Yes, the Eames Management Chair is arguably the most famous office chair in the world...amongst the design crowd. But if you ask anyone under the age of 45 to name one model of task chair, the name you'd likely hear in response is the Herman Miller Aeron...the ergonomic symbol of the Internet Generation's work space. But did you know the original design of the Aeron had a much different intended use and target consumer in mind?
According to Slate's fascinating report about the history and design origins of the Herman Miller Aeron, the now iconic task chair wasn't designed originally as an office task chair for caffeine fueled Dot Commers, but engineered for the ergonomic demands of the elderly!
One the Aeron's designers was Bill Stumpf, the son of a gerontology nurse and a preternaturally keen observer of human behavior. So he was well primed in the late 1970s, when the American furniture company Herman Miller began casting about for growth prospects and hired Stumpf and Don Chadwick--who had done several pieces for Herman Miller--to investigate the potential of furniture for the elderly. It seemed like a tantalizing market opportunity. The American populace was aging quickly, assisted living facilities were rare, and hospitals lacked ergonomic furniture suited to long-term care. In each environment, Stumpf and Chadwick observed the surest sign of an opportunity: furniture being used in unintended ways. The homely workhorse common in both medical and residential settings was the La-Z-Boy. In hospitals, the elderly often got dialysis in semireclined La-Z-Boys; at home they spent hours in them watching TV. "The chair becomes the center of one's universe. These sorts of realizations at the time weren't just overlooked, they weren't [deemed] important," says Clark Malcolm, who helped manage the project. Those observation studies and focus groups "made Bill and Don focus on seating, in a way they never had before."
And soon afterward, the pair took to the task of designing a chair for the elderly with customizable comfort features and the innovate use of plastic mesh fabric stretched across a plastic framework to support seated body weight. Unfortunately, this original design called the "Sarah Chair" was initially deemed too far out and the original project was shelved by Herman Miller until several years later when the company realized there was untapped potential for applying the ergonomic technology originally designed for the elderly and engineering it for the more lucrative market of office furniture.
In 1994 the chair was revealed and by 1996 Herman Miller was selling a very profitable amount of the futuristic looking mesh back chairs. By the time the Dot.Com era was in full swing, the chair became the unofficial symbol of micro serfs pounding out code and launching the next big www.IPO.com idea everywhere.