Herman Miller creates a healthy way to sit

October 6, 2008
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Sitting is bad for you: Not exactly the statement you would expect from a company that sells chairs. But after six years of research, that’s the statement Herman Miller made when introducing Embody, the first work chair to be deemed “health positive” as proven through third-party research.

Janet Barnes, senior product manager, and Robert Nyhuis, program manager, set out to gather information on how people work today, crossing the country to seek advice from primarily technology firms and health professionals.

“One of the very early questions was, did they believe that we could design a product that would positively impact the health of a user,” said Barnes. “We knew there was health negative: We knew there were things that were bad for our health. There were conversations around health neutral, meaning it really didn’t hurt you or help you. And then within the office environment, could we actually go to a place where it was health positive?”

The chair, designed by Jeff Weber and the late Bill Stumpf, takes Herman Miller in a different direction aesthetically. The Aeron chair is and has been the company’s top seller for quite some time. One thing that is noticeable about it is its back, which widens at the top. The new Embody chair is completely different.

“It’s a provocative design; it’ll look different than other chairs you’ve seen if we show you something today that you’re very comfortable with that’s not terribly exciting,” said Barnes.

“We want to push the envelope a bit so three, four years from now, it will still carry a bit of edginess for you and hopefully 10 years later. … It’s like a good shoe, a good favorite shoe.”

The chair is slim, allowing a full range of motion for elbows and trunk. The back of the chair reclines and supports the spine to help align the user’s eyes with the monitor and keep the head balanced.

The arms of the chair are not attached to the seat, allowing for better height and width adjustability, without having to move the seat. The adjustable arms are one of the features that add to the “inclusive sizing” theme of the chair, making it one size fits all.

The seat of the chair has three layers of support that conform to the individual’s bone structure. The seat distributes weight evenly and moves with the user without the individual having to make any adjustments. The front of the seat can be pulled out or pushed in to match the length of the individual’s thighs, giving maximum support without restricting circulation.

The most “exotic” part of the chair is its unusual back. Bill Stumpf, who helped design the chair and passed away shortly after the first model of Embody was built, described the back as a “visual feast.” The support for the back resembles the human spine, with small supports branching off from the center.

“It’s a very personalized level of conformation and comfort, and it has a liveliness to it. … Through that liveliness we’re able to show, in university-level research studies, that we are improving blood circulation in the thighs and calves of users, which we’re very proud of, but even more so what we have found is it reduces the heart rate.”

Because sitting in front of a computer is how most knowledge-based workers conduct their work, Herman Miller wanted to learn more about how the human body interacts with that kind of work. Nyhuis said that involved studying “the upper extremities, the work with arms and hands and how they all interact with technology as we spend hours and hours and hours in front of technology. Really studying the worker and trying to understand the work.

“We really pushed hard on some of the technology experts and major personal computer manufacturers — is the work that we’re seeing in the office now going to be the same in six years?”

In 2002, when Nyhuis and Barnes were researching the project, Nyhuis said they found that while there were no major changes to the keyboard and mouse, monitors were beginning to slim down. The team also researched how a person’s head and eyes line up with the computer screen.

“We needed to learn a lot about vision as it relates to making sure that, as you’re seated working with your technology, we understood where the eyes needed to be,” said Barnes. “We knew when our joints were at neutral from past programs, we knew the spine was at neutral from past programs, but we didn’t know a lot about vision, so that was a new area of discovery.”

Barnes said that when beginning the research portion for Embody, they looked at the broad scope of how people work, beyond just the chair they sit in, which could lead to ideas for future products, as well.

“We tend to look more broadly,” said Barnes. “When we began this program — even though we were working with Bill Stumpf and Jeff Weber, and there was this implied notion that we would be doing a chair — we started out with work that went much broader.

“We did work within acoustics; we did work within collaborative environments. At the same time we were doing all the work that is now channeled through the chair. So there is an opportunity for additional products to come forth from this base of research.”

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