Ergonomics, in the modern sense, emerged in the Second World War as a way to improve the efficacy of fighter jets and the pilots who kept crashing them. The confusing design of the plane's control panels led to the loss of life, sure, but also a massive waste of money and time for the government—therefore thrusting the discipline, and its potential to generate savings, into the spotlight. Based on the prevalence of ergonomics in our day we can assume that the research made a big impact - but for whom? Yes, ergonomics helped the soldiers by getting their bosses to stop sending them to work in poorly designed death machines. But the safety of the pilots was secondary to the real goal: furthering the state's war efforts by decreasing accident costs and increasing kill count. In other words, the military used ergonomics to get richer while doing the bare minimum for their employees: limiting the chance of likely death. This strategy created the blueprint for the role of ergonomics at scale, and it was flawed from the start.
Okay, maybe not the very start. Ergonomics in its core idea—fitting tools to the people who use them—can be traced back to early ancient cultures as a critical evolutionary step. There is no doubt that handles made hammers safer to use, just as two pedaled cars are easier to drive. But, we're not talking about ergonomics in a vacuum. Like many great ideas (ping-pong tables, bean bag chairs, and nap pods) ergonomics has been co-opted by HQs across the world and reduced to a lowly servant of productivity, and, frankly, I won't stand for it.
I am skeptical of ergonomics and all those who preach it. Do ergonomic evangelists really care about my spinal health and premature carpal tunnel? I am not convinced. So, I spoke to someone who knows a lot more than me to seek out the truth. In this case, my chosen expert was Jared Blake, prolific chair-sitter and co-founder of NYC-based furniture store Lichen. Read on to learn what Jared has to say about the ergonomics of Toyota Camry's, bar stools and why some people (me) need to sit their ass on a barstool and be thankful desk chairs were even invented.
Sydney Allen-Ash, Co-Editor of Early Magazine: Okay. So, my general impression is that ergonomics is kind of bullshit. I think it started as a science, a genuine science, but I think it kind of Frankensteined into something completely different. So with that in mind, maybe let's start with the most obvious question, which is, what is your understanding of ergonomics?
Jared Blake, Co-Owner of Lichen NYC: My understanding of ergonomics is that it's work and economics together, it's just like how to work more efficiently. But I think what happened is, over time it became a buzzword. Most of our words have a clear definition and then how we use it sort of changes its meaning. You know what I mean? Time adds perspective. So, like you said, it started off as a science and then turned into a selling point. Like, "Oh, cool. It's ergonomic. That means comfort." It does, but it doesn't.
But in addition to that, I was reading something from Ward Bennett, and he was talking about how as humans, we've slowly been fighting to not work physical labor. So, our economies have shifted from warehouse and plowing fields and doing basic agricultural things to finding an existence that's economically viable from a desk, from a seated position. As a society, we're fighting to sit down. We're fighting to not stand, which was an interesting take on it because it made me realize that this is kind of our own doing. Would you want to be in a field like hammering something, or do you want to be at a desk sitting down?
I think we're probably trending towards not standing or walking at all as a society. Whether we like it or not, that's where we seem to be going. No one wants to hold a phone, really, so they just get smaller and more convenient and smaller and more convenient. And ergonomics is kind of a mirror of that. Ergonomics is part marketing, but also part a mirror of our society. This is what you want. You want to sit down longer.
SA: Wait, where did you read all that?
JB: It's in this book called Chair, which is the best book I've ever read regarding sitting or ergonomics. Ward Bennett, the author [of one of the essays], is a mid-century designer, but he got into a skiing accident and had to work on his spine through physical therapy. So he was learning things for his design practice that the average designer just wasn't. He was looking at it through the lens of physical therapy, and what he needed for his own back. He also looked at it as a traveler and a historian. Like, if you go to India, you can just see that the sitting culture is completely different and in some ways, tailored for Indian, eastern lifestyle. They're sitting on the floor, they've perfected the Lotus squat. They can spend hours doing it and their bodies are built for that. The American body is not built for sitting on the floor for a long amount of time. Japanese bodies are built for that. Cultural bodies dictate the chairs that we sit in, how long we sit in them, and America being an industrial-minded country, capitalistic, ergonomics has to come with that. You just can't have high output if you're not working efficiently. And that's what I was joking about before when we talked on the phone. The best seat is probably the driver's seat of a Toyota Camry, because that's just what New York is. It's a cab and it's an Uber, it's the Camry. It's the black Camry. So that's the chair that is made for this current economy, at least until it changes.
SA: In one of the articles that I read for research, and I sent you a screenshot of this, an ergonomist said that the most ergonomic chair is probably a church pew, because it's so uncomfortable that you have to get up every 15 minutes, which I thought was funny.
JB: Ward Bennett was also saying the average person is a fidgeter. We're not meant to sit stagnant for long periods of time. If you were to record people who are in a movie theater, you’d see that they're moving the entire time. Good ergonomics is something that moves. You're gently swaying having this conversation. If you have a chair that doesn't allow that, it's not as effective or it's not as productive. He was really adamant about chairs needing arms too.
SA: He's very adamant about arms?
JB: Yeah, just for posture, you need to have arms on your chairs to be at maximum efficiency. And it definitely changed the way I looked at desk chairs because the one that I have currently doesn't have them and it changes the duration of time I can spend in it.
SA: The chair you're sitting in currently, right now?
JB: Yeah, well, my home desk chair.
SA: What kind of chair is it?
JB: It's an Eames secretarial chair, which is, I guess, interesting to this conversation. There's a secretarial, a management and an executive version of that chair, and they were intended as such. Which is crazy because it's not crazy. It's not crazy.
SA: It's not crazy. Does it make you feel a way knowing that you're in the "secretary chair" or is it subversive?
JB: You know, the executive chair just has a higher back, that's all. The more serious and more of an asshole you are, the higher the back of the chair is.
SA: And the bigger the desk.
JB: Yeah, and the bigger the desk, the more unnecessary the desk. But that comes from culture as well. That's really...
SA: Classic patriarchy.
JB: Exactly. And the times change though, because now I think the executive chair is the least comfortable of the series.
SA: It is?
JB: Yeah, it's the least comfortable.
SA: What does it feel like?
JB: It's just upright. It's the most upright.
SA: [Broadens shoulders dramatically]
JB: Yeah, like that. There's no lean back on it because I don't think it was supposed to have it.
SA: It wasn't intended for movement.
JB: Right. I mean, it was intended for movement, but it was intended to be like [robotically moves side to side], "Hey, look at me. I'm the exec." It sits like that. It's gross.
SA: So, knowing that there's all of this stuff caught up in chairs, there's so much beyond a chair than just sitting in it, when someone comes in asking for a good desk chair, what do you tell them?
JB: Sit in as many as you can and find out what works for you. Surprisingly enough, there's this chair called a KEVI chair. It's Danish. It's really reductionist, but somehow feels right. It's just what you see is what you get. In contrast, there's this guy that we buy computer chairs from, desk chairs, that's like a car salesman. And he's like, "Look, it's got adjustable [mimes turning knobs]. It's fully loaded. You got reclining stuff, pneumatic, it's got all the buttons. You want to take it for a spin?"
SA: Literally, yes [spins in chair].
JB: There's also different durations. You know how candles come with a burn time? I feel like a good computer chair could come with a comfortable duration or a suggested amount of time. If you're a graphic designer, you spend a lot of time in the chair, don't cheat yourself on comfort. You got to live in this. I personally don't have a life where I'm living in a desk chair, so the KEVI could be perfect for me for the amount of time that I spend in it. I'm usually on my feet more so the chair is less of an importance. It might not be what I break the bank on. But if I'm a designer, then I've got to have the best thing.
SA: When you were working in an office in your past life, what were you sitting on?
JB: Some mesh computer chair.
SA: Just the standard.
JB: Yeah. But before that, Aluminum Group reproductions.
SA: Were they comfortable?
JB: Yeah, pretty comfortable. I didn't know they were Eames at the time. It wasn't until later in life I was like, "Oh, that's what that is." I flipped open a book and I was like, "Oh shit, I should sell these."
SA: Mm-hmm. There you go. So going back to your customers, and I wanted to talk about them for a little bit, when someone comes in, can you kind of tell what they're going to go for?
JB: Yes. Kind of, yes.
SA: Give me a scene report, a sitting scene report. Who goes for what?
JB: Well, I guess for the work that we do here, there's a lot of marketing at play. Herman Miller, Knoll, Vitra, Steelcase are all marketed to completely different people, or slightly different people. Herman Miller is kind of the industry standard, and it's easily agreeable. Black leather, it's for everybody. Upholstery is for probably an older demographic. Leather is definitely for a younger person. And a high back is usually going to be towards an older person, as well. Herman Miller has some sexier, a little more contemporary desk chairs the Sayl. They look trendy enough. What else? The Don Chadwick chair by Knoll is your standard. It's the standard office mesh chair. You've probably sat on one.
SA: Yeah, that's probably what I sat on in my office.
JB: But during the pandemic, it changed. This industry is constantly changing. During the pandemic, people didn't care. They were like, "Does it have wheels? Good. Then it's better than whatever I have."
SA: Oh, okay. The bar was low.
SA: When people describe what they want, do you think that they're actually saying what they want or do you kind of have to interpret it a little bit?
JB: No, I think they come in with an open mindset. A computer chair is one you have to sit in to really know what works for you. I think there's another popular one. Chadwick and then there's the Generation..
JB: Aeron, yeah. The Aeron series, people made a killing during the pandemic on Aeron chairs in the secondhand world.
SA: I read an article about Herman Miller pivoting their whole business strategy during the pandemic to sell directly to consumers and they didn't do that before.
JB: Yeah. They were very contract-based. They're opening up more stores. They acquired Knoll. So it's Knoll Miller. It's pretty gross but it is what it is.
SA: Oh shit.
JB: That's huge technically, but also boring.
SA: Yeah. It's both. What's the strangest thing you've seen as a desk chair?
JB: Gaetano Pesce is an Italian designer and he's got this chair called the Broadway chair, which is..
SA: I remember that Ed [Be, co-founder of Lichen] broke one of these.
JB: [Laughs] Yes, that's the one. It's... What's the word?
JB: It's fashionable, but what Pesce did was really savvy. He applied the movement to the feet of the chair.
SA: Oh yeah, there's little springs in them, right?
JB: Yes. And they definitely feel like how they look. It's really savvy that he added that motion. Usually, people add the motion with a wheel and the bend of the back, but he added it in...
SA: In the ankles.
JB: Yeah, I would say that that's got to be definitely the most... I don't even know how to put it, but I've never seen a desk chair approached that way.
SA: Okay. Perspective on standing desks?
JB: They're great. We have standing desks in our office here. Just got my stepmother a standing desk as well. They're great because you can take some time off of your back and off of a seated position. And it's important to stay mobile. It's crucial to stay mobile.
SA: Right. So, to go back to the focus of this story, I'm not sure that ergonomics is even real anymore. I think it is, to your point, a buzzword, but I also do think that there is value in sitting properly, I guess.
JB: Why do you want to debunk ergonomics? I guess that’s the first question that I would have for you.
SA: Well, I'm editing a magazine about work and so I'm looking for weird perspectives and stories about work. I also really like a suspicious investigative, "Is this really real?" story. To me, everything that I've ever read or heard about ergonomics feels like it's written by ergonomics itself, and it sounds like bullshit to me. But then also, there are real serious implications for the way ergonomics is, maybe weaponized is a bit too strong of a word, but exploited in modern workplaces. Ergonomics is one of the many things that's utilized within corporate offices to extract as much labor as they can from workers' bodies. It's not really about making you comfortable. It's just about making you work longer hours.
JB: Which unfortunately, go hand in hand.
SA: Exactly. But the intention is important. If a company buys 300 ergonomic Aeron chairs or whatever, I think they're often doing it because this will make people sit for longer and work for longer. They're not often like, "This will make people happy." So, the intention is important. Maybe it's nuanced and maybe it's not important to other people, but it's important to me. And then the second reason is that I think it's interesting now that people use ergonomic chairs in their own home offices as part of this performance of optically “looking the part” of your job.
JB: Optically looking the part. Interesting.
SA: I feel like it is part of virtue signaling that I am a thoughtful worker. Like, [gestures to background] look at this fancy chair behind me in my Zoom window and this smart bookshelf and all that.
SA: So, these things signal to you that I am a person that you should hire. Which is also a way that, in this gig economy, we have to extract labor from our own bodies, aesthetic and appearance, which I also think is precarious. So, TLDR, I have a bone to pick with ergonomics.
JB: I think I'm realizing now that a lot of the things that we think are negative, are really mirrors of our society. It's just a reflection of who we are. We all want to perform better and you need the equipment to do that. But I think one of the important parts of being a consumer is just realizing that these things are also utensils. It's just a different way of looking at it. Instagram, for example, it's a tool or it can be something else if you let it be. So your Herman Miller chair can be this symbol, it can be this, "Look at me. I'm doing the things," but in terms of equipment, they're one of the best, unfortunately. Actually, I wouldn't even say unfortunately. They just spent longer trying to tackle one thing that our society made more important.
Ergonomics is real. I think it's real. It's a study on humanity. Chairs are an evolution of squatting. We were squatting and then we were sitting. We just didn't want to sit on the floor. And that's how a stump became a stool. It's just a natural progression. And so where we are now just is what it is. You're not just going to sit on anything. You're not going to sit on a folding chair and be like, "Fuck ergonomics. That's just not real. I'm just going to get a fucking plastic lawn chair." You're just not. And that's when these companies come in like, "Well, if you don't want to sit on that chair, we've got a century of insight."
You're not going to sit on a folding chair and be like, "Fuck ergonomics. That's just not real. I'm just going to get a fucking plastic lawn chair." You're just not.
SA: But isn't the century of insight pretty self-evident? Sit up straight. Have your feet touching the ground.
JB: No. You know why it's not? Because look at medicine. Look at physical therapy. It changes with the extent of knowledge that we have. I had scoliosis surgery when I was 17. I bet you now that the whole procedure would have gone differently today than it did then. You know what I mean? Textbooks change. So chairs are changing too. [At Lichen] we've just started asking people what they think about the things that they've bought from us, and that will in turn change what we do. For example, I figured out something about chairs that I didn't know three months ago.
SA: What was it?
SA: Like, how far the chair is tilting?
JB: Yes. And a chair thats pitched 45 degrees, will feel more comfortable than something that's 90 because it'll take pressure off your legs, off your thighs and ankles and knees. It kind of cups you instead of you sitting on it. You sit in it.
SA: That's why sitting on a bar stool can be really uncomfortable because there's so much pressure.
JB: Well, they're designed to be uncomfortable so you don't drink as long as possible at a bar.
SA: I don't know if they succeeded in that goal.
JB: [Laughs] I mean, people are masochists at a bar sometimes, but they specifically don't make them comfortable because you'll just sit there all day and get wasted. There are some designers who design things to be slightly uncomfortable, like a George Nelson bench is meant for you to come in for a quick meeting and have something to sit on, but not stay. You'll fidget and you'll be like, "All right, I think this is a 15-minute meeting." But if it was a more comfortable chair, you would just sit there and have longer meetings than you might've needed to.
SA: You said something earlier connected to something I read about in this book called Objects of Desire by Adrian Forty. He talks about how the history of workplace design is also the history of societies. And so I think my general perspective on ergonomics is that you can analyze chairs, and see culture in that. I think as a sociological framework, it's interesting.
JB: You remember that scene in The Devil Wears Prada where she [Anne Hatheway] was like, "It's just like blue." And she [Meryl Streep] was like, "No sweetie, it's, cerulean. You just have no idea that—" And I think the same thing applies here, the more I read on these designers, a lot of them are kind of, I don't want to say lunatics, but these passions become obsessive and they all have their own intentions. Like Eero Saarinen's chairs are designed for women. And it's not something that you can obviously see, it's when he speaks about it or his colleagues speak about it that you realize. Frank Lloyd Wright called his furniture an ass tray, and Frank Lloyd Wright makes really misogynist chairs, they've got high backs and capes. It's so obvious.
So you start to see that people literally just design for themselves. Like Dieter Rams, when you see their homes, you're like, "Oh, you're just doing what you want to do and then people fuck with it." Steelcase, they're another player in the office furniture scene and they don't give a fuck about community. They don't give a fuck about whatever it is that everyone else is doing. They're not trying to meander and follow trends. They're like, "You want 600 office chairs that won't break on you? We got you." We are Michigan, Detroit. We're not the new Detroit. We're the old Detroit. Don't hit us up for social content. Don't hit us up for that shit. Their thought process is just different.
The smart companies study people. Like JetBlue, they've humanized their air travel. Their seats are just a little bit more comfortable. The TV is a little bit bigger. They just do things that are a little bit more human-focused and not just focused on numbers. Sometimes you don't realize it, but then you're like "I guess it is slightly more enjoyable to travel JetBlue than Delta." They just care a little bit more. Companies that study people are just a little bit more empathetic. A lot of the little things they do right are pretty invisible. So, people are really ungrateful of how ergonomic their chairs are...
SA: Like this one [points to herself]?
JB: Yeah, you need to sit on a stool. Just sit on a bar stool for a year.
SA: You want to see what I was sitting on? Okay. Wait [walks across the room and holds up a folding wooden Ikea chair to the camera]. This is what I was sitting on before, I got this shitty chair. This thing.
JB: Oh my God. At least there's a pillow in it.
SA: Like, what the fuck?!
JB: What are you sitting in now?
SA: Just like a slightly more comfortable IKEA chair [laughs]. I didn't know how long I was going to be in Vancouver. So I didn't want to spend a bunch of money on a chair and this is not my apartment either. This is a sublet. I also know, because I did this in my last apartment, that you can return IKEA chairs a year after you get them. So that's what I'm doing with this chair.
SA: Okay. All right. I just have a few more questions. So, on the topic of figuring out what ergonomics really is, I have two comparisons for you. The first one is: is ergonomics like astrology?
JB: In what regard?
SA: If you believe it, it can help you. But if you don't, then throw it away and sit on a church pew.
JB: Hmm. I was watching Avatar last night and there's one part where this guy goes, "Good science is observation." Now that being said, astrology is also observation. It's more than that, but it's like, don't try to be convinced by it. Just test it's bullshitness. Just catalog it. Put it in the back pocket. If you put it in the back pocket long enough, you can develop a profile, a loose one. You know what I mean? Even if it's 75% accurate, it's 75% more accurate than you were just wandering around out here.
So, with ergonomics, it's just observation. Just be present in how you're sitting and how you feel when you're comfortable, and take note of when those moments are. You know what I mean? [At Lichen] we've had the luxury of just sitting in hundreds of chairs. The time that I've spent sitting in or thinking about chairs is probably more than the average person because of what we have to do. So I've tried out a lot of chairs and there's some that you just want to sit in longer. And if you look at it from outside of the perspective, like Ward Bennet, he had a particular circumstance where he looked at it and consulted with people who didn't give a fuck about chairs. You know what I mean? Strictly physical therapy. Like, this is how your back needs to be for you to heal. And however that is, is how you should be sitting. And whatever that chair looks like, that's the one you should be in. Whatever the orthopedic version of a desk chair is, like Hoka and New Balance happen to be in fashion, but they're also orthopedic shoes. So don't be surprised if you feel good in them anyway. Don't be surprised if it does what it was intended to do. And there is a Hoka of chairs stylistically, aesthetically and physically. There's a Hoka, there's a New Balance. So, it would be impossible to say ergonomics is false. It would just be impossible.
SA: I'm not saying it's false because, you know, I also believe in astrology. I'm just saying that it's really up for personal interpretation.
JB: For sure. What's good for someone else is incredibly uncomfortable for someone else. All of our spines are different, but they're also still just spines.
SA: Okay. The shoe reference was helpful because my next comparison was: is an ergonomic chair the new athleisure?
JB: Is an ergonomic chair the new athleisure?
SA: What I mean is like, is it the appearance of being thoughtful and considerate at work that's beneficial?
JB: Yes. There are statement chairs for sure. Statement desk chairs.
SA: Okay, fair. Favourite place to sit and do work?
JB: The dining room for me.
SA: Of your own home?
SA: Okay. What's the chair?
JB: The chair is a Castelli stacking chair.
SA: I'm looking it up. Okay. Classic office, school room chair.
JB: There's a lot of factors to why that's the answer. It's more space.
SA: Like, for your butt?
JB: No, you remember being in meeting rooms, right? You ever got up from your desk and went to a meeting room and did work from there?
JB: How did that feel for you? To have work done in conference rooms?
SA: Better, because there's no one around. And I like having a big table.
JB: I think that's the same for me too. It's just like, "Oh, okay. I got all this thinking room," as opposed to sometimes a desk can feel like a cubicle low-key.
SA: I agree. Most overrated desk chair?
JB: [Looks around] Uh it's... Nah, we need to sell out of these. When does this article come out?
SA: Probably in a couple of weeks.
JB: Oh, okay. Let me not say that then.
SA: Is answering this going to be a conflict of interest?
JB: A little bit.
SA: Okay. I'll flip the question. Most underrated desk chair.
JB: That's a good flip. David Rowland, 40/4 chair. It's just really comfortable. It's a good chair. What you see is what you get. Somehow when you're in it, you realize that it deserves a name. It's very underrated I'd say, for sure.
SA: Cool. Any, any last words about chairs and ergonomics that you want to share with me? Parting advice for people who are looking for a better desk setup?
JB: I guess I would have to say, don't take the arms for granted. Do not take the arms for granted. I think it's easy to forego chairs that have them, but low key, they make a difference.
SA: Okay. There you go. Done. That's all. That's all she wrote.