Vintage view: Designer Bill Stumpf's office chair

Aeron chair (c.1992) with aluminium base. Herman Miller.

 

On the tenth anniversary of the death of designer Bill Stumpf, Kya deLongchamps takes a spin on his iconic office chassis — the Aeron chair. 

Bill Stumpf, designer: “The human form has no straight lines; it is biomorphic. 

"We designed the chair to be, above all, biomorphic, or curvilinear, as a metaphor of human form in the visual as well as the tactile sense. 

"There is not one straight line to be found on an Aeron chair.”

Ergonomic chairs are the standard of comfort expected in the corporate and domestic round today. 

One chair created in the 1990s with its bold engineering hanging out, changed it all. 

Executive-level seating in the mid 20th century was a long-established status vehicle defined by a tailored top coat and thick, indulgent stuffing cradling a suited backside.

Comically inflated examples were a cushy perch for a cushy position, thrones that indicated membership of an exclusive club of deep buttoned, well upholstered business royalty. 

Today’s dot.com millionaires and middle management ride sling shots of physical support and aerial grace by comparison.

After leaving the Navy, Bill Stumpf (1936-2006) garnered a master’s in environmental design from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. 

His highly specific research in the area of body sympathetic commercial seating soon drew notice. 

Vintage view: Designer Bill Stumpf's office chair

Working to commission for the US furniture firm of Herman Miller (who brought us the opus of Charles and Ray Eames) Stumpf’s designs began from real ‘anthropometrics’ not flabby, aspirational aesthetics. 

The spine had to remain supple and relaxed, the blood was to flow without a pinch from a frame, or the deadening influence of hot padding.

His Ergon chair, often cited as the first ergonomic office chair, was launched in 1976. 

It’s no show-stopper in terms of looks, but cupping the body in two exquisitely responsive, relaxing panels, it’s a fabulous desk chair for intense work periods and is still in production (Ergon 2/Ergon 3).

The prototypes of the Aeron can be traced back to Stumpf’s research on other, parlour-style armed chairs for the elderly, specifically the sensitively refined Sarah recliner made redundant by marketing squabbles in Herman Miller in 1988. 

Orthopaedic and vascular health principles worked out while perfecting the Sarah, were channelled into the bolder lines and brief for a deliberately ‘designer’ office chair.

Stumpf’s co-designer Don Chadwick, who still produces work from his studio in Santa Monica in California, is and always was — old school. 

A cabinetmaker’s son with a gene level distrust of computer-aided design, he still claims that computer drawings lack the ability to weigh and measure the subtleties of chair design. 

Stumpf claimed in a design story for Miller (you can find this in video form) that he designed this chair above all things — for himself.’

The team at Miller, did use pressure mapping and thermal imaging to consider where support was needed in the range of movement of any desk worker, something termed ‘cross performance’ by Stumpf and Chadwick. 

You might lean back to shoot a patrician look at an underling, sit up to stab at a key-board, fly across on casters to your filing station — whatever the task, the chair was an elastic, physical extension of the needs of its sitter in that moment.

Stumpf threw out cushions and conventional upholstery altogether. Anyone who has had to sit in mixed-blend suiting on a suffocating puddle of deep pads will immediately appreciate this brave balding out to a yielding pellicle suspension. 

The Aeron’s seat and back rather than wrestling independently with the sitter’s torso, moves in one gentle, mechanical slide using just body weight. 

The rounded plastic frame offers a soft waterfall edge beneath the thighs and three sizes ensure the body fits the chassis to the split inch with the bespoke luxury of tilt-tension and adjustable arm height.

The dynamic innovations, skeletal lines and the cute responsiveness of the chair thrilled in the design-conspicuous years of the 90s and the relationship of some user to their chairs has been described as close to that of fetish.

Like all great pieces, it was of its time and appeared a few clicks before the iMac, a seminal moment for Stumpf and his peers in industrial design, where skyscrapers floated forth in frameless super reflective panels that sliced into and married up to the sky.

“The transparency of the chair as a visual element was in keeping with the idea of transparent architecture and technology, which Aeron pioneered in advance of Apple’s transparent iMac computers.”(Herman Miller).

They are Hermann Miller’s bestselling product and one of the few identifiable by name alone. 

Bord Gais found itself sitting rather uncomfortably in the media spotlight when it was revealed the company had bought 380 wildly expensive Aeron chairs for its new premises at Warrington Place on the Grand Canal in Dublin in 2011.

Aeron’s might be a cult classic, but they are assuredly a Marmite. I couldn’t have one in my work space for all their comfort and kudos. 

That faintly male engineering hanging below the groin of the chair is visually untidy and certainly unsettling for a home office bumped up against polite living room pieces. 

The movement of the chair is a matter of taste too — I find it unnerving and the seat is too low for this leggy arachnid.

Only an Aeron lover, free of straight lines, could fully understand the pain of puncturing one’s pellicle back — the recycled mesh which marked out the Aeron and led to a thousand hammock framed pretenders across the world. 

All woven chairs are vulnerable to the rake of car keys in the back pocket, and wounded Aeron’s stagger through the second hand market.

Fully sanitised and reconditioned used Aerons in a number of colours (all size B unless otherwise stated) are available at usedaerononline.ie, a division of Griffin Office Solutions of Athlone, Co Westmeath.

Prices start around €400 plus Vat. New chairs start at €1,163 (delivered to Ireland) from hermanmiller.co.uk.


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