Ever since its launch a little under 25 years ago, Herman Miller’s Aeron chair has divided opinion. In a letter to Blueprint written in 1995, for example, the design journalist Carl Gardner wrote that it “resembles a parodic, nightmarish amalgam of everything about office aesthetics I thought 1990s design wanted to get rid of. With its macho stance, exposed materials and over-engineered form, this is a product wearing its technology on its sleeve in a most brutal fashion. What happened to all those homely values that the next wave of office design was supposed to embody? Think again, Herman Miller.”
In a similar vein, I remember having a visceral argument with a globally renowned product designer about its merits sometime in the early noughties. As far as he was concerned, when whichever maniacal world leader decided it was time to press the nuclear button he would be sitting on this Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf design. (Naturally enough, he was of the opinion that he should have been asked to design it himself.)
And me? Well I take the point about its aesthetic – yes, it is very masculine and no, it makes absolutely no attempt to hide its engineering and technological pedigree – but then again I’ve worked on an Aeron for well over a decade now and it makes me happy. Everything is easily adjustable, from the seat height and arms to the tension that allows you to bounce around on it like an over-enthusiastic school kid. And it is easy to forget how revolutionary the idea of replacing fabric and foam with mesh (or Pellicle, as the material is officially known) was at the time. Now virtually every bog standard office chair has pilfered the idea, generally to diminishing returns. But, above all, it’s supremely comfortable, even coming in three different sizes to accommodate a variety of body shapes.
The US manufacturer ignored Gardner’s request, of course, and has sold 7 million Aerons in 134 countries. Over the years the design has been refined. Rumour had it that the lumbar support was adapted after it kept being ripped off and thrown around the office by cash-crazed city boys, for instance. However, last year Miller unveiled a brand new version of the chair, which, it claims in the official press release,“offers a completely new experience of sitting”.
That’s the kind of marketing flimflam designed to raise the hackles of a cynical journalist. What is certainly true is that there remain a lot of levers. A knob by my left leg twists to determine where my seating position is locked, a lever by my right sorts out the tension. Another button is for the seat height, while it’s also possible to adjust the length and angle of the armrests. Just like the old chair, it takes a bit of time to work out where everything is and what it does. However, once set, it feels much the same as its predecessor. Perhaps the key difference is in the aesthetic. While the Herman Miller team – with input from Don Chadwick – have understandably (and correctly) kept the silhouette, the new version has a re-engineered tilting mechanism which is significantly less bulky and gives it a rather lighter feel.
According to Herman Miller, the frame angle has been adjusted 1.8 degrees forward in an effort to give the body better support in the upright position, while the new Pellicle mesh has eight varied zones of tension in the seat and back – the tightest zones provide firm support where you need it, apparently, while “nesting” areas help to “cradle the sit bones”. I have to say from a user’s perspective these changes are almost entirely imperceptible. As you would expect, it comes in an array of options across three different sizes, with the frame and base available in three finishes and the chassis in two. Prices start at a little under £1,000.
So is the new Aeron a genuine upgrade? Well, I’m not entirely sure. The original was a fine chair and the latest version is no different.
After nearly a quarter of a century in use, the iconic office chair has been given a complete design overhaul. So, are its users still sitting comfortably?