Designed by Norwegian designer Peter Opsvik, and developed together with cooperative partner Moment, the Globe Concept was created to inspire curiosity and make sitting active, in both public spaces and offices. Globe Tree has a higher seating position to provide better outlook, reach and ergonomics, while the rounded seat and ball-shaped back support and footrest provide support and flexibility. The design fits most users without the need for complicated adjustments; you decide if you want the tables as a work surface and a sideboard, or to just support your arm while you think. The Globe Concept can be viewed during ORGATEC in hall 10, plain 2, aisle J at number 28.
The big problem with the way people talk about the term “ergonomic” is that they use it to describe the design of objects when really it’s about a relationship; that between a person and the things around them. It’s an abstract idea, so it’s dependent on a number of variables. And when those variables change, what we understand to be good ergonomics changes too.
“The principle of ergonomics as we now understand it first came to prominence in the wake of the growth in computer use,” says Lee Jones of ergonomic workplace advisers Wellworking. “That has left us encumbered with a fixed idea of what constitutes an ideal workstation and ideal posture based on an idea of desk-bound employees with a computer, whereas the pace of change in technology and working practices means that the relationship between people and place is changing all the time.
“Give people a laptop and a mobile phone and the way they work changes. Encourage them to use breakout space and it changes. Tell them it’s OK to work from wherever and it changes. Give them an iPad and it all changes again. The only consistent thing is the human at the centre of it all, and that should be the focus.”
Modern life relentlessly offers us new ways of harming ourselves. One of the most recently identified was named by researchers at the University of Basel as Laptop Thigh, caused by prolonged exposure of the skin to moderate heat. But as well as lightly toasted thighs, laptop users are also likely to be storing up less visible but more damaging conditions related to poor ergonomics. A survey from BT found that while 83% of businesses provide staff with mobile and wireless gadgets such as laptops and tablets to promote flexible working, only 62% back this up with formal “working from home” policies.
“The health and safety issues involved are complex,” says Jones, “but all rely on the principle that workers have the same rights and needs wherever they are. Many of these obligations are laid out in the Health and Safety at Work Act and include the need to supply appropriate equipment, carry out risk assessments, training and generally provide a safe working environment. Related legislation such as Display Screen Equipment Regulations is equally applicable. However, we have an obligation to recognise that it is clearly not acceptable to work with a laptop or iPad on our knees for hours at a time. We wouldn’t do it in the office, so we shouldn’t do it at home.”
Even now, the problem of Laptop Thigh is generating fewer headlines than the comparatively new ailment of iPad Neck. Tablets present their own unique ergonomic challenges because users typically hold them low down, encouraging inherently poor posture. The problem was given its moniker by a research team at the Harvard School of Public Health.
The results showed that tablet computers that were held in the lap caused greater bending of the head and neck leading to neck and shoulder pains. The author of the study, Dr Jack Dennerlein, said that “compared to typical desktop computing scenarios, the use of tablet computers is associated with high head and neck flexion postures, and there may be more of a concern for the development of neck and shoulder discomfort.
“Only when the tablets were used in the table-movie configuration, where the devices were set at their steepest case angle setting and at the greatest horizontal and vertical position, did posture approach neutral. This suggests that tablet users should place the tablet higher, on a table rather than a lap, to avoid low gaze angles, and use a case that provides steeper viewing angles.”
We are likely to see a greater incidence of related issues as more and more of us work on tablet computers. Market research firm IDC claims that worldwide tablet sales are expected to jump from 16.1m in 2010 to 147.2m by 2015. It also believes that roughly 45m of these tablets will be purchased by companies for their employees.
“This will require a new approach to ergonomics,” says Jones. It will be based on providing people with the right equipment but also addressing the management issues that make the difference. In many ways, schools provide a perfect model of contemporary ergonomics. This is not based solely on an ‘ergonomic’ product but on an appreciation of the relationship between people, the way they work, the place they do it in and the stuff they surround themselves with. The kids are way ahead of us.”
Specific ergonomic solutions for tablet users have been appearing for some time. Some of these, such as the IDEO-designed Node, for Steelcase, are aimed at classrooms but might equally apply to workplaces. For desktop workers, many accessories follow a well-trodden path by using stands to create a workstation that mimics the postures associated with PC use. These include products such as Flo by Colebrook Bosson Saunders and the i360 stand by Intelligent Touch. Because the tablet is a much lighter item than a laptop, they also include much simpler products such as the Padfoot from Michiel Cornelissen.
Some products lend themselves to tablet users in social spaces. These include Claesson Koivisto Rune’s new Isola chair for Tacchini (onoffice 62), with its inbuilt worksurface, as well as established products such as Coffice from Bene which has power and data services built into the arm and Celeste from Herman Miller.
Ergonomics is an issue that relies on the entire workspace, not just an individual’s workstation. It is about knowledge, culture and variety. Not only do we need to train people to understand the importance of using technology in the most appropriate way, we need to encourage them to move when they are sitting, and to get up and wander whenever they can. But most important in this regard is a culture that understands the complexities of ergonomics.
With cutting-edge technology, advanced ergonomics and a high level of design, ITEK chairs are made for the contemporary, efficient and healthy work environment. ITEK chairs boast numerous ergonomic elements that facilitate movement and frequent changes in posture, stimulating muscles, metabolism and circulation, and providing perfect support. Their balanced, refined design integrate perfectly into modern work surroundings.
Products designed especially for women normally make me a bit sceptical. Probably because in most cases it means a bright pink version of the exactly the same product that’s already on the market, softly rounded at best. Yet the new task chair ‘Lei’ designed by Monica Förster for Officeline, which launched at the Stockholm furniture fair earlier this year, actually addresses office chair design from an as yet neglected angle: it is the first task chair designed for the female body and its particular seating habits. Ergonomist Ellen Wheatley was behind the research that led to this venture and says: “It’s a tense subject, designing for women. Some ask ‘why design a chair that differentiates between male and female when society has been trying for so long to achieve gender equality’. But the point is things are only truly equal if both men and women can sit comfortably at work.”Being a woman I must confess Wheatley’s research does ring true. The main difference between female and male sitting postures is that women are more likely to lean forward, and when they do traditional task chairs do not offer any lumbar support. A typical male tends to lean back in his chair and the lumbar support of most chairs kicks in at that point. As the editor of an office design magazine, I’ve spent many a trade show roaming around stands in my charcoal grey business dress and every time a salesman or a press person encourages me to try out the functionalities of the newest task chair, I come to the same conclusion. While they’re demonstrating the chair saying, ‘See how you can lean back and lock’ I’m impressed by the technicalities. Yet when it’s my turn to recline, I self-consciously press my knees together asking myself: ‘Why in God’s name would I ever lean back like this on my work chair in the office?’ It certainly doesn’t feel like a natural position to me and now I know my anatomy is to blame. Or is it? Similarly to the way men comfortably sit with their legs wide, while women have this seemingly inherent reflex to keep their legs together, one does wonder if it’s a psychological or cultural phenomenon rather than truly medical or physical? “Research shows that women naturally remain upright when sitting, only slightly rotating their pelvis posteriorly,” Wheatley explains, “over time however they tend to tilt the upper body forward, in contrast to men who do the opposite. That is due to physiological differences. A woman’s erectus spinea contains a higher frequency of type one muscle fibres, which means they have a greater endurance. They also experience greater discomfort when their joints deviate from their neutral posture, especially in the hip joint.”So when women move forward in a standard office chair their backs are unsupported while with Lei a cushion props out of the backrest. It’s the same effect as placing a cushion on your chair or one of those strap-on supports you may have seen a female colleague add to her chair back. The patented technology solution (LumbarFlex system) used in Lei offers an inbuilt support for the lumbar vertebrae and the curve of the spine. Designer Monica Förster explains: “That support is important because after a while we don’t have the energy to keep our back straight, so our shoulders go up causing tension and back pain. Sitting in Lei your shoulders fold down.”In terms of shape, Förster aimed to design a chair with a “warm and humanistic feeling” that doesn’t look like a tool. “Also women are more pear-shaped so the armrests come from the back of the chair rather than up from the seat, giving you enough space for your thighs. Even if you are wide around the hips it’s still comfortable.” Personally I’m not convinced by the padded look but other manufacturers such as Vitra have also noticed a female preference for upholstered chairs such as the Bouroullec’s Worknest or Citterio’s Skape. Lei’s fabric, which was specifically designed for this project by Danish textile firm Kvadrat, holds more than meets the eye. Its highly technical structure is both elastic and pressure-relieving. It is designed for optimum heat ventilation and, last but not least, it is lovely to touch. Förster designed the colours (lemon, burgundy, dark pigeon blue and warm grey) for the Lei chair but Kvadrat will launch the material separately this summer and make it available in a new range of colours. Aesthetics aside, when you think about the time we spend sitting at our desks at work, it is quite alarming that a woman’s physique and seating habit is not specifically accommodated in an ordinary office chair. Legislation calls for so many strict rules when it comes to office furniture, how can this aspect that effects 50 per cent of the workforce have been overlooked for so long? Historically ergonomic studies aim to find a unisex solution that fits all humans, then adding as many modifications and adjustments as possible to cover the differences. “Studies focusing on the female body aren’t new,” Wheatley says, “but there has never been a corresponding product.” In the market place a one-size-fits-all chair is popular for obvious reasons, it makes the specification process much simpler and guarantees a wide range of end users. Currently certain chairs may be specified with females in mind, such as RH Forms Logic 300/400 which is popular with pregnant women due to its above-average forward-tilt. Yet producing a women-only chair like Lei is a brave move by Officeline because essentially you’re excluding half the population as potential buyers. In my quest to uncover the reason behind these ergonomic shortcomings I turned to Niels Diffrient (onoffice issue 2), the Godfather of ergonomics and designer of many progressive task chairs for Humanscale. Despite being in his early eighties his Diffrient Work chair, launched at Orgatec last year, is one of the sleekest, most intelligent and best looking chairs on the market. “We also noticed the same phenomenon of women tending to sit forward on their chairs, especially when operating computers,” Diffrient says. “They’re not the only ones, walk around a large corporate office and you’ll find some men tending to do so too, but not so many as women. Yet special use chairs such as Lei for women presents a dilemma in most offices: keeping the correct mix of the chair total to match those who want it to those who don’t.” This point is one of the key issues with this chair and the concept of chairs for women as a whole. Just imagine the ‘abuse’ in a typical English office: ‘Ugh John’s sitting on a ‘ladies chair’!’ While the reaction in Stockholm was very positive, the majority of people who came to test the chair were women. Wheatley says: “Women are very susceptible to the concept, saying: ‘So this is what it feels like to sit comfortably’.” But in search for male reactions, some blogs show an outcry about differentiating between men and women, and male bloggers were provoked by the insinuation that male preferences are taken as universal default in design. There are some areas where this differentiation is commonly accepted. Wheatley talks about saddles for bikes that are designed specifically for the gender of the user without anyone questioning why. “No one really thinks about it, but it’s the same observation: women’s saddles are wider and more cushioned because of the female pelvic floor, so why is the same logic for an office chair so absurd?”Designer Monica Förster hopes that health & safety regulation will incorporate the physical differences. “After learning so much about ergonomics through this project, I’d like to think that one day specifiers will go for one chair for women and one for men.”But Niels Diffrient believes that architects prefer a uniform look. With staff turnaround so high in most offices, it would be tricky to decide how many women’s chairs to buy.Diffrients’ answer to this dilemma was launched in the States ten years ago and in the UK in 2001: The Saddle Seat by Humanscale. “It has no backrest, but the seat shape resembles a three-sided saddle. The reason we did this is because of a well-known phenomenon occurring when seated with your thighs angling downward, much like sitting on a horse: The thighs in this position tend to rotate the pelvic cage top forward which in turn tends to direct the lumbar segments of the spine into a more appropriate concave curvature.”This works for men and women but the Saddle Seat never really took off because without a back it’s not a long-term seating option and it is therefore seen as an extra purchase, complicating the standard specification of one chair model for all. So the argument that a chair for women is only valuable for half the population wins the battle in whether sex sells here; but could things be different? Considering that a standard office chair is uncomfortable for most women (and yes, we’re aware that we’ve been generalising a lot here to make our point) then can damaging our backs be the alternative just in case a man may be teased for sitting on a ladies chair? At least they don’t come in pink.
Designed by Roger Webb, Ecostart is a new addition to the On Furniture Collection by Connection. The collection runs with the simple concept of providing outstanding design at affordable prices within a ten-day delivery programme. The Collection offers an extensive selection of task, meeting, soft seating and break-out furniture. Ecostart is a 98 per cent recyclable carbon neutral task chair. The FIRA Ergonomics Unit carried out an anthropometric assessment of Ecostart, deeming it suitable for 95 per cent of the Northern European adult population.
As the godfather of ergonomics – or “human factor engineering” as he prefers to call it – American designer Niels Diffrient, aged somewhere around the 78 mark (but he prefers not to confirm this), revolutionised office task chair design with his Freedom chair for Humanscale in 1999. Its impact has boosted the comparatively small company to the top of the task chair sales charts in only six years.
At Orgatec it was barely possible to find a stand that didn’t claim to have an ergonomic chair. But Diffrient’s Freedom and Liberty chairs take the word to another level. He puts the “ergo” into ergonomics. “For me, the ergonomic objective can never be compromised. The dilemma in the office furniture field is that not many people can distinguish between what looks functional and what is functional,” he says. People rely so heavily on their visual sense that they become seduced by the look. He feels it’s a similar phenomenon to “starchitects” such as Zaha Hadid and Will Alsop who design “wow-buildings” that are known to have flaws such as leakage. “Nearly every furniture manufacturer can claim to have an ergonomic chair because the purchasing people don’t know the engineering process well enough to challenge it. I could challenge every chair in this place but that would be against my professional ethics,” he says. So what is the difference between his chairs and others?
“My take, when it comes to technicalities, is that if the average person cannot comprehend the basic performance of the product then you’ve failed,” Diffrient asserts. “With my chairs – take Freedom for example – it’s immediately obvious that the armrests work magnificently. They are synchronised and move up and down further than any other chair. You can move them with one hand and it works for you without needing to reach underneath in search for some knobs.”
Diffrient spent over a year on the armrest, because he develops each part of each product separately. “I’m always motivated to gain an improvement in all aspects of the body support,” he says. So he put gel into the armrest, seeing that the compressible fluid spreads the load, fulfilling the first rule of comfort. “I’m not aiming at cost and efficiency, which is the usual engineering objective, I’m aiming at human compliance.”
The same attention was given to the headrest that automatically comes up to support your head in a vertical position when you recline, to help hold your head upright without strain. Without these functions the headrest is simply an optical affirmation of office hierarchy. “There are also subtleties that are somewhat beyond the average person’s recognition but they get them for free,” Diffrient grins. Like the contour of the cushions, the proper curvature to support the back and the seat – together they all form a fairly complex basis.
According to Diffrient, there is a very simple description of comfort, and that is absence of stress. “I design on a fundamental principle: absence of stress, absence of pressure, absence of anything that concentrates undesirable forces, psychological or physiological.”
For instance, his Liberty chair, first launched in 2004, improves upon previous mesh office chairs with its tri-panel fitted to the back like a tailored shirt. The construction matches the curvature of the back not just in the usual direction, up and down, but also side to side. The mesh displaces rather than stretches, automatically providing perfect lumbar support for everyone – without the sitter having to adjust it.
“To me that was the rationale to do a mesh chair, I never would have done it for the fashion,” Diffrient says. “I used to be sceptical of mesh chairs because of the flexible back, which allows bad posture. It won’t give you lumbar support so you must put a little bar to hold your back in place. But that again means pressure with the load concentrated in a small place.”
The Liberty fits like a glove. You almost forget you’re actually sitting on a chair. Diffrient says when he designs a product, the look is the last thing he thinks of. And indeed his chairs are aesthetically plain. But he believes “A good design is when people say: ‘Oh it’s so simple!’” Diffrient is an inventor, designer and human engineer. He is also surprisingly vain. For our cover shoot, I had planned to tie in his themes with his products’ attributes: human factor plus sustainable design equals office chair with creator in forest. After all, Humanscale was just recently celebrated for its green ideals, with founder Robert King being listed in the Who’s Who: The Eco-Guide.
But Diffrient gets concerned about the shoot and needs assurance – he doesn’t want to look old or silly. “Can you make me look more like Paul Newman or Robert Redford?” He even suggests using a body double, but I guess that’s a joke. I’m amazed how much he cares, but he explains:
“I’m a Virgo, I always pick away at things. I’m fussy like that with my work too, until I get it right.” In the end, we manage to lure him off the Orgatec stand into the Kölner forest and before you know it, he’s swirling around contentedly on his chair.
“My approach to sustainability differs slightly from Bob King’s,” Diffrient says. “Bob makes sure we use 85 per cent recycled, not just recyclable material, whereas I think: How efficient is the chair? How many parts are in it? How light or heavy is it? Our chairs use half the amount of parts than most on the market, which is right away doing something for the environment. My chair is half the standard weight.”
Besides the chairs and a saddle seat, Diffrient has also designed a lamp for Humanscale, but the root of his ergonomic proclivity lies in his previous position. He spent 25 years working for Henry Dreyfuss Associates, a broad-based design consultancy that designed everything from telephones and Polaroid cameras to John Deere tractors and passenger aircraft interiors for American Airlines. But the most formative experience taken from Dreyfuss, besides “becoming associate, then partner and later buying the company together with the partners when Dreyfuss retired in 1969”, was the introduction to the world of human factor engineering, the basis of current ergonomics today. Dreyfuss had realised while designing for the army during the second world war that in order to design a product to match the person, you need to understand the limitations of what they are doing. So he studied how to arrange, for example, a tank or aeroplane by using the only data available: the measurements taken by the army for the sizes of the uniforms. That was the start of ergonomics in his business.
Diffrient went on to publish a design reference classic, a trilogy called Humanscale, with a circular slide rule, a disc with windows showing height, weight and proportion diagrams as an easy, user-friendly reference tool. “We used existing data from official sources. But the human factor engineers had never realised that they were breaking their own rules by presenting data in a way that no one could use except another human factor engineer. So we simply human engineered the presentation of the data,” he says.
Humanscale was studied by designers worldwide and Robert King bought the name of Diffrient’s publication to found a company under that name in 1983. Originally it manufactured ergonomic office accessories, such as keyboard support and non-glare screens. It wasn’t until 15 years later that Bob King decided to venture into the office chair market and approached Diffrient. “I remember when he came to me I liked his attitude, his vision,” he recalls. “Then he started describing a chair to me that he wanted to produce and I realised he was depicting a chair I had already designed in private.” In essence, it was what we now know as the Freedom chair.
So, why chairs? After all those different product designs, what made Diffrient go into office furniture? “What I like about a chair is that I can grasp it, in it’s entirety,” he replies.
He pulls a pen from his pocket and starts drawing on my notepad. I find myself mesmerised by this elderly gentleman’s power and promptness with the pen. “One thing that I could always do, that indicated where I’d end up,” Diffrient smiles, “was that I could draw. From two years old I would draw.” So we go back, way back to a little farm in Mississippi, were Diffrient was born. And Diffrient is different. A quarter Danish with American Indian blood in his veins, he used to copy pictures out of the farmer’s catalogue in his parents’ house. Later they moved to Detroit, where he specialised in aeronautical engineering at school, only to find that it was all about mathematics when all he wanted to do was draw. So he switched to art and later graduated in design and architecture.
The crucial crossroads in his career were linked to his mentors who helped pave the way for his ongoing success. First and foremost, there was Eero Saarinen. Saarinen, famous for his expressive and curvy architecture, spotted Diffrient’s talent while he was still at the Cranbrook Academy and took him on as his assistant for five years. “This is when I assisted in the design of a chair that eventually went into production – Saarinen’s model 71/72 manufactured by the Knoll company in 1952. And that chair is still in the line today.”
After the work experience with the Finnish architect came the Italian job. “I went to Milan to study at the Politecnico but I didn’t like it,” says Diffrient. Why? “Because it was all in Italian. Also, at that time in Italy, architecture was taught as the “mother art”. But I had already trained in both design for buildings as well as design for production.” So he decided to turn to Gio Ponti, editor and founder of Domus magazine, for some advice on who best to learn from. Ponti gave him two names: Marcello Nizzoli and Marco Zanuzo. The first was a sculptor who said he worked alone, but the second had a commission to design a sewing machine, and so they began working together. Six months later they completed the Borletti sewing machine, which went on to win a Compasso d’Oro award at the Milan Triennale in 1957.
“I must say that Italian engineers are more artistically orientated then most. They understand aesthetics,” Diffrient remembers. “And the fact that, despite only being 21 at the time, they called me Il Maestro – it was pretty different to the US, too.” Nonetheless, he moved back across the Atlantic when Dreyfuss offered him a job and the rest is ergonomic design history.
“The thing that always got me working as a consulting designer was that I always felt if you don’t control the brief from design right through to the engineering, you can’t make the best of the opportunity. I enjoyed the clients and the top-quality products. But all the time I was thinking that there must be a better way,” says Diffrient. And the better way, he eventually concluded, was to leave, not take any of the clients with him and start over as an independent inventor. “So now I dream up the product, develop it, do the ergonomics analysis and then sell the rights to it.”
Today, Diffrient has 45 patents, sells rights to his designs, and is paid the royalties. “That makes much more sense to me”, he says. “If a design fails I don’t get anything and if it’s a success I get a lot. That way you work harder, too.” Currently, he shares his studio in Ridgefield, CT, with his wife Helena Hernmarck, the successful tapestry designer.
Diffrient is obviously still going strong and there’s no end in sight. He tells me about a new chair he’s being working on for a while and we may even get to see a prototype next year. So what can we expect to see, I ask. “Full action, no mechanism!” Interesting… maybe a swing? Let’s see, but whatever it may be, it will certainly be Diffrient.