Seating: seating: Suspended Reality

I’m not one for clichés, but less truly is more with Herman Miller’s new SAYL chair. The office furniture manufacturing giant posed the following question to industrial designer Yves Behar and his team at fuseproject: How do we create an attainable task chair, produced at the lowest price point ever for Herman Miller? And the solution they devised, according to Behar, was an eco-dematerialization process, meaning less parts and less materials, which ultimately translates to less cost and less carbon footprint.

Jack Schreur, vice president, seating business, Herman Miller, explains that the directive for Behar was to create a chair with all the design considerations for ergonomics, performance, quality, and environmental intelligence associated with the Herman Miller brand—at a fundamentally different price point. “That was the sum total of our initial direction. Yves’ job was to figure out if that was possible, then show us the path and guide us in the journey,” he says.

Inspired by the nearby Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco denizen Behar looked at how a suspension bridge carries tremendous weight by using towers and a cable system. He began experimenting with creating a chair back with a “tower” for vertical support, which he designed as the Y-structure of the back, and his version of cables for back tension and comfort in the form of a molded elastomer suspension back material. Behar also took cues from the way boat and windsurfing sails are distorted under pressure, which informed the product name; and the Y in SAYL references the Y-tower.

“Early intuition was followed by many early experiments in the model shop, which eventually got us to some successes in defining the engineering principles of the SAYL chair,” explains Behar. “Iterating on the curvature of the lower Arc Span allowed us to fine-tune the shape of the back of the chair to reflect exact spine curvature. Ultimately, we produced 70-plus prototypes, constantly building, testing, breaking, and starting all over again.”

This arduous three-year process began with some 30 early prototypes to test the concept of full support with minimal materials. The designers devised a frameless suspension back with no hard edges that allows greater freedom of movement. “We are also able to change the performance of the SAYL back to reflect ergonomic support needs: harder responsive areas through thicker injected sections [of molded elastomer material] in the sacral, lumbar, and spine areas, and softer areas in the upper back and edges. This became known as the 3-D Intelligence of the back surfaces,” Behar explains, adding that some 100 flat sheet, 3-D intelligent prototypes were created to evaluate materials and pattern development. “The pattern studies were done by cutting the flat parts and then stretching on a variety of attachments to see the effect of the pattern on the back support,” he notes.

Finally, fuseproject arrived at a model that was the 3-D incarnate of what they envisioned. Proud of the resulting chair that weighs almost 30 percent less than its nearest counterpart, Behar appreciates the sense of visual lightness and transparency and “an ergonomic feel that is biomorphic.” He says, “The chair has a sense of humility; it disappears in the space and attempts to achieve high-tactility design rather than visual statement.”

The side chair version lacks the Y-tower and Arc-Span because, as Behar explains, that design would have created extraneous structure and visual weight. “The simplest resolution of the side chairs was to use the same injected elastomer material, but frame it in a lightweight and efficient structure,” he offers.

A pleased Schreur adds, “SAYL is simply everything we could have hoped for. It continues Herman Miller’s long-standing role as a design and innovation leader, with a striking material innovation in the 3-D intelligent back. It combines healthy ergonomics, a progressive and fresh aesthetic, long-term durability, and great value.”
Herman Miller SAYL
Yves Behar designs a new chair for Herman Miller that gives users comfort and freedom of movement—and is cost-effective and eco-friendly to boot
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