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How did we get here? A brief recent history of seating design

Ergonomics and product design – especially in the commercial sector – has always had a strong relationship, but how does ergonomics push the possibilities of design?

How did we get here? A brief recent history of seating design

This article is presented by IndesignLive in partnership with Humanscale. Thanks to Humanscale’s unique ergonomics research and development, the brand’s comprehensive portfolio of ergonomic furniture and accessories empower users across the world to achieve greater wellbeing and productivity. Here, Humanscale gives us behind-the-scenes access to  its twinned ergonomics and design story, taking us on a journey of workplace history and product design innovation.



When it comes to furniture, chairs are about as quotidian as it comes. Look around any interior space and while you might not notice when there is a chair, you’ll most certainly notice when there isn’t one. As far as user behaviour goes, sitting is one of the most predictable: since time immemorial, people have always needed a place to sit. We needed chairs before we needed gadgets or to cocoon ourselves in the latest mod cons, and as such chairs have become ubiquitous embodiments of changing styles and times.

As needs became more specific, seating design adapted to meet these demands. The humble four-legged seat branched out into rocking chairs for nursing parents, stools for perching on at the bar, and swivel chairs for comfortable office seating. For decades, architecture and design has taken cues from research and design, with the prevailing currents of design science dictating the direction of chair design.

In the wake of ‘form follows function’ and the pragmatically driven Bauhaus, chairs in the mid-20th century became an important vehicle for investigating new materials and technologies. Mirroring the focus of design science on developing new materials or new ways to handle existing materials, chairs were at the vanguard of experimentation and innovation. Harry Bertoia kicked things off in 1952 with his Diamond Chair, a metal grid draped elegantly over a sparse steel frame. Around the same time, Ray and Charles Eames made lounging chic with the iconic baseball mitt shape of the Lounge & Ottoman.

Chairs and the way we sit are indelible expressions of the zeitgeist, from the plush, psychedelic strangeness of Eero Arnio’s Ball Chair in the 1960s to Frank Gehry’s sinuous Wiggle Chair in 1972. In 1987, the focus returned to materiality with Samuel Chan’s Curve Chair, which celebrated the natural beauty of timber, and in 1966 Marcel Wanders’ Knotted Chair pushed the envelope in both form and its innovative use of cord and resin. Often sculptural and always beautiful, the experimental chairs frequently sacrificed function or comfort for style and novelty.

Now, the dovetail of design and research and development is pointing toward comfort and ergonomics. The current focus on ergonomics has led design to return to first principles and reconsider the very way in which we sit. Using new technologies and materials, today’s designers are returning to the old questions of how to sit most comfortably and how chair design can facilitate this.

Once the playground for architects hoping to test out new ideas on a smaller scale, seating design is now driven by developments in ergonomics research and understanding. Now, prevailing understanding is that chairs are not only covetable design products, but also play a crucial role in wellbeing – particularly in today’s screen-driven, largely sedentary workplaces. New waves of research suggest that while sitting is a universal tendency, it isn’t all that good for us, particularly when done at length. In conjunction with the sedentary lifestyles fast becoming a hallmark of the modern age, this poses significant health problems.

Because eliminating sitting entirely is a near impossible task, the design sector has responded to the findings by crafting new, ergonomic chairs that take anthropometrics into serious account. A new breed of chairs like the Freedom Task Chair from Humanscale adapt automatically to the weight of users of all sizes, providing flexibility and encouraging best posture. Others incorporate gel seat cushions that support the user throughout the day, instead of compressing and sagging.

The design world has also tackled the attitudes surrounding sitting by encouraging more active behaviours in the workplace. Humanscale’s sit/stand solutions allow users to alternate between sitting and standing during the day, switching seamlessly between the two states at the push of a button. Combatting two key issues – the way we sit and for how long – at their root, design today radically redefines the chair as more than a functional object or vehicle for creative exploration: as a tool for promoting health and encouraging new, mindful habits.


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