Why take a back seat?

2011-04-29 14:12

The 19th-century naturalist Charles Darwin was so eminent a scientist that some 120 species, an ­Australian city and a mountain in the Andes have been named for him, but among his other ­accomplishments is a modest ­footnote in design history for an unsung contribution to furniture design.

Darwin designed the earliest known example of the wheeled chairs that millions of people now sit or slouch on in offices all over the world.

He customised a wooden armchair in the 1840s by removing the legs and replacing them with a set of cast-iron bed legs mounted on casters. Darwin then literally rolled around his study.

This early example of what is now called “design hacking” or ­“co-design” has won Darwin a bit- part role in A Taxonomy of Office Chairs, a new book by the American industrial designer and design researcher Jonathan Olivares.

Olivares has taken an unusually thoughtful and rigorous approach to his subject. His book contains three different forms of classification.

The first section is a chronological catalogue of 142 innovative office chairs.

The second is a taxonomy that charts the development of different parts of the chair, including the headrest, backrest, armrest, seat, stem and base.

A third section covers milestones in the movement of office chairs: including tilt and swivel.

As Olivares admits, the book could just as easily have been a taxonomy of toasters or automotive engines, but he plumped for office chairs because they combine mechanical complexity with a close relationship to the human body.

The office chair has the additional advantage of being used so intensively by the tens of millions of people who spend most of their working days sitting on one that the quality of its design has a significant effect on their health and wellbeing. Back pain anyone?

These elements make for a rattling design history, which Olivares tells with relish. He charts how the office chair ­developed from customised 19th-century contraptions like Darwin’s and how ergonomics, fashionable among designers in the 1970s, was only embraced by major manufacturers?in?the?1980s?when the cost to companies of insuring themselves against employees’ legal claims?rocketed.?

Olivares attributes the rise of the “status symbol” chair in the 20th century to the popularity of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s 1911 theory of “scientific management”.

By encouraging companies to adopt hierarchical structures, ­Taylor unwittingly prompted their employees to expect the cost and complexity of their chairs to ­reflect their rank.

This lasted until the Aeron chair in 1994, which was designed specifically for computer users, in one style, one colour and three sizes, determined by body shape, not status.

One way or the other this book will see to it that you’ll never look at an office chair in quite the same way again.

© New York Times syndication

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