How did the design of office chairs evolve from the 19th century to today? Furniture- and industrial-design aficionados will find out in A Taxonomy of Office Chairs (Phaidon, 2011), a new book authored by Jonathan Olivares.
A sleepy history tome this is not. Instead, Olivares, a Boston-based industrial designer and researcher, compiled a taxonomy—a catalogue classification—of office chairs with simple line drawings and brief explanations of each chair’s traits. The taxonomy, with more than 400 illustrations of 130 office chairs, is categorized by specific chair elements: the headrest, backrest, armrests, lumbar support, seat, stem, base, and floor contact. This book should be on the shelves of those that seek an understanding of office chairs through time, industrial design in general, and ergonomics and design processes.
Contract asked Olivares to explain the process of producing A Taxonomy of Office Chairs, and how it is unique among design books.
Why a taxonomy of office chairs as opposed to anything else?
The book could’ve been about toaster ovens, perfume bottles, automotive engines, or any other manmade object with a complex technical evolution behind it. Knowing that the book would be largely technical in nature, I chose the office chair because of its close relationship to everyday life and the human body. This polarity gives the book a sense of humor and makes it appealing to a wider audience than, say, the carburetor may have.
What inspired you to create this book in the first place?
The book was motivated by the fact that manmade objects go largely uncatalogued in any manner that could be called objective. We cherish and study the natural world but don’t keep track of the manmade one that surrounds us.
Describe your process in researching and gathering information for this book.
I researched and produced the book with a small team of assistants over the course of four years. I traveled extensively to meet chair designers and engineers in the United States and Europe and to interview them about technical aspects of their designs. The information was compiled in about 50 project binders, and gradually sifted and edited down to the book. We had to invent nomenclature for the aspects of chair design that we were cataloguing. “Double Spine,” “Multiple Connection,” or “Panel and Upholstery” are not standard industry terms. The illustrations took a year to produce. It was a rigorous process that tested the patience of everyone involved.
What do you expect a reader, whether a professional designer or student, to gain from having this book?
Aside from the essay at the beginning of the book, this is not a book that’s designed to be read from cover to cover—it’s a reference manual. The essay will give a reader a thorough understanding of the complex factors that came to affect office chair design, and how the typology has shifted since it emerged in the 1840s. The book is about the details in the world around us. The rest of the book, the catalogue of chairs, and the taxonomical illustrations, will offer the average person a sense of how many products our society churns out, and how immensely varied these are. It offers the reader the opportunity to understand the office chair in real depth, to know, for instance, where the height adjustable armrest came from, or why the base of the office chair has five legs. Although the book is intended for the general public, it’s also the only book exclusively on office chairs, and because industry experts supplied most of the content, the book is an invaluable reference for design professionals.
Describe the role Knoll had in this book’s development.
Benjamin Pardo, Knoll’s design director, took an interest in the project at its onset and decided to fund it. When I first started the book, I knew very little about office chairs, so in addition to giving me an orientation, Benjamin introduced me to designers and engineers at several companies, who would then go on to introduce me to others. Knoll provided the financial and moral support necessary to take on this enormous research project. Aside from that, I would meet with Benjamin every couple months and show him how the book was progressing, and he would suggest possible areas missed.
Do you have any interesting anecdotes or new perspectives after interviewing industry veterans for this book?
The older designers I interviewed―Richard Sapper, Don Chadwick, and Niels Diffrient―collectively changed the way I looked at design. I feel a deep affinity with their generation and their views. They see design differently than most designers do today. They practice a hands-on approach that’s lost on 99 percent of the computer-aided designers of my generation. They also have strong moral ideals, and view design as a true social agent that can address some of the needs of the largest populations.
What were some of the key, unique finds from the Die Neue Sammlung, Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Vitra Design Museum visits?
I went to these museums with very specific agendas. The first visit was often to understand what chairs they had in their collections (this is not always listed online), and then a second visit gave me the chance to study more closely the models I was interested in. Finding a physical example of an office chair from the 1970s or earlier can be difficult. There is one somewhat obscure office chair, the System 25 by Richard Sapper (designed for Comforto in 1984), which might have slipped past our radar had I not found it at Die Neue Sammlung.
Not all readers will know about Google Patents. Describe how you referenced Google Patents to “understand the complex functions of movement mechanisms.”
Google Patents offer the general public an archive of searchable U.S. Patent applications. Since manufacturers’ catalogues and Web sites don’t offer any real technical understanding of how office chairs work, we found that patent applications were often the best explanation outside of interviewing an actual engineer or designer.
Did you gain any new insight into chair design through the process of making this book?
It became apparent that the movement mechanism is the heart of the office chair. It’s not a coincidence that the most successful chairs from 1849 to now have all introduced a mechanism designed around someone’s new idea about how to sit. The office chair is largely an inventor’s work.
What was the biggest challenge in writing this book?
Maintaining a daily interest in office chairs for four years was a feat!