For several centuries, the design of office chairs has funnelled towards a single ideal: a chair so comfortable that workers might go eight hours barely needing to move. Thomas Jefferson was an early pioneer of this “do less to do more” philosophy when, in 1776, the future president inserted a spindle and rollers underneath his Windsor chair to create the world’s first swivel seat. In 1840, Charles Darwin fitted wheels to his armchair and used it to zip between specimen drawers.
Today’s ergonomic office chairs come with a half-dozen knobs that help you position your body just so. They are designed to reduce the strain of this long-term immobility, otherwise known as “office life”. The webbed material used in Herman Miller’s iconic Aeron chair, for example, was initially developed to prevent bed sores. Such innovations are ergonomic marvels, if we understand ergonomics to mean “a thing that helps you work more”.
But, for “active sitting” advocates, every enhanced lumbar support and pillowy armrest is a step away from the light. Talking to an active chair evangelist for the first time is something like discovering you have got the function of an everyday object entirely backwards. Are you sitting comfortably? Too bad, but I’ll begin.
The first thing I should warn you about the active chair community is that its prescriptions have yet to be proven. Active chairs have been around since 1979, when Norwegian designer Hans Christian Mengshoel patented a kneeling chair with a rocking mechanism called the Balans. He sparked decades of innovation, most famously from compatriot Peter Opsvik, whose unusual designs included an office chair suspended from the ceiling. Opsvik’s son, Tor, recalls a childhood home in which you had to have a death wish to change a lightbulb, because everything shook wildly when stood on.
Although Opsvik and his contemporaries remain respected as designers, much of the “evidence” for active sitting is extrapolated from evolutionary biology (cavemen didn’t need lumbar support, so why should we?!) and from studies in parts of the world where people don’t suffer bad back pain. These tend to be places where less time is spent in the 90°-90°-90° posture promoted by a traditional chair, where your knees, hips and elbows are all positioned at 90°. Japan in the first half of the 20th century, with its low tables, is one example.
Although there is strong evidence that prolonged sitting has negative health effects, there is no conclusive proof these consequences are alleviated by sitting on a chair that requires you to make micro adjustments to your posture. One 2010 literature review of Balans chairs, commissioned by American furniture maker Varier, concluded that “for some users . . . the opportunity to alternate between these postures may provide important benefits” — a notably tentative summation given Varier makes the chairs in question.
The second thing I should warn you is that, reader, I am a believer. Five months ago I bought a knock-off Balans chair that profoundly improved my working life. Prior to its arrival, I sat on the sofa when I worked from home. Not out of laziness, but because I am a chronic fidgeter, and it was the only place that allowed for my constant positioning and repositioning. I’d look over at my pristine desk and daydream about how it might feel to work without my laptop warming my knees.
As I write this, however, I am sitting (well, kneeling) at that very desk — upright, engaged and rocking gently to ensure I remain so. After a decade of discomfort, it feels revelatory, like unlocking the power of a “walk and talk” without leaving the room. Because the chair requires that I engage my core, I can’t use it all day without breaks, but that’s okay. I currently have the luxury of setting my own hours, so why mimic the desk-lunch presenteeism of a nine-to-fiver?
The biggest downside of my kneeling chair is that it is honestly very ugly. Although a good salesman will big up its Scandi origins, as if they alone confer impeccable taste, the truth is that the U-shaped plywood stool looks like a rocking horse crossed with something you’d find in a rehab gym. One of my partner’s only strongly held views about our home decor is that the “weird chair” lives deep under the desk when not in use.
My first thought on entering Back in Action, an active chair specialist with a showroom in London, is that my partner should count himself lucky. My weird chair looks inoffensive among the playground toys on sale here. One chair is shaped like a mushroom and boings like a pogo stick the moment you make contact. Some stools have convex bases that allow them to go round and round like spinning tops. As I perch awkwardly on a £729 seat with old-fashioned rockers for legs, sales consultant Craig Brown pulls out a model of the human spine and tries to explain what these highly distinctive seats all have in common.
First, they put you in a posture where the pelvis is raised above the knees. “If you can’t have your hips higher than your knees, what happens is the pelvis rolls back. You get a C-shape in your spine,” says Brown, contorting the skeleton into an unhappy slump.
The lumbar support provided by an ergonomic office chair will push the spine back into its “correct” shape, but because the pelvis remains tilted the spine is still under strain.
The second thing an active chair should do is keep you moving. This is where the Balans loses points. Over a video call from Vermont, surgeon-turned-inventor Turner Osler scrunches his face in concern when I tell him proudly what I’m sitting on. “The kneeling chair locks you in one position,” he says. “It’s hard to squirm.”
Osler, who founded his company QOR360 (pronounced “core 360”) in 2016, is sitting on the Ariel as he talks to me. It looks a bit like a barstool, only the seat is capable of pivoting in all directions. His sitting room is filled with prototypes, including a DIY version of the Ariel that uses a tennis ball as its pivot and which he hopes will take off in schools. “The chair industry has worked very hard to make comfortable chairs so that people don’t feel like they need to move, and that is a catastrophe,” he says. Osler is passionate, even polemical. He introduces me to the concept of “Big Chair” — a cabal to rival Big Oil or Big Pharma — and tells a story I don’t dare print about the time an agent of this shady pressure group scuttled his chances of getting his chair into the hands of a VIP couple. “They want to kill us,” he says of Big Chair. I think he’s joking.
After our conversation, I email Osler and ask him to send me the single most compelling piece of scientific evidence for active sitting. “It’s still early days,” he writes back, although it has been more than 40 years. Top of his list is a 2019 study that found sitting on a balance chair burnt more calories than sitting on either a standard office chair or an exercise ball. I hope that new research into active sitting comes quickly and knocks calorie burning off the top spot, given it is a uniquely miserable reason to do anything. But in its absence, I will offer my own appeal.
In so many areas of life, we try new things without thinking twice. You might see an ad on the underground for door-to-door groceries or a mattress that ships in a box, and habits you thought deep-rooted can shift almost overnight. But the norms of office life prevent experimentation.
Task chairs are rarely purchased by the people who sit in them. Most companies have aesthetic priorities and safety standards — a five-star wheelbase, for example — to which active chairs do not conform. Practical concerns aside, it’s hard to get over the fact they look so odd, so medical. Unless you are CEO of a start-up, who among us would want to stick their neck out by pogoing up and down on a mushroom? In the hierarchy of office cool, warning colleagues about their C-shaped spines is akin to bringing your own water filter to work.
Working from home, however, presents new opportunities. It is not a coincidence that Opvsik, Osler and Brown all report very strong sales during the period when most people were stuck at home. “They were in charge of their own workspace,” says Brown in the Marylebone showroom. Your active chair can remain hidden, along with your slippers.
In a recent essay for The Architectural Review on the gendered history of chair design, the historian Catharine Rossi suggests the following thought experiment: “The next time you are uncomfortable in a chair, consider whether yours is a body that it has been designed for — and if not, why not?”
So much has been written about how we might work post-pandemic. A shift towards flexibility and personalisation is often touted as the lone reward for a terrible few years. If you were one of the lucky few for whom this promise contained some substance, perhaps you might ask yourself a version of Rossi’s question the next time you sit at your desk. Is your current way of working what this chair was designed for? And, if not, might there be a better option out there?
If I go missing this week, you’ll know where to find me; deep in the basement of Big Chair, tied to a buttery-soft executive lounger while I await my rescue. At least I’ll be comfortable.
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