Most trade show participants spend hours walking the exhibit hall floors, but at last week’s NeCon show, many of the 40,000 attendees spent their time sitting.
Based on the myriad chair designs displayed at the Chicago design confab, the quest for a truly comfortable office chair continues in earnest for consumers as well as the industrial designers, anthropologists, psychologists and manufacturers who spend years trying to bring such a seat to market.
It’s not an easy task, experts say, and it involves millions of dollars and extensive research into kinesiology, or the way in which people move. There are also the realities of people themselves: Some are petite, some morbidly obese. Some sit on the edge of their seats when they work, and others lean back. And most workers, ergonomics experts agree, sit too much.
“If you sit in the wrong posture for too long a period, no chair in the world is going to help you,” said Cindy Roth, president of Ergonomic Technologies Corp. “The human body was not meant to sit for two to three hours at a time.”
The good news: There’s a chair for everyone.
The bad news: The best chair may be cost-prohibitive. And because companies order chairs in bulk, some employees might get their dream seats while their co-workers experience the same chairs as torture devices.
In a survey this year, Staples Inc. found that almost half of people gave the comfort of their office chair a grade of C or lower. More than half said that if they could do one thing to improve their workplace, it would be to ask for a better chair.
“A chair is the most intimate piece of furniture you’ll ever own,” said Mark Schurman, a spokesman at furniture maker Herman Miller Inc. “It’s really tricky to find the natural motion. It’s the art and the science, and the challenge is to get both right.”
The latest chair trends borrow not only from European design but also from the home. The result is chairs with cleaner, simpler lines that have a more residential feel to them.
And they can carry high price tags. This month, Haworth Inc. announced a partnership with Crate & Barrel to begin selling a version of its Very Task chair for $999.
Herman Miller, which has sold more than 6 million of its Aeron chairs since their 1995 introduction (God sits in one in a 2005 episode of “The Simpsons”), showcased a chair — the $399 Sayl — modeled on the suspension design principles used in the Golden Gate Bridge.
There are chairs made for larger users, such as one from Neutral Posture Inc. for people who weigh 300 to 500 pounds. For the environmentally conscious, there are chairs made of recycled content and that are themselves recyclable.
The Luce and Leopard chairs from Okamura Corp. lean forward when empty so they can absorb some of the impact as a person sits down. As a person leans forward to stand, the seat pitches forward again, which makes it difficult to sit on the edge of the seat. The chairs are priced at $730 to $2,400 apiece.
Chair manufacturers say that no chair is comfortable for hours on end, and that a combination of sitting and standing at work may produce the best result. Women, Roth said, need to stop crossing their legs, while men need to stop leaning back, putting one leg over the other and balancing a keyboard on their legs. She also recommends a chair with arms.
And when it comes to testing a chair, take your time, companies advise.
“A quick sit may be the worst test you can do,” said Tom DeBoer, a Haworth product manager. “A lot of times the ones that are comfortable initially may not be comfortable all day long.”
Herman Miller’s Schurman agrees: “It’s a little bit like buying a bed. Spend an hour.”

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