Just mention the word ergonomics, and others might conjure up images of oddly split keyboards, rigidly straight posture, or even a standing desk or two.
Ergonomics is not, in fact, the study of posture or the study of how to limit back pain or other ailments due to advanced amounts of sitting, but rather the study of people's efficiency in their working environment.
The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has brought significant changes to the work environment, with, more people than ever before transitioning into a remote working arrangement. These new working arrangements come with a handful of challenges, including ways to reduce distractions while maximizing efficiency. Enter furniture ergonomics.
What is furniture ergonomics?
Simply stated, ergonomics is how furniture is designed or used to maximize efficiency and comfort in a working environment. Thankfully, we have moved past the dreadfully uncomfortable chairs of the past and now have various seating and standing options when trying to get work done productively or efficiently. There are chairs and stools designed to hone in on the body's core muscles available. There are sit-stand desks which give you the option to sit or stand based on how you're feeling. Are you feeling quirky? Grab a balance board and work on your balance during your microbreaks.
A timeline of ergonomic furniture
To know where we're going, we have to know where we've been. The history of sitting for function dates back thousands of years. Let's go for a short ride through history.
Archeologists found what they believe to be the first evidence of sitting objects in a dig called Skara Brae in present-day Scotland nearly 5,000 years ago. This is the first evidence of sitting with a purpose. Humans were likely sitting for purpose earlier, as historians estimate furniture was first created around 7500 B.C.
Historians debate as to the function of these sitting devices. A common conclusion was that blacksmiths used a hollowed seat, three-legged stool to perform tasks more efficiently.
The Greek philosopher Hippocrates documented some of the earliest preserved thoughts on a streamlined workflow for efficiency and efficacy around 400 B.C. He specifically wrote about the way to optimize surgeon's workflows.
Around the same time, the Ancient Greek civilization used ergonomic principles to design workspaces, jobs, and tools. Archeologists have recently found drawings and paintings with chairs complete with backrests and hand tools that resemble current designs.
Chinese Han culture was dominated by floor sitting. Chinese depictions leading up to the Tang Dynasty shortly after 600 A.D. showed royals and peasants alike sitting on the floor when settling down for bed, a meal, or other reasons to sit.
That changed with the Tang Dynasty. The first Buddhist mural showing chair sitting was dated to the 7th century. It is thought that the only people who used chairs were members of the dynastic family and that the widespread use of chairs in China did not occur until the 12th century.
Ergonomics and religion combine here with the Chair of St. Peter. The current edition of this chair lies in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City and has been adjusted and renovated many times. Currently, nothing of the chair is older than the 16th century. But history shows the chair was first erected around 875 A.D. Peter is said to have dined in the chair, consuming huge feasts with his closest acquaintances.
The legendary Coronation Chair commissioned by King Edward in the late 13th century is one of the most famous chairs in the world's history. There have been 38 coronation ceremonies for reigning monarchs held in the chair, with multiple crownings. Fourteen queen consorts have had ceremonies in the chair.
The market for office chairs became more mainstream, starting in the 1800s, and became available for more people than ever before. Still, the chairs were not comfortable and were not groundbreaking pieces of art. It gradually started as a tool for the rich to increase productivity and enjoy leisure time.
Captain chair: Over time, it gradually trickled down to the consumer market, and people used a simple stool or a Windsor chair at their workstations. People in higher tax brackets and social statuses started purchasing captain chairs for social status, comfort, and luxury. This captain chair's features most closely resemble the first iterations of adjustable height chairs and included a backrest, seat-tilt tension, and variable height.
Wheely chair: The Father of Evolution, Charles Darwin, created the first version of the present-day "wheely chair" by fastening wheels to his padded office chair for easier access and range of movement in the early 1840s.
The former First Chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismarck, became the first distributor of this type of chair near the same time when he popularized them in Germany and Europe by having his parliament members use these wheely chairs.
Formalization of ergonomics and the armchair: In 1857, Polish scientist Wojciech Jastrzebowski coined the word ergonomics by combining the Greek words for work and natural law. Around the same time, Thomas E. Warren debuted his famous armchair at the Great Exhibition in London.
Dubbed the Centripetal Spring Armchair, the chair was one of the most luxurious sitting devices the world had ever seen. The cast-iron wrought chair was covered in velvet and could swivel in any direction. The chair received poor international reviews because the chair was, in fact, too comfortable and was deemed immoral by the masses. In contrast to current ideology, uncomfortable and rigid chairs showed willpower and strength in the mid-19th century.
1920s: The beginning of the 20th century saw proud manual laborers struggling to make it through their day by standing on their feet or using hard and uncomfortable benches for days at a time. It was generally thought at the time that if you sat down during your workday, you were lazy and worthless.
Complaints started piling up from health agencies and workers alike, and a company named Tan-Sad started marketing a swiveling chair with a curved backrest that could be adjusted to the height of each worker. The response was tremendous, and chairs starting flying off the shelves.
It was near the same time that the Do/More Chair hit the market, promising male executives a sculpted six-pack and the reduction of kidney pain, hemorrhoids, constipation, and other problems.
1940s-50s: Although coined in the 1870s, the term "ergonomics" did not become mainstream until the implementation of WWII-related ergonomic studies directly related to fighter jet cockpits' functionality and efficiency. During this period, development brought the field to the foreground, and researchers used ergonomic principles to enhance production that ultimately saved time and money for people around the world.
After the war, an explosion of research and articles on the topic flooded the scientific community, although the interest was minimal by everyday consumers. Posh and overstuffed chairs were still available and comfortable, but didn't adhere to body-contouring health initiatives of the future. Rigid chairs made of wood, wire, and plastic were also found to be no good for working environments.
George Nelson's MAA chair was the exception for the rule during this decade, as his new chair had a backrest and seat that tilted independently of one another, allowing for a new and expanded range of positions that could be adjusted for the individual.
1970s: This was one of the most transformative decades for the ergonomic and productivity-boosting chair in the western world.
• 1973 saw the creation of an oversimplified ergonomic chair, complete with wheels for excellent movement and lumbar support for comfort. The chair was relatively small and was created in Italy by Ettore Sottsass Jr. This chair supported the contours of the body with molded polyurethane foam.
• In 1976, Herman Miller and William Stumpf launched the Ergon Chair, born from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Ergon chair popularized the importance of ergonomics in the workspace at mass for the first time in America. In contrast to some of the previous inventions, the chair didn't have many frills, but its use of molded foam was revolutionary and continues to be used today.
• In 1977, Argentine-born Emilio Ambasz created The Vertebra, the first auto adjustable chair designed to adapt to the user's body's movement. A functional chair that was comfortable and looked fantastic, it won the top award for excellence in design in 1977.
1980s: With the uptick in computers by people working in an office setting, ergonomic office chair design became more critical than ever before.
A large number of chairs enabling a greater range of freedom and motion were introduced during this time. The Hag Capisco supported sitting backward. NASA introduced a zero-gravity perch posture. Other inventions focused more on the chair's re-engineered movement to provide uniquely different areas of seat and backrest in conjunction with one another.
1990s: Herman Miller and Stumpf re-entered the ergonomic furniture conversation in the mid-90s with the Aeron Chair - likely the only ergonomic chair non-ergonomic enthusiasts know by name. The chair was revolutionary for a few reasons, chief among them being the implementation of lumbar support, incorporating a pad molding into the backrest's curvature. It changed the game in terms of how people moved with the chair. The chair supported them through various postures and slouches, minimizing the stress on the body and allowing for limited distractions.
Whether the worker was reclining, slouching on the phone, eating a sandwich, or typing on the computer, the support remained the same. It was sold in three different sizes, adhering to all workers. It also promoted the idea that chairs should suit the shape of the type of individual, not the type of worker.
Lawsuits continued to flood in from workers with newfound pain in their bodies, and to combat legal action, large corporations and businesses made it a priority to outfit their offices with these ergonomic chairs throughout the 1990s.
21st century options
The end of chairs and the rise of standing desks?
Although a minority of workers refuse to sit at their desks, the numbers continue to grow. Adjustable height standing desks are increasing in popularity as they allow for the flexibility to sit or stand based on mood or activity. And while this trend is here to stay, it's doubtful we'll see a complete standing workforce in the near future.
With the range of ergonomic seating and desk options available today, it's up to each worker to decide.
Sources: Robb Green is a PR manager for UpDown Desk Australia, a company committed to improving the way we work. Visit UpDownDesk.com.au for more information or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Alex Thomas, content writer, also contributed to the article. He can be reached at alexthomas.uk or via email at email@example.com
Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.