Jeff Weber and his visionary design partner, the late Bill Stumpf, set out to create a chair that solved a problem no one else was addressing—the lack of harmony between people and their computers. The result was the Embody chair, which bloggers are calling Herman Miller’s “uber-chair” and “the best chair we’ve ever sat on.”
To find out more about Embody, Marc Levin of OfficeDesigns.com interviewed Jeff Weber, designer of the Embody chair. Here are excerpts from that interview.
Marc Levin: How long was it from conception to production of the Embody chair?
Jeff Weber: We began midway through 2002 with a premise; we didn’t attempt to see around the broad shoulders of Aeron at that point in time, instead we researched the way people are working.
We did not begin by attempting to design a chair; instead we went back to school, to get a better understanding of how people were working. From that point of view, we established a number of fundamental constraints, one that the current work environment is primarily computer based.
Then we developed a number of hypotheses, which we would test with people from a diverse range of experts in critical fields. The most important hypothesis: Can we positively affect the health of the individual seated worker through the design of a chair? We began to test that hypothesis with various experts in the medical field and in ergonomics and the overwhelming answer was yes, you should pursue this, it’s possible. We began to generate a formula that would allow us to achieve health-positive effects through the design of the chair.
There were several months of research, then the concept-development phase. It took two years of pure research and exploration, then about four years of intensive product development.
ML: Word on the street and blogs that I’ve read are calling the Embody chair “the next Aeron.” Was it your idea that Embody would replace the highly successful Aeron chair?
JW: Our intent was not to replace the Aeron chair. If you look at the lineage of the work chair designs by Herman Miller—including Ergon, Equa, Aeron, and now Embody—all are designed to coexist and are credible alone. The advancements in the predecessors have allowed us to produce the successor. In terms of knowledge, I see Embody as the next evolution in that lineage.
ML: Tell me about your thought process: Aeron comes in three sizes; Embody is one-size-fits-all.
JW: In 1994 we didn’t communicate using a computer and we didn’t search the Web like we do today. So Aeron was a predictor of the future and people’s changing relationship with the computer. It introduced new technology—mesh suspension versus foam and fabric—which produced a very unique design problem: How do you accommodate the wide variety of users’ sizes? The solution was to produce three graded sizes of architecture.
Every other intimate relationship we have with our bodies—clothing, footwear, and so on—are tailored to fit very well. So we tried to accommodate the breadth of people in the best way we could with a single size chair platform, through a discreet series of adjustments and forms that would allow us to achieve that accommodation.
From our research, we knew that if we could produce one size platform, large corporate customers would embrace the idea, so they wouldn’t need a number of different size chairs, even from an ergonomic point of view. Embody allows even the smallest person to enter the chair and gain support. Embody fits the vast majority of the population extremely well. From a humanistic point of view, it’s wonderful to fit all sizes.
ML: With Embody, the design and technology of the woven plastic allows for support that mesh and fabric on foam can’t, correct?
JW: Yes, Embody is the re-materialization of the work chair. The primary premise of Embody is healthful support and movement and to introduce a greater level of movement into the equation whether it’s macro or micro movement. This forced us to produce a narrow back support shape, which allows full range of movement for your arms.
The theory of support logic had to be changed as well. For Celle, Mirra, and Aeron, the support comes from the perimeter of the chair, as compared to Embody where we’re attempting to support the trunk of the human body via the center line of the spine, so that forced us to develop what we call pixelation—a concept that enables the individual programmability of each one of those points that exist on the back and under the seat.
Characteristically, the Embody chair support produces the best attributes of foam, softness to the touch, and finite conformation coupled with the essence of Aeron’s Pellicle technology, which breathes and generally conforms very well. Embody is the synthesis of both technologies; it breathes, it is soft to the touch, it includes both micro and macro conformation without the use of any foam.
ML: The idea of exposing the support structure in back – was that basically for design reasons?
JW: We adhere to the principle that form and function are one. The goal is always to produce an honest expression of form and function. This chair is not a minimalist expression of design but a rich and soulful visual feast. The aesthetic makes you wonder; it’s provocative. This approach also optimizes the material use and is actually cost efficient, eliminating material redundancies. It also allows us to meet green design aspirations.
ML: Are you concerned that customers will say it “wiggles?”
JW: (Laughs) Motion is a key to good health. One of the ways to elevate a person’s health is through motion. If you look underneath, you’ll see a composite structure of coil springs and elastic bands. The black lateral band behaves like Pellicle and the coil springs behave like bed springs, which produce the softness associated with foam.
ML: We’ve had so many customers ask us why Aeron had no headrest. Why doesn’t Embody?
JW: Medical and ergonomic schools of thought vary significantly on that point; our camp doesn’t believe in supporting the head in work-related postures.
ML: But our customers want to recline, put their feet up and sleep at their desks. (Laughs)
JW: This is understandable. And recline postures are good. Embody encourages people to work and relax in reclined positions without the need of head support. It achieves this via the counteracting kinematics and the instinctive back. It’s difficult to support the head, so if we couldn’t do it properly, we decided not to do it at all. Embody provides a rich sitting experience and will surprise sitters with hidden goodness.
Did you notice the tilt function? As it moves the body through space it continually aligns the eyes to the horizon as your recline. It articulates the thoracic region, with your head in balance, without producing stress. Thus, no headrest is needed.
Then there’s the “kicker.” Are you near a chair, Marc? Put the chair upright. Now apply force to the upper part of the back and notice the articulation of the lumbar region. Even in the most static condition, there’s articulation and continued support. Put your hands behind your head in full recline and extend your spine. When you need to extend your spine (stretch), Embody allows you to do it while maintaining support. In the extended position, someone could use a headrest, but we’re not advocating staying in this position for an extended period of time.
The more you explore the forgiveness of the chair as a seated worker, the healthier you will be. I instruct people to exploit the forgiveness of the chair.
ML: Jeff, thank you for your time and for allowing us to have the inside story on the thought processes behind Embody. We’re fascinated by the chair.