Can a Bionic Chair Reduce Absenteeism?


Herman Miller’s Aeron chair set the gold standard for office furniture. As its latest model goes on sale in Britain, Josh Sims gets to the bottom of the ultimate seat

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The new Embody 'bionic' chair

The new Embody ‘bionic’ chair


Most office furniture, whether it’s used in the study at home or in an air-conditioned cubicle, goes unnoticed. It too often comprises the grey, functional, hard-wearing and bland components of the working landscape, sometimes symbolic of the daily grind, almost never associated with comfort or pleasure, let alone well-being.


So when the American furniture company Herman Miller, which this year celebrates its 85th birthday, announces that its new chair will not only save you from the stiff neck and backache caused by countless hours in front of a computer screen, but will enhance your productivity by allowing you to sit still for longer, both employee and employer suddenly sit up straight – and that’s regardless of the chair they’re in.

For its six years of development that chair has been code-named Stockholm and subject to intense secrecy. This month, the result of the multi-million dollar project hits the UK market – now officially called the Embody – and its makers reckon that it will revolutionise lucky sitters’ attitude to being desk-bound.

“A lot has changed in the workplace and there’s now a pervasive use of technology both in the workplace and at home and we’re starting to understand the negative health impact of that – spending a lot of time sitting down staring into this small visual target,” says Janet Burns, Herman Miller’s product manager. “There are a lot of older employees now looking to keep themselves healthy and the up-and-coming generation has been raised aware of health issues. And this is the kind of chair they’ll desire.”

She isn’t kidding: after vitamin-enriched water and calf-enhancing trainers, here is a chair that doesn’t just aim to be better for you but, instead, to actively wants to improve your health. It is the world’s first bionic chair. It is, Burns concedes, a bold claim, but sitting is believing.

“You really have to experience the chair to appreciate the benefits,” says the chair’s co-designer Jeff Weber. “It is an evolutionary leap for chairs but it reflects a need – to respond to the worst-case conditions that some people are now working in all day at their desks. Taking the chair beyond this would be a daunting challenge.”

The Embody, which in the UK will sell for around £1,250 and will be launched on 21 October, has been designed to track a sitter’s movements in order to encourage their finding a position in which their head is placed above their pelvis, rather than too far forward or behind it. “Dynamic surface pressure” engineering relieves the pressure from about half the sitter’s body weight normally felt through the ischial tuberosities, or the “sitting bones” as they’re more prosaically known, and increases blood flow through the legs.

Perhaps most impressively, the innovative flexibility of its striking back allows the sitter to increase their tidal volume, which means to take in or expel a greater quantity of air with each breath during regular breathing. The idea is that more oxygen means clearer thinking – precisely what the ideas economy needs.

It may just keep an employee working. According to one of Herman Miller’s research studies cataloguing the movements of desk workers, whether at home or in an office, we’re likely to spend around 93 per cent of the time on our behinds and 75 per cent of that leaning forward, our spines unsupported. Indeed, 50 per cent of the desk-bound population use a work chair that neither fits them, nor supports all the motions necessary for today’s desk work. And with back pain still the number one reason for absenteeism after the common cold, cited in 21 per cent of reasons for sick days, accounting for some six million of the 30 million lost working days each year, according to the HSE, that is something employers are increasingly aware of.

Sceptics doubtful of Herman Miller’s claims for the Embody may have that scepticism eased by the furniture company’s pedigree in this area – for the Embody updates the Aeron, an acknowledged design classic, launched in 1994 and now in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Design Museum. The Industrial Designers Society of America voted it one of 36 best designed products of the Nineties and gave it its prestigious gold award for furniture.

When Homer visits God in one episode of The Simpsons, the Creator of all things is seated in an Aeron.

Indeed, the design, by Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf, then Herman Miller’s head of design and behind some $3bn worth of the company’s chair sales, is widely recognised as reinventing the chair category. It introduced such concepts as “kinemat tilt dynamics” and “pellicle seat suspension”, its seat and back made from breathable polyester to mould around the body and prevent heat build-up, and its recycled aluminium frame distributing weight evenly.

It even came in three sizes, to suit all body shapes and could be lowered well below the 16-inch seat limit of most office chairs, which is too high for 40 per cent of the female population. The Embody, in other words, has a high hurdle to clear. Fortunately, the company had Stumpf’s vision to drive the project and assist Weber’s design work. Unfortunately, Stumpf died two years ago and so never saw the new chair completed. Had he done so, perhaps he would have agreed with Weber that if, in the foreseeable future, our desk-bound health is to be improved further, it is unlikely to be through the chair. That has been done.

“The next step will be to improve the relationship between people and the technology they use while working – there’s no way so far of delivering the technology to the person in a healthy way. It still requires us to adapt to it, as has typically been the case with our relationship with office chairs,” says Weber.

“The way we physically use technology is inherently unintelligent – whereas the chair, well, let’s say that has become extremely sophisticated.”


Me and my chair

Deborah Meaden, entrepreneur and ‘Dragon’s Den’ panellist


“In my office at home in Somerset, I have this Vitra scarlet-leather lobby chair from the 1960s that I sit in to do any work. It’s very comfortable and, what’s more, it’s my size, because I’m not that tall. You see these guys in huge office chairs trying to make themselves look grander, and they look like Ronnie Corbett – their feet don’t touch the ground. My chair does have wheels, however, and when I get engrossed I move around a lot and can find that I’ve migrated across the room in it! If I have to think about a difficult situation, I sit down in the Vitra with a cup of tea, and the chair can make me feel good. It really makes a difference.”


David Kester, chief executive, Design Council


“My favourite chair is the 40/4, by the American industrial designer David Rowland. He set himself the challenge to make something that was clearly better, which is always the mantra of good design. The chair has an amazingly elegant frame that belies its structural strength and it purpose – it’s the best stackable chair ever designed. You can stack 40 of them in four feet. They’re used in St Paul’s Cathedral, and I have them around my dinner table at home. If we have a party, we just grab these chairs from around the house. The 40/4 is also very pleasing to look at – one of the things I love about it is that it doesn’t look like a stacking chair.”


Yves Béhar, industrial designer


“I don’t seem to spend much time sitting – I’m always running all over the place. But my favorites are Charles Eames’ plywood chairs and Aluminium Group chairs, which are great whether you’re sitting at a desk or dining table. They’re designs that are enduring but also represent leaps in innovation from a materials and construction standpoint – those plywood chairs took 10 years to develop. A lot of chairs just look good and are really no more than designer masturbation. But getting a chair right, regarding both form and function, is one of the hardest things in the industrial-design world.”


Sir Terry Farrell, architect


“The chair I spend most time in is the Victoria & Albert small armchair by Ron Arad, so it’s not a desk chair as such, but it’s very solid, layered up in foam and fibre-glass, and I think rather beautiful. I wouldn’t sit in a chair that wasn’t comfortable but I do think a chair has to look nice, too. Too much is made of functionality. It’s amazing how something as fundamental in function as a chair can be so widely interpreted through history. I tend to sit in it to sketch on my knee a lot – I’m not a computer person, though I seem to have about a 150 of them, used far more efficiently by other people.”


Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in theEmployee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit



%d bloggers like this: