In the age of COVID, when many people are working from home, they’re experiencing some real sticker shock when they attempt to upgrade their home office setup from their dining room chair and table. Like, what’s the deal with the price of an office chair? Why do some cost a hundred bucks while others cost a thousand? Even the ones that don’t look like they’re secretly stuffed with apple cores and Chinese newspapers will still run you a few hundred.
Alongside Patty Johnson, an associate professor and graduate program director of furniture design at Rhode Island School of Design, who’s designed office chairs herself, we sat down, spun around, daydreamed a little, then got back on task and figured this all out.
What’s so different about an office chair, compared to any other chair?
Well, there are more parts to an office chair — and literally more moving parts. But the biggest thing, Johnson says, is that there’s a lot more focus on ergonomics. It’s the main preoccupation of the office furniture industry. “People spend a lot of time in an office chair compared to sitting on their couch or at their dining room table,” Johnson says. “So how it supports the body and how it alleviates pain as people sit for a long period of time is pretty important.” Top-tier companies like Herman Miller, Knoll and Haworth are heavily invested in this.
One of the trickier things about ergonomics research is that not all bodies are alike, and so the design of an office chair needs to be able to fit people across all body types, and from the smallest to the largest percentile.
True. Plus they’ve got wheels, and they swivel!
Some of history’s important names actually contributed those. Thomas Jefferson invented the swivel chair and wrote the Declaration of Independence on it. Charles Darwin evolved the office chair further by adding wheels so he could scoot around his office and look at specimens more easily. Less notably, back in 2007, Donald Trump lent his name to a line of tacky (and totally on-brand) office chairs for Staples.
How much ergonomics research actually goes into the cheaper chairs?
Johnson says it’s something they ponder, but it’s perhaps not a central tenet to their designs. They may go for fewer adjustments, as well as cheaper materials — the upholstery, the hardware, the padding, etc.
And more adjustments equal more money?
Pretty much, yeah. All those adjustable bells and whistles take a ton of time to perfect. That’s a lot of sunk cost! This is money that the companies hope to recoup in the premium price tag. Johnson recently worked with Haworth on a chair that was in development for five years — that’s a good deal of investment on the front end. And still they aim to reduce the cost of each and every element, a task that involves a lot of money itself.
This all sounds kinda fair when you put it like that, but if all that stuff’s necessary for a good chair, how come Ikea ones are so cheap?
While Johnson stresses that she likes Ikea, she says you’ll notice that their chairs are always a little bit smaller: Not as wide, not as tall and fewer complex curves on them, because all of those things add to the price of a chair. Ikea’s business model tends to involve copying someone else’s original design, then reducing the dimensions and complexity of them.
Really, though, how much more can we perfect a chair? What’s left to do?
Johnson says there are a number of reasons companies still go to extraordinary lengths to design original chairs.
Do all these numbers have dollar signs in front of them, by any chance?
I mean, they’re in the business of selling chairs, what do you want me to tell you? But from their point of view, there are still a number of ways to innovate, and to be seen in the marketplace as innovating. Whether that’s a new design process like 3D digital knitting or improved materials, embracing new technology and pushing the design envelope are key factors for furniture companies.
What’s the expected life of an office chair?
If you’ve ever worked in an office you’ve surely noticed how quickly office chairs get absolutely destroyed. Seems like, in every conference room or storage closet, is a listing, sunk, sagging, stained, beat-up thing that was once a functioning chair. More expensive chairs are built to last a long time — durability is a huge factor for the better companies. That generally involves the quality of the materials and the quality of the build.
What’s different about the build?
Most everything is better and more durable: the seams, the welding, the quality is much higher, Johnson says.
What about supply and demand?
It’s true — people aren’t generally buying work chairs as often as they buy, say, T-shirts, which is reflected in the price. Also, they can be as much as 50 percent cheaper when sold in bulk to offices and interior design companies, but you’re typically paying the full freight when you’re buying just one at a time as a remote worker.
Aren’t there different types of chairs?
Yes — there are task chairs (which are often lower backed, probably only move up and down, and are for conference rooms or worker bees); there are desk chairs with many more adjustable features; there are executive chairs, which are those traditional plush leather thrones from which CEOs connive ruthless schemes to raise the company’s share price; and there are gaming chairs, which largely involve specific kinds of styling.
They each have different levels of features and adjustments, which add to the price. Johnson says there’s a lot more R&D that goes into a desk chair than into a task chair. And again, another consideration is quantity: At the commercial level, there are more task and conference chairs sold to offices than executive chairs.
So, all considered, are they really worth the shocking price?
Like so many things, it really depends on how comfortable you are with paying it. On one hand, Herman Miller’s famous Aeron chair — which starts at about a grand without many of the add-ons — is widely considered one of the best chairs ever invented. On the other hand, any chair where you can adjust the height will probably do the trick just fine.
But overall, you should expect to pay a fair bit for something that won’t turn your spine into a pretzel. “You’re going to spend a lot of time in it, and you want your body to be well supported,” Johnson says. “Spend as much as you possibly can afford, and go to high-quality brands.”
Finally, for no reason at all, check out what 1990s Bill Gates used to do with his office chair. Maybe don’t try this at home with yours, though: