“Sarah, Sarah,” sung Jefferson Starship back in 1986, “no time is a good time for goodbyes…” But, when the Sarah reclining chair was mothballed in 1988 by Herman Miller (News - Alert) executives, it was a good time for the goodbye: It directly let to the creation of the Aeron, that iconic Silicon Valley office chair that rose with the dotcom boom and forever changed the look and feel of the cubicle.
Before there was the Aeron, however, there was the Sarah. Tasked with building a better chair for the elderly in the late 1970s, engineers Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick looked at the La-Z-Boy—commonly used by the elderly both at home and in the hospital—and knew they could do better.
“The La-Z-Boy was terribly suited to both settings,” wrote reporter Cliff Kuang for Slate. “The elderly, with weakened legs, had to back up to the chair and simply fall backward. The lever for reclining was awkward to reach and hard to engage. And, worst of all, the foam stuffing, often upholstered in vinyl, spread the sitter’s weight unevenly while retaining body heat and moisture—potentially causing bedsores.”
So they built the Sarah chair, which had a footrest that folded under the seat to leave the sitter with room to curl her legs under the chair as she sat down. When the sitter was fully reclined, fins came out to support her feet, not unlike a wheelchair. The annoying Lazy-E-Boy lever was replaced with a pneumatic control inspired by reclining airplane seat buttons. The Sarah replaced the upholstered wooden box under the foam cushions with a mesh that helped the chair mold to the body more and breath better.
And people who tried the chair loved it.
“But Herman Miller’s management balked at how futuristic it was. No one could figure out how to sell it, since there weren’t any stores selling high-design furniture to the elderly. The company was in far greater need of high-margin office chairs, so they killed the Sarah,” wrote Kuang.
Personally hurt at the cancellation of their masterpiece, the duo who designed the chair left the company for a time and said the firm was short-sighted. But they were lured back in 1992 with a new challenge: Design the perfect office chair for the computer age.
Thus begat the Aeron. Knowing that people slouch while working on the computer, Stumpf and Chadwick proposed a reclining mechanism based on the Sarah design, one that let the seat pan and chair back to move in concert. They also came up with the idea of removing the foam from the Sarah altogether and just use the mesh underneath.
But it was again a futuristic chair, and Herman Miller’s CEO, Dick Ruch, took a few days before he green-lighted the Aeron. But green light he did.
“When the Aeron was finally done, Herman Miller’s executives had warmed to Stumpf and Chadwick’s problem-solving rigor, but remained leery about the chair’s weird looks,” wrote Kuang.
But the looks turned out to be an asset. “They turned out to be a major selling point, making the chair seem incomparably advanced,” wrote Kuang. “One dealer in Hollywood, shortly after its unveiling in October of 1994, reported putting his first floor sample in the window, and hearing cars screech to a halt upon seeing it.”
Thus began the rise of the Aeron, which took a beating during the dotcom bust but has continued to be a staple of the business world ever since.
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Edited by Amanda Ciccatelli