Finding an Ergonomic Computer Chair

Buying an Ergonomic Chair from Herman Miller

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With an aging population spending hours in front of a computer, ergonomic seating solutions have become as common as ergonomic keyboard choices

Although many people continue to use chairs covered with leatherette that starts peeling off after a couple of years, an increasing number are looking for alternatives. Although kneeling chairs are no longer popular, the health-conscious can choose standing workstations, as well as an array of chairs that are all described as ergonomic – often on doubtful authority. Among these ergonomic chairs, the Herman Miller line stands out as one of the few that seems to deliver exactly what it claims.

Buyers can be excused for being skeptical about chairs labeled “ergonomic.” In recent years, the label has become almost as universal as “gluten free” has become in the grocery store. Yet, the validity of the label has never been seriously challenged. Consumer reports seem to rely on marketing collateral more than first-hand experience, and scientific studies rarely go beyond unsupported endorsements from chiropractors. Under these conditions, cynics can be forgiven if the idea of an ergonomic chair seems no more than an excuse for charging $500–$2,500 for an otherwise ordinary chair.

In the end, the only solution is to play Goldilocks for a couple of hours (“That chair has too little support, that one too much, but this one is just right”) at a local furniture store with tolerant staff. This practice is so common that when I was doing so, three other people were doing the same. After all, bodies differ, and what suits one person may not suit another.

Before trying out chairs, I had never heard of Herman Miller. Somehow, I had missed their popularity in high-tech offices, probably because I had always considered one chair much like another. However, after I found myself consistently preferring the company’s line of chairs over those of Steelcase or ErgoHuman, I did a little research.

Under various names, Herman Miller Inc. dates back to 1905. For its first few decades, it designed wood furniture. However, in 1930, the company began producing modernist designs. Among its well-known designs are the Eames lounge chair, which is cupped in a layer of wood veneer, and the marshmallow couch, whose back and seat consist of brightly colored cylinders. The company continues to be a leader in modernist furniture to this day.

Even before you sit in a Herman Miller chair, several of the company’s practices may incline you to trust its products. To start, the names of its designers are released with its products, which means that someone’s reputation is on the line. For another, Herman Miller is one of the few manufacturers of ergonomic chairs that releases papers about design philosophy, giving some indicators of what to look for in its products. Most importantly, Herman Miller’s ergonomic chairs have a 12-year warranty on all parts, in contrast to the three years offered for some parts by Steelcase or the five years for some parts and complete lack of warranty for armpads by ErgoHuman, which suggests that Herman Miller has unusual faith in its products.

Still, the proof is in the sitting. Below is my experience of Herman Miller’s four main ergonomic chairs: the Aeron, Embody, Mirra 2, and Sayl. Yours may vary, but my experience might give you some guidelines.

Aeron

The Aeron chair (Figure 1) was designed by Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf in 1994 and remastered by Chadwick 20 years later. One of the first chairs to be sold as ergonomic, it has literally become legendary. One story is that the mesh on the first chairs chewed the wool of suits. Another is that in its first years, the Aeron was often bought by companies for low-ranking employees, since it lacked the overstuffed cushions that were a traditional mark of status. Around the turn of the millennium, it was the chair of choice in dot-com startups, and after the market crashed, second-hand Aerons were widely available for a couple of years. The chair is available in three sizes.

Figure 1: The Aeron chair that started the ergonomics trend.

Despite the Aeron’s reputation, for me, the remastered chair was mildly disappointing. I barely noticed its back support, and, even with its seat angle adjustment, one suitable for my height still sat me too far back for comfortable typing, forcing me to lean forward – which defeats the point of the ergonomic features. Additionally, even though I put features above cosmetics, the fact that it is available only in shades of gray makes the Aeron seem dull. If someone were to give me an Aeron chair, I wouldn’t complain, but it would not be my first choice.

Embody

Herman Miller’s top-of-the-line chair, the Embody, is a corporate chair concealing ergonomics under a layer of executive upholstery (Figure 2). Designed by Jeff Weber and Bill Stumpf in 2009, the Embody has the ambitious intent of not only negating the negative effects of sitting, but of having “positive effects” on the human body. Among those effects is supposed to be an even distribution of pressure, an improved oxygen flow while seated, and the encouragement of healthy movement and natural alignment of the body.

Figure 2: Herman Miller’s top-of-the-line chair.

These are ambitious goals, but, for me, the Embody is a chair that has been over-thought. Although it is far more comfortable than the Aeron, none of the intended goals seemed particularly noticeable when I sat in it for 15 minutes.

In fact, the Embody seemed to have conflicting goals of ergonomics and corporate prestige. In particular, the back, which looks like an abstract sculpture of a spine and ribs, gives strong support and deserves to be displayed. Yet, because of the upholstery, it only functioned when I leaned back heavily. Still, the design has been repeatedly praised, so my reaction may not be typical.

Mirra 2

The Mirra 2 (Figure 3) is what I would expect from the design philosophy of the Embody, except at a price slightly below the Aeron’s. Originally made by the German designers of Studio 7.5, an updated version of the original 2003 chair was released a decade later. The intent is to have a chair designed for people who are constantly in action, either rising, sitting, or scooting across the floor on its casters, and the design seems to meet this goal almost perfectly.

Figure 3: Like most modern designs, the Mirra 2 shows its structure.

The back support of the Mirra 2 is different from the Embody’s, but the lack of upholstery makes it much more effective; when I stood after trying the Mirra 2, my own back had noticeably relaxed, unlike with the Aeron or the Embody.

Tall and thin, with a visible back, the Mirra 2 is everything a modernist design should be, except that its selection of colors tends to the drab and fits nothing around my workstation. All the same, I suspect that the Mirra 2 would be on the short list of most buyers.

Sayl

The entry-level version of the Sayl chair (Figure 4) is two-thirds the price of the Aeron and Mirra 2 and half the price of the Embody. Yet, despite that, it can more than hold its own against the rest of the Herman Miller line, both in function and appearance.

Figure 4: The most stylish of the Herman Miller chairs, the Sayl offers the support of other models at a much lower price.

Yves Béhar, the designer, was inspired by looking out his window at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, with its suspension cables radiating out from central columns. The result is a back that was the most comfortable of all the chairs I tried – especially with added lumbar support – and one of the most elegant to the eye. Buyers can conceal the back with upholstery, but who would want to, when the Sayl offers such a bold and original design?

The Sayl also offers an environmentally friendly reduction in materials and non-recyclable parts, as well as a wide array of color choices.

With all these features, the Sayl has quickly become one of the most popular members of the Herman Miller line. I was no more immune than anyone else, and in the end, that was what I bought, after returning half a dozen times to the Mirra 2 for comparison.

Choices, Always Choices

All these chairs start with a basic model. However, a fully loaded chair with all the options can double the price. Some of these features are cosmetic, such as the color of the upholstery and the armpads, the color of the frame, or the size of the casters.

Others, however, are more practical. For example, the arms of chairs can be stationary, adjustable up and down, or fully adjustable up, down, and angled. Some chairs also allow the seat to tilt forward, which allows you to remain in contact with the back of the chair while typing. Others offer increased back support, which I would recommend as a matter of course.

If, like me, you had never imagined that chairs could have so many options, these choices can be overwhelming. Fortunately, both Herman Miller and a number of its resellers have online configurators, where you can see what a chair looks like with your choices, as well as how your preferences affect the cost.

Assuming my experience is typical, as you learn more, you may find yourself wanting more options than you anticipated and face spending considerably more than you expected. If so, you might want to look around for local companies that sell used chairs, or look for resellers on Craig’s List or eBay. Be warned, though, that Herman Miller chairs keep much of their value, even secondhand, and a $200 Aeron chair is likely to be battered and decrepit.

However, if you do decide to buy new, expect four to six weeks for delivery, because the options mean that each chair has to be assembled separately.

Herman Miller undoubtedly plays heavily on its audience, naming designers to position its chairs as works of art, offering options like those of a new car, and appealing to environmentalism and trendiness. Yet all these appeals are available at no greater cost than comparable chairs made by other manufacturers. In the end, what matters is that the 8 to 12 hours each day you spend at the keyboard will be more comfortable for sitting in these chairs. Just be sure that you ignore the promotional lures and test the chairs for yourself.

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