Sitting comfortably?

Is your job causing you pain and anxiety? More often than not, it's not the work itself, but the design of the chair you sit on.

The Aeron chair from Herman Miller
The Aeron chair from Herman Miller

Is your job causing you pain and anxiety? More often than not, it's not the work itself, but the design of the chair you sit on.

Office chair design today is more than just a simple 'bum-on-seat' concept, where bright colours and deep cushioning would suffice. Now that employees are spending more time at their desks than ever before, office chair design has developed to become an integral part of the whole interior.

"Chairs are a dominant part of every interior concept," said Bassem Demachkie, marketing and communication at Officeland - distributors of office furniture.

"A chair, apart from a bed, is the single piece of furniture that comes into regular contact with the human body. Consequently, the look and feel of seating furniture subconsciously influences the way we perceive a room, whether it's ‘inviting', ‘comfortable', ‘cozy' or generally positive."

Interiors, including furnishings, effect people's perception of those spaces, their sense of well-being, and their sense of the style and culture of the organisation for which they work.

"People make judgements (consciously or sub-consciously) of a business and their care and concern for employees based on what they observe in the interior.

Chairs, that are perceived to be comfortable and visually well designed will influence others perceptions of an organisation," said Mark Schurman, director of external communications at Herman Miller.

Design

Identifying the purpose is the first step in the designing of an office chair, whether it is designed to cater for call centres, architects, journalists or engineers, each of these occupations have different requirements.

"Different jobs require employees to sit on an office chair for dissimilar lengths of time and are likely to be using the chair quite differently. For design and functionality to have a common ground, the target audience or ‘end user' is most important," said Siddarth Peter, managing director of The Total Office.

In terms of design this is dependent on each individual client's needs. When considering an office chair for general staff the ‘must haves' are, height, seat depth, tension control, lumbar support and arm rests.

The easier you can have these adjusted, the faster the end user gets accustomed to using all the functionality available to them," said Peter.

The use of materials is also important, with many designers having moved away from plastic armrests and simple foam cushioning, instead opting for something a little more stylish and up-to-date.

"Aluminium or matt-finished metal surfaces outdate polished and chromed surfaces, and mesh materials are being used for seats and backrests - these seem to gain a higher market share compared to upholstered cushions," said Demachkie.

"SATO Office, for example, develops office seating of long lasting quality. A standard office chair is used between eight and ten years on average. Some of our most successful chairs are in the market for over ten years and still rising in sales figures each year.

Product design focuses on timeless, neutral and still highly valuable perception and long lasting materials," he added.

Manufacturers on the other hand have slightly different objectives when it comes to office chair design, and aim to offer additional values to the product, such as stackability, sustainability, collaborations with designer fabrics and ergonomically driven trends.

"Office chair design is completely dictated by the client. As much as any manufacturer would like to set the trend, the success and failure depends on a variety of marketing techniques along with the right model for the region," said Peter.

"The UAE for example, at present is moving from fabric upholstered task chairs to the more design oriented see-through mesh. The perception of mesh chairs adds an air of transparency and design to the company and its ways. A perception this region is very desperately seeking," he added.

Ergonomics

Ergonomics is the science of designing the job, equipment, and workplace to fit the worker. Proper ergonomic design is necessary to prevent repetitive strain injuries, which can develop over time and in a worst-case scenario, lead to long-term disability - reminders of the effect of a poorly designed office chair and work space can have on the body.

"We believe that automatic adjustments of office chairs will gain importance in the future. ‘Seating machines' with a maximum number of adjustments, levers and controls will slowly but surely lose the consumer's attention within the next 5 to ten years. Materials will become lighter and general handling much easier," said Demachkie.

"‘Intelligent' chairs therefore, with increasingly transparent looks but complex mechanisms will allow the user to focus on his actual work, instead of adjusting heights, weights and angles," he added.

There are six aspects of ergonomics: safety, comfort, ease of use, productivity, performance, and aesthetics, and there are a number of office chairs designed to fit the bill perfectly.

"The effects pursued by SATO's and formerly Grammer's chair design has always been to offer a maximum of movement and comfort to those who have to spent most of their working time seated at desks," said Demachkie.

"With Glide-Tec and the steady change of "Lordosis" and "Kyphosis" chairs, it is scientifically proven, that a maximum number of joints in the human skeleton structure are actually stimulated and moved while being seated."

One of the most recognised names in the ergonomic office chair industry is the Herman Miller ‘Aeron'.

Since it's introduction to the market in '94, according to Schurman, has "caused a majority to focus largely on suspension in back designs and avoid seat suspension altogether because of stresses that until now can only be readily managed using our approach, which is patented."

"We as users, recognise that there are a wide range of human dimensions that should be accommodated in office chairs, ensuring they are designed to support a wide range of tasks, from active keyboard work to reclining contemplation, heads down desk work and meetings.

This requires design that supports the widest possible range of users and incorporates ergonomic principles that allow for a healthy range of postures and movement, to enhance the users performance and comfort/health," he added.

LEED designs

Ergonomics aside, one thing on the top of the agenda for most, if not all manufacturers is sustainability.

"Sustainability is a huge buzz word in our market," said Peter. "Recyclable materials are currently very popular, and the ability to have each chair produced out of recyclable materials, and end up as a recyclable product is very important to the survival of the industry."

"Using wood from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) protected forests, having products Green-guard certified, and ensuring each of the product lines contributes towards LEED points, is just a few of things that manufacturers need to take into account."

The introduction of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rated buildings emphasise the responsibility of the designers and manufacturers to help a building gain accreditation by considering and incorporating sustainability into the making of chairs, and other furniture.

"We implement environmentally sensitive design, pioneered by Herman Miller, first with Aeron and more recently with Mirra, Celle, and Foray, through a design protocol that is embedded in all our industrial design activities, which we call Design for the Environment, or DfE.

Essentially DfE looks at the material chemistry of every part or component, down to the molecular structure, and analyses, and then grades the material as to whether we can use it in our designs," said Schurman.

"Using sustainable materials, from recycled steel and alluminium to new 'smart' plastics like polypropylene to create truly 'green' products, we are also working hard to eliminate materials and chemicals that are not sustainable, like PVC, or dyes in textiles that are produced with non-eco friendly chemicals," he added

The challenge

Office chairs are no longer seen as a place to sit while you work, they are much more than that, according to Peter, "a chair in the workplace can add or take away years to your working life.

Outside the specifications, it's important to try out the chair you are going to use and ensure that it meets all your specific needs of support and ease of use."

"Office chairs, just like the furniture, speak a lot about the company. The creation of a badly designed workspace environment can even mean the difference between retaining or loosing your employees.

Bare in mind one thing - a chair is in contact with the employee throughout the day, and directly responsible for the productivity levels of each individual."

The challenge is to make the chairs comfortable and durable, while staying within budget. But manufacturers must do this with the added aims of using environmentally friendly materials and creating products that are easy to make and look good.

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