Power Chairs – Industry Trend or Event

Deena C. Knight

So you’re slated to finally move into that executive corner office. But what about furniture? You can’t put just any ol’ thing in your new space. You’ve worked your way up, and now it’s time to reap the rewards. And nothing says “I’ve made it!” like the right power chair.

Last year, the Business Industry Furniture Manufacturers Association indicated the wholesale demand for domestic office furniture reached approximately $12.7 billion. And this year it expects that number to exceed $13.5 billion. According to chair makers, businesses are spending more–upwards of $3,500–on better-quality chairs for middle and upper-level management employees.

“Our research definitely indicates that upper-end seating is the fastest growing category,” says Larry Lebedin, vice president of Ergonomic Advanced Seating Inc.

Steelcase, in fact, believes so strongly in the middle- to upper-end chair market that it spent the last four years and $35 million to develop completely new chair technology for tomorrow’s offices. These new “Leap” chairs–list priced from $710 to $1,400–have “taken the industry by storm,” according to Leap product manager Ken Tameling, due to their superior ergonomic features and stylish appeal.

“The person who selects this chair can really make it his or her own,” he says. “There are different back frame options, different arms, plus slipcover-like vests and pillows to change the initial look. A chair can convey a casual, racy, traditional, or high-tech style.”

But what distinguishes a “power chair” from the run of the mill, functional office chair? According to Nancy French, vice president of merchandising for Samsonite, it has to have that “Wow! You’ve made it!” look about it. Some of the features that give a chair “wow” appeal include: top-quality aniline leather (especially black); a high back; a cast aluminum or wood base; and, in some cases, nailhead trim.

“Workers are sitting longer, so comfort is more of an issue,” says John Hendrix, vice president of sales for Office Star. He sees the trend leaning toward more fully featured chairs. The company’s best-selling chair (EL4300), for example, offers back height adjustment, back angle adjustment, seat angle adjustment, adjustable armrests, seat height adjustment, dual-wheel casters, and a five-point pedestal base.

Some chairs also offer massage features, like Ergonomic Advanced Seating’s Millennium Series, or recline features, such as Hjellegjerde USA’s Hove collection. Engineered and made in Norway, Hove chairs offer “true European recliner comfort” to the executive.

Another aspect that makes a chair a standout is uniqueness of design. Companies like Herman Miller Inc. are always trying to push the envelope where design is concerned–and it pays off. The company’s Aeron Chair, which is distinguished by its patented Kinemat tilt mechanism that allows the body to pivot naturally, was recently cited as the Exclusive Gold Award Winner in the Designs of The Decade competition sponsored by the Industrial Designers Society of America and Business Week magazine.

“The Aeron chair evolved to become a design classic,” says one contest jury member, Lorraine Justice, Ph.D., IDSA. “It’s one of the first to successfully combine ergonomics, aesthetics, and quality manufacturing and materials. It adds to the quality of work life.”

Humanscale’s Freedom Chair, as well, has won numerous design awards, including the Gold Award for Seating at IIDEX/NeoCon and Best New Workplace Product at Workplace ’99 in London. Says Robert King, Humanscale president, “Our new task chair exceeds known performance standards, making new ways of working possible.”

Ergonomics are a must!

In the May/June 1999 issue of Office-Dealer magazine, Brian Gagnon, executive vice president in product development/special accounts for Global Industries Inc. was quoted as saying: “I’m not sure that there is a wide understanding of what ergonomics really is, at least as it relates to chairs. People seem to think that an ergonomic chair is one that visually looks as if it will force a body into proper skeletal alignment. Although contouring of seats and backs can certainly help the user achieve optimal posture, flexibility and adjustment are paramount.”

So true, agrees Tameling, who indicates that there’s a constant need for education about ergonomics so middle and upper management will understand cost factors involved with purchasing a quality, ergonomically correct chair. He says executives need to know that back pain is a disability that currently costs employers $20 billion annually in workers’ compensation costs and $60 billion in indirect costs, including lost productivity. “They need to know what justifies the costs of these chairs.”

To develop the Leap chair, Steel-case consulted with physical therapists, biomechanical engineers, and ergonomics experts. The result is a “leap in technology”-a chair incorporating a Live Back that conforms to the user and the user’s spine instead of asking the user to conform to the contours of the chair. “We found that many experts were looking at overall body movement, but no one had really addressed the concept of how the spine moves,” says Noe Palacios, ergonomic specialist and seating product manager at Steelcase. “The spine wants to move in ways that today’s chairs don’t allow. Leap offers a healthier way to sit.”

“An executive could be in his or her chair 10 to 12 hours a day, so ergonomics is a must,” says French. “It has to have contoured seating and back, lumbar support, and pillow support. Customers are becoming familiar with ergonomics, and if they’re going to spend a large sum of money on a power chair, they’re going to do the research to find out exactly which ergonomic features are built into the chair they are interested in buying. A high-end chair definitely can’t just look good. It has to feel good as well.”

And, as Lebedin points out, “There isn’t the one-size-fits-all chair for everyone. Our line offers a wide choice of back options, adjustability, and lumbar support. Some of our chairs will hold up to a 400-pound person comfortably.”

He adds, “Buying an ergonomically correct chair is like preventive medicine. It promotes proper posture and allows the user to be more productive.”

Deena C. Knight (dknight865@aol.com) is an Asheville, North Carolina-based writer with 10 years experience covering all aspects of the commercial and residential furniture industries.

When selecting seating for a productive, efficient office environment, it’s important to choose furniture that will allow the body to remain in a neutral position, placing it under as little stress as possible throughout the workday. The office furniture experts at Quill Corp., a direct marketer of office products and furniture, suggest considering the following ergonomic features when buying an office chair:

* Seat padding with resiliency–This reduces contact stress on hips and thighs, and provides comfortable back support. Often, “waterfall” seat contours are preferred to alleviate pressure on the back of the thighs.

* Durable construction–This is necessary to safely support the person’s weight and dimensions. Fabric should breathe and be non irritating to the skin.

* Adjustable height–The chair should adjust to a minimum height equal to the distance from the person’s shin to the floor.

* Adjustable back support–This allows the back of the chair to be raised or lowered to the, height that adequately supports the body’s curves, especially the lumbar region of the back.

* Adjustable seat and tension tilt–These should operate independently of the back support. A reclining tilt of the seat pan will support the back muscles, whereas a forward tilt encourages a well-aligned, upright posture to take stress off the lower back. Adjustable tilt will adjust to the person’s weight by allowing the chair to rock or tilt with the right amount of resistance.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Quality Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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