Critic

Apple Is Leading a Revolution in Office Chairs

The Pacific, from British star designers Barber & Osgerby, reveals a changing Silicon Valley.

Source: Vitra

If you know one office chair by name, it’s probably the Aeron. Released in 1994, its radical, high-tech exoskeleton design was a sensation, and the chair went on to become that rare piece of furniture to emerge as a pop-­culture signifier. In 1995 it appeared as the lone piece of set decoration in a Levi Strauss & Co. Super Bowl commercial; later, it served as a plot point in an episode of Will & Grace.

Nathan Myhrvold, then the chief technology officer of Microsoft Corp., argued in a 1998 issue of Vanity Fair that owning an Aeron chair wasn’t so different from owning a private jet: They were both about investing in your own comfort. “The Aeron was a symbolic way to attract talent and people during the dot-com era,” says Primo Orpilla, co-founder of Studio O+A, which has designed offices for Uber Technologies, Yelp, and Microsoft. “Companies said, ‘You’ve got an Aeron chair, we care about your health.’ ”

The Pacific, a task chair from Swiss furniture giant Vitra that hits the market this winter, illustrates how ideas about work have changed since then. For one, it shuns Aeron’s standardized look. Instead, you’re expected to customize the sleek, minimal Pacific before you place an order. It comes in three backrest heights and a plastic or aluminum finish; it can be upholstered with four fabrics in dozens of hues, ranging from pale pink to sandy beige. There are also two types of leather—including one in a smooth cowhide with a flat grain and fine top sheen—in an additional 22 colors. The base price is $1,185, but a high-backed, premium caramel leather version runs closer to $3,500.

Illustration: Tsjisse Talsma

More telling is the “skirt” extending the backrest down past the seat to hide the ergonomic controls that adjust height and set the amount of tension you want in the recline. Unlike the Aeron, which proudly emphasizes its machinelike performance with visible levers, a monolithic graphite finish, and a texture meant to evoke industrial parts, the Pacific’s functionality is tucked away. It looks like a chair that could blend into your living room.

It also doesn’t coddle you like the Aeron’s mesh fabric, a breathable material called pellicle that was a manufacturing breakthrough when it came out. Built to provide support for coders at their desk for hours at a time, it flattered Silicon Valley’s myth of the jacked-in programmer reinventing the world from a keyboard. Whereas the Aeron viewed sitting at a desk as the key to productivity, the Pacific assumes your best work isn’t done in front of a screen.

“Office furniture has always been designed to look like an extension of what your boss expects you to do,” says Jay Osgerby, co-founder of Barber & Osgerby, the London studio behind the Pacific. In 2012, when Vitra put out a call for a chair that would anticipate the office of the future, Osgerby and his design partner, Edward Barber, were intrigued by the way hotels such as the Ace had turned their lobbies into magnets for young people—not for their DJs and mixed drinks, but as work spaces. “We wanted something that wasn’t screaming ‘work,’ ” Barber says. Their chair’s soft lines and proportions are based on a Samoan adz, a tool with a curved blade, that Barber found in a New Zealand antique shop.

Its quiet good looks jibe with the prevailing philosophy that happen­stance and freedom beget innovation. Today’s office designers are more apt to tout ad hoc conference areas and nooks where workers can find their rhythm. “For the new generation, the blurring of work and life is at an all-time high,” says Orpilla, the office designer. If the Aeron was a destination of optimized comfort in a sea of cubicles, the Pacific is meant to be a pit stop during your workday. It has far to go to duplicate the Aeron’s success—1,500 of the latter are sold every day, making it 7 million since 1994. A new one pops off the assembly line every 17 seconds.

But the Pacific has already racked up what might be the highest honor any design can receive in 2017: Its first customer was Jony Ive, Apple Inc.’s chief design officer. Ive is friends with Barber and Osgerby; during a social visit soon after they landed the Vitra commission, they sketched their early idea for him. Ive, as it happened, wasn’t finding any chairs he liked for Apple’s new 12,000-person headquarters designed by architect Norman Foster. “He looked, raised an eyebrow, and said, ‘That’s interesting,’ ” Osgerby recalls. Ive eventually ordered one for every office desk on campus, each fitted with a custom-made fabric in a serene, deep-sea blue.

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