Creatures of Comfort

To create the world’s first ergonomic work chair, designer Bill Stumpf began by redefining the meaning of comfort. His ideas are as relevant today as they were then.

Written by: Clark Malcolm

Video by: Mike Perry

This would have been Bill Stumpf’s 80th birthday. Knowing him as I did, I’m certain he would have smoked a cigar (or maybe two), mixed a martini, and celebrated with his friends and family. There would have been good jazz, good food, and lots of good laughs. For Stumpf, these seemingly simple rituals and pleasures amounted to something more. They were what make us human. All too well, he understood what makes us human—our successes and our failures. Stumpf railed against all the things in the world that are needlessly inhuman and, as a designer, looked for ways to remedy them. And that, in essence, begins the story of how he and Herman Miller created the world’s first ergonomic chair.

Bill Stumpf's research illustrations

“The human form has no straight lines,” said Stumpf, “it is biomorphic. We designed the chair to be, above all, biomorphic, or curvilinear, as a metaphor of human form in the visual as well as the tactile sense.”

It’s hard to imagine today that before 1976 most office workers sat in primitive and uncomfortable chairs. That was the year Stumpf and Herman Miller introduced Ergon, and changed the world of office seating forever. It was a revolution that seemed to come out of nowhere, but its origins stemmed from an idea as old as humanity itself—comfort.

Stumpf’s explorations into comfort began in the early 1970s, when he came to work at Herman Miller Research Corporation under Robert Propst. However, he quickly chafed at corporate life and returned to Madison, Wisconsin, with Herman Miller’s blessing and financial support to explore ideas for a new kind of chair. He soon returned with the concept for Ergon.

Bill Stumpf's ergonomic research

The Ergon chair was introduced in 1976 after Stumpf conducted 10 years of research into how people really sit when they work. His concept books, shown here, included documentation of consultations with orthopedic surgeons and cardiovascular specialists to understand the effects of chairs and the seated posture on the body’s circulatory system, muscles, and bones.

Philosopher and writer William Gass defined comfort as the “lack of awareness,” and Stumpf latched onto this definition as a goal for what could be achieved through ergonomic design. But he extended comfort beyond the physical to the psychological and emotional. As a prelude to his first chair design for Herman Miller, Stumpf laid out the criteria for comfort, several of which have been reimagined by artist Mike Perry in the animation that accompanies this story. These ideas come from his Ergon concept book, and were key to his proposal outlining the world’s first chair designed with ergonomic performance as a criterion.

Designer Bill Stumpf

For Stumpf—and Herman Miller—Ergon validated a rigorous, technical, research-based approach to product design that became standard practice, and eventually led to the most successful chair of all time, Aeron.

“Some things say, ‘Don’t touch me! Don’t come near me!’ I like to be much more seductive.”

-Bill Stumpf

Stumpf’s comfort criteria have directly and indirectly informed every Herman Miller chair design since 1976—including Equa, Aeron, Mirra, Embody, and Sayl. The list evolved as Stumpf’s thinking evolved, and eventually grew to include 22 salient points. His detailed research and demanding views of what a design should do are as fresh and provocative today as they were four decades ago. His criteria—including the five animated here—continue to help us define and redefine high performance seating—with a balanced view of comfort, function, and aesthetics.