Industrial designer Jonathan Olivares walks us through the evolution of the modern office chair.
Writing email from a standing desk may be all the rage these days, but it’s still hard to imagine the typical office without chairs– lots of them. We decided to look into the history of the office chair. And it turns out there wasn’t one single inventor. But we do know where some of its familiar features come from.
JONATHAN OLIVARES: Actually, it was Charles Darwin apparently was the first person to put wheels on a typical desk chair.
BRIAN BALOGH: This is Jonathan Olivares, an industrial designer in LA.
JONATHAN OLIVARES: Although we don’t count his as the first office chair, because it doesn’t adhere to the archetypal form, which is a centralized base with splayed legs. His legs were vertical. It was almost like any old dining chair, with four wheels tacked to the feet.
BRIAN BALOGH: So maybe Darwin’s chair isn’t exactly a missing link in the evolution of modern sitting. But it did appear around the same time as a flurry of new chair designs and patents. Like Thomas Warren’s centripetal spring chair, unveiled or sprung at the London Expo in 1851. It was a lot like your typical office chair, with arms, headrest, a five point base. It even reclined and swiveled.
ED AYERS: Now that’s pretty fancy, sure. But most 19th century companies couldn’t afford them. A manager might sit in one, but factory workers and bank clerks sat on small chairs made of steel and wood, which, their bosses figured, would keep them alert and well behaved. This phase of office chair evolution lasted for the better part of a century.
After World War II, materials such as fiberglass and aluminum became more affordable. At the same time, a new concept called ergonomics claimed to fit chairs to human needs. And yet, fancy chair design was still driven more by looks than it was by science.
PETER ONUF: I asked Olivares to pull up a chair and tell me how we got from there to the present, when it’s all about the way a chair fits our bodies. We began our conversation in the 1950s.
JONATHAN OLIVARES: I think the 1950s was a period where corporate culture really came to life and in such an extreme way. And you think of, like, the man in the grey suit, and you think of these kind of really strict IBM corporate policies. And that’s the moment when executives want to emphasize that they’re in charge, not only to their staff, but also to their clients.
And so the office chair, a huge role in the executive chair is what does it look like to the visitor. And so therefore you have a much higher backrest. They’re always plush and leather and polished aluminum, instead of painted aluminum. Ergonomics in the 1950s was still very much nascent. They’re not actually getting a better chair. They’re getting a more expensive chair.
BRIAN BALOGH: It’s economics, not ergonomics.
JONATHAN OLIVARES: Yeah, exactly.
BRIAN BALOGH: All right. So I’m ready for phase 3, which I just can feel this is going to be a breakthrough.
JONATHAN OLIVARES: Yeah. Phase 3 is definitely a breakthrough. So in the ’70s, you end up with, on the one hand, foam, molded foam, because all of a sudden you can mold foam into three-dimensional contoured shapes. And what happens simultaneously is that the personal computers are being introduced into the office.
BRIAN BALOGH: Now we’re into the ’80s at least.
JONATHAN OLIVARES: Yeah, early ’80s. Early ’80s.
BRIAN BALOGH: So are there still hierarchies? Does the CEO and the CFO, do they still have, like, chairs that mark them as different?
JONATHAN OLIVARES: I think it varies from company to company. You had, in the ’70s, even late ’60s and ’70s, you had a huge movement in offices towards democratic, open plan workspaces.
BRIAN BALOGH: And how is that reflected in office furniture?
JONATHAN OLIVARES: You still have hierarchical division between executive chair and management chairman and task chair. But the division is less extreme than it was in the ’50s and ’60s. The chairs look very much alike. Usually, the only difference between an executive chair and a regular task chair would be that the backrest is taller.
BRIAN BALOGH: And I’ll bet they’re a lot more expensive somehow.
JONATHAN OLIVARES: Somehow, I’m sure. Or they definitely came with, like, that late ’70s, early ’80s period, you definitely had some decadent executive seating, for sure– some chairs burnished with copper and bronze armrests and velvet. Yeah, velvet was huge in the late ’70s.
BRIAN BALOGH: OK. Let’s stop before we get to chairs with sideburns. So what’s the last phase here?
JONATHAN OLIVARES: The phase after the general purpose ergonomic chair really happens as a result of workplace habits that started to form in the ’80s. And that really gets introduced with the personal computer. So all of a sudden, millions of people are working on personal computers, and they can do everything that they’re responsible for doing on their computer.
BRIAN BALOGH: And they’re doing a lot more, right? I mean, now you have corporate executives typing, which they never did before.
JONATHAN OLIVARES: Yeah, I mean, in the ’80s, I think the idea of an executive dictating to his secretary is really falling out of corporate fashion, and fast. It’s the beginning of what I like to think of as a kind of athletic corporate culture. Budget cuts and trim the fat comes up in corporate culture in the ’80s.
So athletic in concept, but in practice, it means that people are sitting at their desk for eight hours, with maybe one break here and there to get lunch or coffee. But the desktop computer, really, these are heavy machines. They’re planted firmly on a desk and people are literally sitting all day and typing.
So this creates the need for the, let’s say, the ultimate office chair, which it’s not a specific chair, but it’s just several types of chairs from many different companies that are really meant to allow the body to comfortably, as comfortably as possible, sit down for eight hours at a time. And I think the current phase that we’re in today is really a backlash against that.
After the, let’s say, the desktop ceases to be so important and let’s say the laptop and the iPhone or the mobile device comes into play, the worker can now sit just as comfortably on a sofa for an hour and then move to a desk for focused work and then get up and move to a cafe setting. And so the office chair as a result, it no longer needs to be this eight hour throne. It can really loosen up a little bit.
BRIAN BALOGH: So how has it loosened up? Why do we even have office chairs if people move around and basically can work from any position?
JONATHAN OLIVARES: Well, I think any position includes sitting at a desk. And that’s why the office chair stays around, and why we still need it.
BRIAN BALOGH: Jonathan Olivares is an industrial designer in Los Angeles. He is the author of A Taxonomy of Office Chairs.
PETER ONUF: It’s time for another break. But sit tight. When we get back, World War I left millions of soldiers dead. But it gave one survivor a good idea for how to keep legions of American workers alive.
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