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Jackie Maze was bouncing on an exercise ball in a Pilates studio in Toronto in 1998 when, as she says, "something just clicked." Maze is a vice-president of marketing at Keilhauer, a Toronto-based furniture company, and that aha! moment led, eight years later, to the "Sguig," a seat based on the same principle as the exercise ball.
The Pilates mantra holds that the ball improves your posture by encouraging a natural curvature of the spine and forcing you to use your core muscles to maintain your balance. The constant micromovements of the spine increase blood flow between the disks and keep you alert for longer, explains Maze.
Though this was long before people had begun toting exercise balls to the office, Maze took her observations from the fitness studio to the cubicle, where it's rather important to stay alert and comfortable. Back pain is one of the most common reasons for missed work, according to the American Chiropractic Association.
VENUS AND MARS. To test her idea, Keilhauer paired up with EOOS, an Austrian design firm, and researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, who conducted ergonomic research and wired up a series of ball-like prototypes and other more standard front- and back-tilting chairs. "We monitored and graphed people's movements over the course of the day," said Mike Keilhauer. "Those that could move around, did, and their bodies felt less beat up at the end of a day of active sitting."
The early movement studies uncovered something unexpected: Men and women sit differently. This led the research in a new direction. Keilhauer scoured the world's universities looking for a kinesiologist to test her findings, ultimately connecting with Dr. Jack Callaghan, who holds the Canada research chairmanship in spine biomechanics and injury prevention at the University of Waterloo, less than a hundred miles away.
Over the course of eight months, Dr. Callaghan and his team studied 16 healthy students as they worked at computers for 45-minute sessions. "The findings were quite marked, especially given the normal biological scatter seen in studies involving human subjects," said Callaghan.
TWO IN ONE. Women perched, sitting on the edge of their seats, arching their backs, while men tended to slouch, relying more on the backrest. Differences in pelvic rotation between men and women contributed to these different postures. The consequence: Women felt more upper back pain, and men experienced lower back pain.
Rather than designing two different chairs, one for each gender, the designers aimed to create one chair that would support both sitting styles, and encourage a range of movement—not just the forward and backward pivoting of most chairs.
The resulting Sguig has four features that work together and set it apart from the competition. The "Pelvic Balance Point" of the seat pan lets users adjust their position in relation to the backrest to correct women's tendency to sit forward on their "sit bone,s" or iscial tuberosities, and men's tendency to sit rolled back on those bones. The backrest can slide up the sitters back so women can slide further in, towards the back of the seat pan, and use the back support.
BIG PIVOT. The "T1-L5 Free Shoulders" backrest (named for the T1 thoracic and L5 lumbar vertebrae) mimics and supports what Callaghan found to be the natural curvature of the neutral spine. The backrest's curve, more pronounced than other office chairs, discourages slouching and encourages users' shoulders to open up, to counter the usual cubicle hunch.
When they lean back, their shoulders open even more, so they take deeper breaths. The Sguig's "bounce" lets users move up-and-own and continually restack the vertebrae of their spine in the most comfortable position. The "pivot" function at the base of the chair, near the sitters' ankles, lets them pivot 181 degrees.
Sguig is part of a broader ergonomic wave bringing a higher degree of customization to products in the workspace, according to Jordan Goldstein of Gensler, an architecture and design firm that studies workspaces. "Keilhauer did some great research that allows them to tailor their product to be more attuned to different people's needs." Goldstein believes workspaces will further specialize, beyond gender, to better accommodate workers of different ages as well.
Keilhauer previewed the Sguig in June at the annual office furniture extravaganza, Neocon. There, Drew Bossen, a former physical therapist of 20 years and founder of Atlas Ergonomics, an ergonomic consulting company, tried the Sguig. While he saw its appeal for a young, fit audience, he would not yet recommend it to his many call-center clients because, "You need to have a certain core stability to want to pivot and bounce," he says. "I would be worried that overweight clients would not get enough stability."
Keilhauer's engineers incorporated a feature in the chair that decreases the angle of tilt as the user's weight increases, although heavy users still have a wide range of motion, they said.
Eileen McMorrow, director of the Best of Neocon, and part of the group that selected the Sguig for a 2006 Innovation and Editors' Choice Award, liked how easy it was to tilt back in Sguig, something not many women experienced in other office chairs.
She thought the Sguig would be competitive with other high-end office chairs like the Aeron, Freedom, and Leap chairs and that its ergonomic and physiological movement feature would be an enticing extra. "Though at a conference table, 8 or 10 people bouncing and breakdancing on their chairs could be distracting," she said.
The Sguig will hit the market in early 2007 with a retail price of $1,350. Only time will tell if the chair creates a generation of happy, bouncy office-workers.