My office-furniture nemesis, the famous Aeron chair from Herman Miller
I hate my Aeron chair.
In fact, I hate it so much that I don’t have it anymore. I wheeled it into a conference room a while back and abandoned it. In its place is a brand-free, standard uphostery seat orphaned from before our office redesign. My new-old chair has pokey wheels and mysterious stains and the faint whiff of other people’s butts.
I don’t care. So long as it’s not an Aeron.
The Aeron came with the aforementioned corporate redesign, which turned the gloomy, grotty corridors of TIME into a glaringly well-lighted, somehow soulless space. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t one of the many who squawked when they separated us from our tea-stained desks and paperclip sculptures. In general I prefer our newly poshified workspace, if only because we no longer need night goggles to find the bathroom. It’s true I desperately miss my tweedy old couch, but the new glass doors would have made naps tricky anyway.
The Aeron was the first thing I saw walking into my new office. At first, I was dazzled by the work of art that is this most famous of office chairs (seriously, how many can you name by brand?). Its design is smooth yet innovative, its materials practical yet handsome. Sure, the Aeron defined the ’90s, but newsrooms aren’t known for cutting-edge cool. By our standards, it bespoke hip.
I sat down and took a spin. Seat: bouncy yet firm. Back: firm lumbar support. Mobility: wheels all move in same direction. I loved my Aeron.
Office furniture is at its best when it doesn’t require much contemplation. You want a stapler that staples, not one that states by its color and shape the very essence of your personality (unless, of course, you do). But soon I was thinking way too much about my Aeron–or rather about the throbbing pain in the backs of my thighs.
I’d heard the Aeron, or rather Herman Miller, its design company, prides itself on the chair’s easy adjustability. But hours of twisting and pounding and kicking the various knobs and levers resulted in absolutely no adjustment–not in its tilt, its armrests, its now-annoying lumbar.
It turns out the Aeron has a hate club. My colleague Unmesh had the same unprintable comments about the pain in his thighs, apparently caused by the hard frame with what’s called a waterfall edge. My brother George, a bond broker, says the mesh material I’d earlier thought so practical tears his pants. “The Aeron Chair Sucks” features hilarious videos of a worker’s battles with hers. To be fair, the dozens of heated comments on that site prove the Aeron still has a lot of defenders, too.
It is at this point in my rant that I realize I am going to have to make like a reporter and actually do some reporting. First, some facts. Designers Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf first introduced the Aeron to the world in 1994. Design critics raved. Dot-com bajillionaires stocked their new offices with the $600-$900 chairs. It was named design of the decade by the Industrial Designers Society of America, and remains Herman Miller’s best-selling chair.
Stumpf died in September. So I called Herman Miller to share my misgivings with the very patient company spokesperson, Mark Schurman. When I began my rant about my thighs, he immediately asked, “Do you think it’s properly sized?” The Aeron apparently comes in three sizes befitting various body types. As far as I know, my chair is the same as my sumo-size brother’s. Who knew?
When I mentioned that same brother and his complaint about the mesh material (which is called Pellicle) ripping his pants, Schurman was again a step ahead of me. Chuckling, he said, “Well, we hear that very occasionally–always from men of a certain size wearing chinos with large wallets in their pockets.” Okay, so he nailed George–but doesn’t that description also fit a lot of other men? True, says Schurman, adding that newer versions of the Pellicle weave are softer and more pliant.
Then there’s the adjustability, or impossibility thereof. Here Schurman dances a bit. “I wouldn’t say we’ve ever promoted its ease of adjustability, but rather the ability to finely tune it to your individual need,” he says. “Once you’ve set it–the arm heights, tilt tension–if you’re an individual user, the likelihood is you’ll never have to make those tailored adjustments again.
“I concede,” he adds, “it will take a few minutes, and you’ll probably have to consult the manual.” Which is too bad. I think mine is still attached to the chair.