You *Really* Need a Nice Desk Chair

My Current Chair
My Current Chair

While finishing grad school in Ohio 11 years ago, I was spending hours of time sitting on a wooden stool hunched over my laptop. One day I called home to complain that my right shoulder and low back were sore as hell.

So my dad persuaded me to buy the same desk chair he’d recently purchased.

With lumbar support.

From Office Depot.

Now that I’m merrily self-employed, I am spending many of my working hours in that chair again — which also means that my butt, legs, shoulders, back, or wrists are in a near-constant state of discomfort. (For example, I can actually feel the cross bar THROUGH the seat cushion).

Ok, so this time, I’m really ready to invest in a super nice desk chair.

But where do I begin?

I mean, if I’m going to pay hundreds of dollars for a cloud-like sitting experience to improve my productivity and eliminate tingling toes, I really want to KNOW which one is “right” for me. And what I was finding online in preliminary searches seemed more overwhelming than helpful.

Lucky for me, the contributors of Workspace Design Magazine connected me to friendly folks at manufacturers including Allsteel, Haworth, Herman Miller, Knoll,  and Steelcase, all of whom invited me to their showrooms in Washington, DC.

Wow. Not everyone gets to sit in 20+ amazing desk chairs in a 2-day period. But I did. And here’s what I discovered:

Every manufacturer I met with tests its chairs rigorously, aims to be as environmentally friendly as possible in the materials and production process alike, roots the design in ergonomics, and has 10-year to lifetime warranties. Each even gave me additional brochures with A LOT of detail on how researched, green, and trustworthy their chairs are.

Whew! So at least we got that out of the way. Now onto the sit tests!

A Completely Subjective Ratings Table.

Although each of the chairs is described in much more detail under its corresponding manufacturer’s heading below, this handy little table — with my completely subjective scores — are intended to summarize what I learned (as a 5’4″, 120-lb woman) from my experiences sitting in each.

The higher the number from 1-5, the more I felt it met my “comfortable, intuitive, and affordable” ideal.

Butt Back Arms Settings Coolness Price Overall
Allsteel: Relate 3 5 4 4 3 4 3.83
Allsteel: Acuity 2 5 5 4 3 5 4.00
Haworth: Zody 5 4 5 4 4 3 4.16
Haworth: Very 4 4 4 4 4 4 4.00
Herman Miller: Embody 4 5 5 4 5 2 4.16
Herman Miller: Sayle 2 4 2 3 4 4 3.16
Knoll: Generation 5 5 4 5 4 3 4.33
Knoll: LIFE 4 5 2 4 4 3 3.66
Steelcase: Think 5 5 5 5 5 4 4.83
Steelcase: Cobi 3 4 3 4 3 4 3.50

AllSteel

Relate

Holly Huff told me about how Allsteel employees in Iowa volunteered their time on a Saturday to affix solar panels to their production facility to make the company even greener. And that same “get it done” kind of attitude is exemplified in their showroom and chairs, too, which seemed just straight-up practical.

The Relate chair has a comfortable seat with under-car-seat-like adjustments, and the lumbar support simply adjusts to tighten or loosen the material across the back (rather than adding additional elements). And although it didn’t adjust low enough for my short legs, its highly versatile arms, pressure-point-less seat and back, and really cool seat lift effect (which is activated the further you lean) just made for a really pleasant sitting experience. I think this chair would be perfect in a home office or corporate setting alike.

But they take it a step further with the Acuity chair, which has no levers and a dual-tread caster that enables the user to float around easily from carpet to hard flooring. And although the seat felt less comfortable to me than Relate, the back on this chair is truly  amazing. The more weight I put against it when leaning, the more it adjusted to the particular curve of my body. And it had a feather-like responsiveness, which I found refreshing. Plus, the clever thumb locks on the arms keep them in place so if I push against them to get up out of my chair, they stay put. Just plain smart, and probably perfect for populations looking for versatility and support without a lot of fuss.

Where to Buy Allsteel Products
Great for Building Managers who: Want practical, smart chairs that are cool enough to be picked for TV shows like “CSI.” (Really!)


Haworth

Zody
Zody

As Karen Bray walked me through the Zody and Very chairs, she mentioned that each was created after attaching electrodes to test subjects and learning that people tended to sit asymmetrically.  But that level of scientific research is instantly apparent when you sit in either chair — everything moves independently.

Very
Very

The Zody chair‘s gel seat cushion felt like it was made for my butt. Even the back is flexible so I could turn and reach comfortably — and the chair felt like it was flexing with me. “It’s all about having the chair do the work for you,” was Karen’s response to my surprise.

This one has clearly been designed with an extreme amount of attention to detail and production because, aside from being fully recyclable, it *did* feel like the chair was working for me.

But the Very chair — which comes at a lower price point than Zody and has an ultra-cute, matching conference chair — doesn’t have all the bells and whistles like the gel seat or flexing back. And those are a couple elements that really intrigue me as the home-office, non-traditional worker. So I could imagine this sleek little chair in an upscale office environment where meetings over gourmet coffee might be had.

They’re both beautiful chairs, though the Very chair seemed to have a more feminine look in my opinion. It was narrower in the seat and, as a result, felt lighter and more mobile to me. Plus it had a charcoal gray, wool-like felt cover that screamed sophistication.

Where to Buy
Great for Building Managers who: Want sophisticated, tailored chairs with some ergonomic bells-and-whistles.


Herman Miller

Embody
Embody

When Jennifer Kramer offered to let me use the Embody chair in my home, I was floored. This was easily the most unique chair I had run across, and I was smitten. Here’s why:

 

Sayl
Sayl

The Embody chair has a wide base (potentially a bit too wide) that’s supportive for folks who are doing task-based work in non-traditional positions. That means I can easily sit cross-legged, and with the narrow back with a “skeleton” like structure, I can turn and pivot to reach things without issue. When increasing the back tension, it literally feels like my particular spine is being held at the exact pressure points I most need additional support. And the arms adjust inward and diagonally to perfectly support my frame.

That said, it leans back so elegantly and has a high, supportive back (for my head) that I fear I might fall asleep from the incredible comfort it promotes. The chair is borne from studies of Generation Y’s working patterns, so I expect that its joystick-like adjustments and natural fluidity — coupled with a specially designed desk that slides to envelop the user — will be increasingly the chair-of-choice for super hip office spaces.

The Sayl chair is the newest release. Its one-size-fits-all design and mid-height back were pleasant enough to sit in for its corresponding price-point — which is mid-market. But visually speaking, it asserts its independence by separating itself from the pack thanks to its SF-like, suspension bridge back. I imagine these bold chairs around a conference room table would make quite an aesthetic splash.

Where to Buy Herman Miller Products
Great for Building Managers who: Want hip, innovative seating that historically has led ergonomic chair design.


Knoll

Generation
Generation

“It’s all about sitting how you want,” Carla Boza said as I plopped down into the Generation chair and instantly smiled. It felt really good. The first thing that struck me was its flexibility — everywhere — in the squishiness of the seat, back, and arms.

Life
Life

This is hands-down the coolest chair I tested for open-office, collaborative working environments that often call for impromptu meetings or brainstorming conversations.

It’s got a wider back and seat than I’m really looking for, but it’s not bulky thanks to the flexible materials that let me turn with ease.  Plus, the inward-pivoting arms seem to hug my frame and would do perfectly well in supporting my elbows without requiring me to sit like a chicken (aka “elbows out”).

But when I sat in the Life chair — which stands for light, intuitive, flexible, and environmental — I started giggling. It had the same lightness and squishiness as the Generation chair, but it was narrower and felt more “my size.” I could actually see this in my home office. The only drawbacks to this chair were its firmer back and that the arms didn’t pivot diagonally inward to fully support my reach over a keyboard (though they adjust in every other way).

Where to Buy Knoll Products
Great for Building Managers who: Want fun, classy chairs that obviously intend to promote collaboration and productivity.


Steelcase

Think
Think

“Most people in their home offices need light-in-scale chairs with really good, quality ergonomics,” Janet Davis said in response to my question about why individuals outside commercial office spaces choose Steelcase chairs. And, literally as soon as I sat in the Think chair, I was in love. It was the most intuitive, light, and easy chair I sat in.

Cobi
Cobi

It’s the unequivocal winner for its adjustments alone. It has (for me) the right amount of customizable parts, all placed exactly where I’d expect them to be, and all operated with an easy user experience. I felt like I’d been sitting in this chair for years already.

The sleek, flexible cross bars that provide the infrastructure of the seat and the back seemed like the perfect balance of pliable and firm. The arms pivot inward and diagonally, but they also can be positioned all the way down and back, almost as if they’re not even there. Its slim base is complemented by a unique back with a stupid-easy adjustable lumbar and a breathable, pleasant “3D” knit fabric. This chair is an obvious choice for someone who wants to get work done comfortably without distraction.

The Cobi chair, by contrast, adopts some of the same elements as the Think, but seems better for conference rooms than home offices. It oozes personality and seems catered to provide seating for brainstorming conversations in upscale offices. Its build looks heavier than it actually is; the fixed arms don’t create the same sense of one-ness or versatility that’s characterized by the Think chair. That said, it seems like a pragmatic choice for folks seeking cute, multi-purpose chairs at a lower price point than Think.

Where to Buy Steelcase Products
Great for Building Managers who: Want fun, elegant chairs that seem geared toward the functional needs of movers and shakers.


Seriously. Go Buy One. Or 100.

Being able to test all these chairs wasn’t just a blast, it was a HUGE eye-opener. I can’t emphasize enough — to readers and office furniture decision-makers out there — how incredible it feels to sit comfortably in a smart chair.

Even though the table and commentary above are completely based on my opinion, I can confidently say that every chair described in this article is spectacular in its own right. Having any of them in my home will be an estimated 40 million times better than what I have now.

And after I concluded this fun experiment, what I realized that I’m most excited about — unexpectedly — is that I know having one of these chairs in my home office will actually increase my productivity. And not just because (ergonomically speaking) I’ll be better suited to long periods of task-based work, but because the experience of just sitting in a functional chair will actually make me FEEL better, too.

And that’s definitely worth the investment.

—–

A huge THANK YOU to all of the representatives who gave me their time and explanations, contributed editorial ideas, and expressed an interest in sponsoring WDM and its growing readership. It was an absolute pleasure.

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2 Comments

  • What do you suggest for students change about the chairs they sit on during lectures and classrooms, which usually have limited furniture choice with average at best ergonomics?

  • Steph Hay!

    I know that you wrote this in 2015 but did you think about inviting a chairmaker that really makes their product sustainably? You should visit http://www.michaelbrownchairmaker.com and see his truly amazing office chairs. He crafts them by hand with old school methods. No power tools. Each one is made to fit his client perfectly. Even though they are made of wood they are extremely comfortable. Seriously. You need to sit in one. I would arrange it for you if you would like. We could even video your response. You have not sat in a comfortable chair until you try his. 🙂

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