Gossip Girl.”
Oh wow, is there even one at your dining room table? How did that chair get everywhere?
Blame Humanscale, a leading industry manufacturer of ergonomic chairs, and their Freedom chair, designed by Niels Diffrient.
Once restricted to mass office sales only, the brand saw its business triple during the pandemic as it opened up sales to home offices for the first time.
But long before COVID-19, their sculpted, recycled-plastic chair (which retails for $1,049) had already become a defining symbol of white-collar professionalism thanks to Harold Randall, owner of Product Co-Stars, a supplier of product placement for set designs.
He spotted the Freedom chair just before it launched in 1999 at a trade show in LA, recognizing that it was the perfect chair for highly driven, ruthlessly successful characters.
“From the very beginning, the Freedom chair was a winner with set decorators and production designers,” Randall said. “It’s been good to me!”
Life quickly imitated art. The chair is now found in almost every Fortune 100 Company and is used by everyone from Barack Obama to Prince William and Mark Cuban.
But the history of the ergonomic chair goes back to the 1970s, with the introduction of the Ergon chair, a product of visionary designer, Bill Stumpf for Herman Miller. Stumpf and Don Chadwick went on to design the best-selling Aeron chair, released in 1994.
Stumpf’s first chair was developed after years of studying X-rays of the way people sit and it debuted just as computer technology was changing the way Americans worked.
In fact, according to the American Heart Association, sedentary jobs have risen by 83 percent since 1950.
Constantin Boym, chair of Pratt’s Industrial Design department, explains that the ergonomic chair represented a shift in seating. For the first time the chair became “a machine for sitting — another piece of equipment, on par with a computer, a printer, task light and other work-related paraphernalia” — rather than just a piece of decorative and functional furniture.
But not everyone is in love with this hot seat.
“Too often, task chairs look like devices meant to fold us up,” said designer Celerie Kemble, who has softened the aesthetics of task chairs by re-upholstering them in decorative fabrics. “I don’t like being caught in the reproachful glare of an empty work chair in my home. I’d much rather work from a chair that calls itself a ‘reading chair.’ ”
Nevertheless, the most ubiquitous of chairs is only becoming more established as a fixture, not just of the office, but of the home.
“I think chairs have become an easy way to communicate a status or lifestyle, and more specifically a level of comfort,” said Leena Jain, Humanscale’s Chief Marketing Officer. “We have overwhelmingly heard from our customers that ergonomic chairs are an important part of creating a productive, healthy workspace. If we aren’t supported correctly and comfortably, productivity absolutely takes a hit.”