All Hail the Chairmen: Jonathan Olivares's "Taxonomy of Office Chairs"

By Hua HsuApril 18, 2012

All Hail the Chairmen: Jonathan Olivares's "Taxonomy of Office Chairs"

A Taxonomy of Office Chairs by Jonathan Olivares

"FOR YEARS AND YEARS architects and designers all over the world have been designing thousands of chairs," the Milanese artist and designer Bruno Munari remarked in his 1966 essay collection, Design as Art: "Upright chairs and armchairs, all different and all the fruit of infinite inventiveness." Recounting the dizzying permutations of material and purpose available at "mid-century," Munari wryly wondered if we had not already exhausted the possibilities of the ubiquitous chair. But, he concluded, "it seems that the problem has not yet been altogether solved, because architects and designers all over the world are still going on designing chairs, just as if all their efforts up till now had been wrong."           


A boulder, an upside-down milk crate, the hood of a car: anything capable of supporting your body weight might fulfill the function of a chair. But the history of this most basic furnishing of everyday life reveals countless innovations that have been as subtle in appearance as they have been radical in effect. Designer and researcher Jonathan Olivares's A Taxonomy of Office Chairs is a strangely absorbing inventory of a specific kind of seating technology: chairs mass-produced for the workplace, where culture, hierarchy, and the needs of the economy are laid bare in the curvature of a backrest or the degree of a pivot; where the fantasy of social mobility meets the unfreedom of the cubicle. Why not make yourself comfortable while you're working your way to the top?           


A Taxonomy of Office Chairs is the product of Olivares's own fascination with office chairs, years spent digging through the archives of design museums and manufacturers' warehouses, collecting old catalogs and schematics, and interviewing engineers and designers. While his book arrives at a moment when interest in the cultural history of objects (and, in the case of furniture, the mid-century period in particular) is at a fever pitch, Olivares's Taxonomy isn't a tastefully curated parade of gorgeous chairs. It is, as the post-Linnaean title suggests, a serious attempt to visualize the evolutionary breakthroughs and mutations often taken for granted when considering the various industrialized objects that "make up our predominant reality."            


I am writing this sentence while sitting on a Steelcase office chair.  I inherited it from whoever used this office before me. I nearly lost a toe flipping it on its side to see the underside, "where," according to Olivares, "all the action happens." Its model number has faded over the years, and a web search for "Steelcase" has delivered me to a website devoted to "retro office furniture." When I am at home, I alternate between an old, luxuriously wide auditorium chair "liberated" from John Jay College and a lightweight wooden chair from Ikea that cost about as much as a fancy sandwich.           


Neither of these latter two objects are, technically speaking, office chairs; to qualify, as Olivares tells us, they must have a movement mechanism, adjustable features, and casters. These elements emerged organically, appearing sporadically at different times in different designs until, over time, they joined together and became standard. Olivares traces the first movement mechanisms to the United States in the 1840s and '50s; around the same time, in Britain, Charles Darwin replaced the legs of his armchair with "cast-iron bed legs mounted on casters" so that he could glide freely throughout his office. (It is unknown whether Darwin was the first to conceive of a chair on wheels, but his remains the earliest example.)           


Anyone who has ever attempted to nap at work can appreciate how impressive it is that the technology allowing sitters to tilt and pivot their seat was already available over 150 years ago. Perhaps this design responded to a desire inherent to the American nature to recline and move simultaneously. The Swiss historian and critic Siegfried Giedion, for one, wondered if the American office chair derived from the resting habits of rural America, and the effect that the archetypal rocking chair had on the "inventive fantasy" of future American designers.


Over time, however, office-chair design transcended its pastoral origins and began to assume the increasingly standardized needs of labor. In the early 19th century, before the proper "incorporation" of the United States, offices were small, scattered, and privately owned, and four-legged dining chairs sufficed to furnish them. But as westward expansion resulted in an emergent corporatism, the business workforce underwent a massive expansion. Clerical work and factory labor became necessary. The seated tedium of these new tasks required a new approach to the office chair, one that embodied the lessons of early 20th century theories of organizational culture and efficiency. Chair design began to address the mechanics of different tasks, and to adjust itself to the possibilities of mass production. The realities of hours spent beholden to a sewing machine or duplicating documents by hand required new approaches to positioning and posture, while the explosion of the workforce created the need for chairs that were cheaper and faster to manufacture.


The chair also came to confer and confirm hierarchy. After all, the workplace conditions us to covet minor status symbols: an additional window, a few more cubic feet of space, a personal stapler; why not an ornate, hand-carved headrest (or, if you worked at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a dodecagon base)? In the 1950s and '60s, the distinctions between rank found blunt expression in chair design, naming and price point; Knoll, for example, produced "Executive," "Advanced Management," and "Basic Operational" chairs in the late 1970s. Recall the archetypal scenes where the boss, back to the door, protected by an exaggerated, double-spine headrest, slowly swivels around to meet the eyes of his waiting subordinate, impotent in a stationary four-legger.           


We might regard the 1980s as the twilight of this pre-ergonomic age. Even in the popular imagination, the workplace of the '80s is outfitted with chairs that wheel, swivel, and tilt, less for the sake of efficiency than to allow a sort of perpetual motion and keep apace with the swashbuckling, Wall Street-inflected pace of the age. As business culture changed from the maverick traders, junk peddlers, and corporate raiders of the '80s to the networked hive-logic of the '90s, so too did the chairs. Olivares points to the now-ubiquitous Aeron chair of 1994, developed specifically with computer users in mind, as a turning point when the grandiose, self-consciously status-seeking chair came to seem brute and old-fashioned. Aerons became their own status symbol, despite their seeming minimalism. (Recall another scene: bankers and Wall Street brokers whose firms have melted down, wheeling out Aerons under the cover of night to hawk on Craigslist.)    


The 1990s Aeron revolution returned us to one of the prevailing concerns of early organizational culture: efficiency, under the guise of "ergonomics." The promotion of healthy posture had long been an essential component of workplace management and, thus, of chair design. Scientific books such as Henry Dreyfuss's Measure of Man (1960) and Niels Diffrient's Humanscale (1974) had resulted in a heightened awareness over the dynamics and durability of the human body. But interest in ergonomics went mainstream in the '90s, as the rise of personal computing meant that workers got used to sitting at their desks for stretches of eight hours at a time. "Lumbar" became part of the lexicon. Leaving one's desk to access files or archives was no longer essential. Free time was spent sitting at the same desk, the Internet our new water cooler; and for the first time white-collar workers could convincingly claim to work from home, a hotel room, or a coffee shop. Bartleby the Scrivener would at least have Minesweeper to pass the time, and his protest would enact far fewer injuries on his body: his chair would be so supple and airy, he would forget he was sitting in the first place.           


I have moved on from my Steelcase. Owing to a noisy back and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle — and convinced, ultimately, by a slick online promotional film detailing the research and trials that went into it — I recently purchased a "Setu" by Herman Miller. It is the penultimate entry in Olivares's chronology. A shockingly light chair, its backrest and seat are constructed "with mesh stretched between flexible, bilateral plastic spines. The weight of a sitter opens the spines, raises the seat and controls the recline." Many of the newer chairs in Olivares's study assume a similar responsiveness, depending on one's weight, arm position, and preferred degree of tilt. Rather than proscribing a specific sitting posture, they provide an experience that is unique and customizable, which seems fitting given our times. After all, at no point in history has the market seemed so responsive to our individual whims and desires as consumers.            


High-end chair production is expensive and dominated by a few major manufacturers, lending the last few pages of A Taxonomy of Office Chairs a feeling of inevitability; after all, where does one go from the chair that is lightweight, recyclable, multifunctional and responsive? What is striking about Olivares's book is how visionary certain designs seem when displayed beside their contemporaries. The "Revolving Armchair" was designed by Austrian manufacturer Gebruder Thonet in 1865. It features a gorgeous bentwood frame, and the backrest and seat are constructed of rattan weave. It looks more like it belongs in a parlor than does the tilting, rocking chair-inspired designs or the built-to-last cast iron ones then coming out of the United States. Over a century later, Thonet's distinctive rattan weave would inspire the semitransparent backrest and seat of the Aeron.            


There are few specimens that look quite as perfect as the "B7a," introduced by Thonet designer Marcel Breuer in 1928. It is a marvel of bent steel tubes and stretched fabric, and traces of its DNA can be found in Charles and Ray Eames's game-changing "Aluminum Group Chair" of 1958. The Eames's "PACC" chair, with its inviting, molded shell of fiberglass and resin, seems to emerge out of nowhere when contextualized by the gaudy dentist chairs and artfully strange geometry play of the early 1950s. Other innovations failed to catch on. Ray Wilkes's "Rollback Chair" of 1977 foresaw the need for adjustable lower-back support, but its bold, cylindrical spine rest looks like an oversized toilet-roll dispenser. The "Capisco," designed by Peter Opsvik in 1984, is novel in allowing the user to sit sideways or face backward. Unfortunately, its suspicious headrest makes it look more like a chair one gets strapped into during an interrogation.           


In his preface, Olivares describes some of the more rhapsodic interviews he conducted while doing research for his book. According to Olivares, Mario Bellini, an Italian designer renowned for his work at Olivetti, remarked that the three greatest events in office-chair history were "the Industrial Revolution, his 1984 Persona chair because it re-introduced humanism to office seating, and his 2005 Headline chair because it re-established the connection between man and desk." Olivares's commitment to detailing the whole historical sweep of office-chair design prohibits him from dwelling on Bellini's strangely macho pronouncements, or detailing the "risky" process of designing the Aeron chair alluded to by another interviewee, American designer Don Chadwick. The preface as a whole is adroit and multidisciplinary, yet teasingly short. All the aberrations, one-off mutations, and strokes of genius along the evolutionary chain are weirdly captivating, and a different, more anecdotal or cultural history of the office chair might have speculated about their rationale.


But Olivares's desire to produce an "objective" taxonomy — and his implied resistance of Mad Men- or Design Within Reach-inspired nostalgia — is, in its way, somewhat admirable. The merely anonymous and "brutally ugly" appear alongside elegant, canonical designs. In tracking the life cycles of these modest objects, a chronicle of our changing values comes into focus: all the bygone notions of authority and elegance, the laughable apexes and bracing futurisms of yesterday, and all our shifting perceptions of what constitutes "work," from the immovable materials of factory days to the feather-light, 96 percent recyclable, airy thrones of the digital future.


LARB Contributor

Hua Hsu, an associate professor of English at Vassar College, is a staff writer at the New Yorker. His first book, A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific, was published in 2016. He is on the board of the Asian American Writers Workshop. A version of this piece appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Reflections, a journal of the Yale Divinity School.


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