Saturday, September 26, 2009

Chairs and Design

As a computer "power user" aka computer geek, I spend somewhere near 95% of my time at home (and awake) sitting at my desk. For a few years I had a pretty good chair that was snagged for free from an unused office. However, with the extreme use it received, it gradually and literally fell to pieces. Though I did my best to keep it in functioning order, which near the end of its life involved keeping it together with rope, it finally gave up the ghost when bolts irreparably sheared and welds failed. I moved to a backup chair that was primarily used by Pickles (who wasn't so happy about me stealing her chair), but as time has progressed the chair has proven wholly unfit for sitting, often feeling more like a torture device than furniture.

For one reason or another, functionality and office chairs are in most cases two unrelated concepts; I have been looking for a new chair for years but never found anything close to adequate. As far as I can tell, the design of office chairs starts and stops at the notion that there is some sort of surface with dimensions such that any person so inclined could do something resembling "sitting," with the result that any rudimentary design meeting this limited criterion can pass as a chair. Any person who sits as much as I do can profess that much more is involved in what can qualify as a chair... anything less is simply a surface which can be sat upon (regardless of if sitting upon it is a good idea). Considering the depraved state of computer furniture thusly described, for the longest time my intention was to design and construct my own chair, just as I did my desk. However, before long I realized that the manufacture of a chair was a problem much less feasible for an individual in comparison to that of a desk, and resigned to waiting for a better solution to present itself, which worked until my marginally adequate chair decommissioned itself.

With every passing moment in my backup chair it became clearer that the need for a new chair was desperate; it is never a good sign when your legs fall asleep sitting in a normal position, nor when they go numb while one's butt just constantly hurts. At such a point even an end table starts to seem like a superior alternative. Fortunately my waiting appeared to pay off, as a solution presented itself: the Herman Miller Embody, fairly recently introduced as successor to the famed and prestigious aeron (which was nonetheless eliminated from consideration in my previous seating quest). At first glance the price completely banished any desire of purchasing it--as with all Herman Miller furniture, it cost somewhere near an arm + half a leg. Nonetheless, moments passing in a chair unfit for sitting humans (despite being suitable for cats) had me realizing with increasing urgency that an arm and half a leg was cheaper than everything waist down. Still hesitant, a bit more research proved it to be a viable choice: a 12 year warranty(!!), reports of it being the most comfortable chair ever sat in, and finally, a site that for one reason or another had $300 in options available for free. And thus, it was settled.

I really hate spending money (which is not to say I don't enjoy the results!) and so this was a difficult thing to do. However, there are a few notions that even a frugal person need keep in mind. First and foremost is the idea that often despite a high entry price, the purchase in question can prove to be a far better value over time. Of course this takes research, because there are an incredible amount of nauseatingly overpriced products, especially relative to quality. In this case the 12 year warranty easily dispelled all fears of poor quality. Second, particular emphasis must be placed in purchasing products which will receive substantial use; only the most foolish professional house-framing carpenter would buy a hammer out of the dollar bin! To me as a programmer, a chair is just like a hammer, it's a tool necessary for getting work done with maximal efficiency, which in turn maximizes value. With only these two things in mind, the purchase is easily justifiable, but there is another critical point which seals the deal: health. Just as a poorly designed pneumatic nailing gun can be the death of a carpenter, a poorly designed chair can quickly harm the health of someone who sits for extended periods--this is why wheelchair cushions are very specialized, and why bedridden folks must be treated with care (otherwise they will get bed sores).

In my experience, when all the research is done and the intended purchase thought out well enough, even a frugal person can spend a chunk of change without feeling purchase remorse. Indeed, I have never felt an ounce of regret after buying the pricier items I own; when I do feel regret after a purchase, it is always for the cheaper items that I failed to adequately contemplate. Anyway, enough blabbing, eye candy after the jump (yes, there's more).

A while ago I saw what is supposedly a self-adjusting concept chair from Herman Miller ...and that's about the extent of the available information. Nonetheless, the one and only image appealed to me and approached the extent I thought a functional design should require. Note that in this stance, the positioning of the wheels will result in a quasi-stationary platform, an interesting design choice.

In accordance with my personality, I also imagined discarding the traditional and aged desk/chair paradigm, trying to envision anew the working space relative to the modern perspective. This seemed reasonable, at least better than assuming that what has been done would be the best way to continue doing given a few minor upgrades. The result was something along the lines of the following (though of course I'd aim a tad higher aesthetically), which is simply called Workstation, from GRAViTONUS :

I'm obliged (given that I think this is an embarrassingly poor design) to emphasize that my idea was substantially different from this, but the basic forms are related in that both conceptualize a computer workspace that you get into. Frankly I don't think the Workstation would be good for anything, the crippling feature being the keyboard placement under the monitor. My own resolution to this problem was to abandon the keyboard entirely, opting instead for predictive text from 10 or 12 keys positioned at the hands. I actually discovered a week ago that I certainly wasn't the first person to have this idea for text input--around 1990, Steve Roberts (the newest entry on my short list of most-awesomest people ever) did essentially the same thing so that he could type while riding/living as a nomad on his amazing bicycle. Anyway, moving on, despite possibilities in mind for resolving functional flaws in such a design, I put the idea in long term storage for possible consideration later on. From this attempt I learned one thing above all else: good design is really difficult! The interesting (and frustrating) reality, however, is that so many entities manage to get along quite well simply by pushing through crap design with a clever presentation. Case 1:

If this looks to you like some moderately interesting plastic patio furniture that might be found at Target, I don't blame you. However, this is actually an example of modern high-design available for the low, low price of $217. Though it may look and feel like plastic, don't be fooled: it's actually "injection-molded fiberglass-reinforced polyamide," aka plastic with fiberglass in it. To me, the worst part is the explicit and misleading conflation of form and function evident in the product description: "This new stackable chair has a structure that is the result of an evolution, more than of a design process. It represents a new vision of form, generated by digital data, resulting in a chair to be used every day, slender, lively and healthy. The liquid, organic nature of its form combines the beauty of the human anatomy with the most advanced process of industrialisation of 21st-century polymers." I have also heard the designer (Ross Lovegrove) portray the perforated back as a functional element in that it allows for ventilation. I'll admit it has form, whatever that means, but the suggestion that this has anything resembling function is laughable. Case 2:

This is Kong, from Philippe Starck. I don't know about you, but I'd prefer to stand. For this case I'm not even very willing to admit it has form, much less function. Available now for only $2395 (get arms too for just $300 extra).

Enter good design:

Enough said.

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