The original Herman Miller Aeron Chair design story

The original herman Miller Aeron Chair
The original herman Miller Aeron Chair

Herman Miller: Aeron Chairs – The Design Story

Herman Miller Aeron Chair designed by Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick  

It’s in the movies, on TV, in magazine ads, in museum design collections, and working hard in offices everywhere. Winner of countless awards, including the IDSA/Business Week Design of the Decade, it was a breakthrough when introduced in 1994. There’s been nothing like it since. You can’t miss its one-of-a-kind look. And when you sit down, you’ll feel what all the fuss is about.

The Design Story

Herman Miller turned to designers Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf to design a totally new kind of chair. Chadwick and Stumpf’s previous collaboration had produced the groundbreaking Equa chair.

The two designers began this development process with a clean slate, with no assumptions about form or material, but with some strong convictions about what a chair ought to do for a person…

Ergonomically, it ought to do more than just sit there. It should actively intercede for the health of the person who sits in it longer than she should. Functionally, it ought to move and adjust as simply and naturally as possible. It should support a person in any position he cares to assume, at any task his office job serves up.

Anthropometrically, it ought to be more inclusive than its predecessors. It should do more than accommodate small or large people; it should really fit them.

Environmentally, it ought to be benign. It should be sparing of natural resources, durable and repairable, designed for disassembly and recycling.

The design that fulfilled these criteria met all expectations by shattering some of them. It wasn’t upholstered. It wasn’t padded. It was dimensioned in three models that looked exactly alike and that had nothing to do with their users’ job titles.

It didn’t look like any office chair ever seen before. And its revolutionary concept incorporated more patentable ideas than any previous Herman Miller research program.

“It was a matter of deliberate design to create a ‘new signature shape’ for the Aeron chair,” says designer Bill Stumpf. “Competitive ergonomic chairs became look-alikes. Differentiation was a huge part of the Aeron design strategy, and it remains one of, if not the most, critical aspects of Aeron’s success. 

“The human form has no straight lines, it is biomorphic. We designed the chair to be above all biomorphic, or curvilinear, as a metaphor of human form in the visual as well as the tactile sense. There is not one straight line to be found on an Aeron chair.

“The pellicle, or transparency, of the chair was equally a deliberate design strategy in that its transparency symbolizes the free flow of air to the skin in the same way lace, window screens, and other permeable membranes permit the flow of air or light or moisture.

The transparency of the chair as a visual element was in keeping with the idea of transparent architecture and technology, which Aeron pioneered in advance of Apple’s transparent iMac computers.

Transparency is a major design movement. Its purpose is to make technology less opaque, to communicate the inner workings of things, and to make objects less intrusive in the environment. Aeron is a non-intrusive chair.”

The chair was tested for comfort with scores of users, pitting it against the best work chairs available. Leading ergonomists, orthopedic specialists, and physical therapists evaluated the chair’s fit and motion, the benefit and ease of its adjustments. 

The design team conducted anthropometric studies across the country, using a specially developed instrument to calculate everything from popliteal height to forearm length on as many people as would let themselves be measured.

The research team did pressure mapping and thermal testing to determine the weight distribution and heat- and moisture-dissipating qualities of the material that forms the chair’s seat and back.

The results of these tests and the opinions of these experts were used to refine and validate the design.

Although it reveals its aesthetic heritage in lyrical shapes reminiscent of George Nelson designs, organic forms that recall the work of Charles Eames, and a spare, athletic aspect that brings to mind its designers’ Equa chair, the Aeron chair finally looks only like itself.

Its unique form expresses its purpose and use and the material composition of its parts and the way they connect. The slightly transparent and reflective nature of its surfaces gives it an airy quality. It becomes a part of the person who uses it and the environment that surrounds it.

Besides the topographically neutral Pellicle material that conforms to each person’s body contours, the Aeron chair has several features that enable it to adapt to individual idiosyncrasies in shape and proportion.

Optional armrests adjust for height and width, and an optional lumbar support adjusts for height and depth. Tilt-tension and tilt-limiting adjustments accommodate a wide range of sizes and personal preferences. In the Aeron chair, small people experience effortless full recline for the first time. Large people can maintain an upright posture securely.

One chair in three sizes comfortably fits people from the 1st-percentile female through the 99th-percentile male. The B-size chair fits the large group of people who fall in the center of the anthropometric spectrum. The A-size chair, which adjusts lower than the other two, and the C-size chair, with its more generously sized seat and backrest, suit the smaller and the larger people at either end of the bell curve.

Made largely of recycled materials, the Aeron chair is designed to last a long time, with parts that get the most wear easily replaced and recycled. Just what you would expect in a well thought-out design.

Written by Simon
I am a published writer, journalist and photo-journalist. I have an MA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales and my journalism has been published in a number of UK national newspapers including 'the Observer'. I have life long interest in creative design, art and function and this website is an exploration of that in all its forms and guises.