Joining the competition to produce a better task chair is a bit like signing up for a footrace against Marion Jones or Michael Johnson. Allsteel, however, was confident that its #19 Chair was a true contender, capable of surpassing seats by traditional pack-leaders such as Herman Miller, Steelcase and Humanscale. Admittedly, seating has never been a strong suit of the Muscatine, Iowa, office-furniture maker, which is admired most for its durable metal filing cabinets. The #19 Chair signals a new direction for Allsteel-part of a deliberate effort to re-brand itself as a champion of modern, purposeful design.
Although many chairs address ergonomics through adjustability (seat height, armrests, inclination of back, lumbar support), #19 responds to the reality that “most people aren’t inclined to fiddle with levers and knobs once they sit down,” explains lead designer Marcus Koepke.
“They just want to focus on their work.” Humanscale’s Freedom Chair made great strides in touch-response and self-adjustability, but #19 goes further with the concept of weight-activation-the sitter’s weight sets the chair to its most comfortable position. The design team developed a technology called Avatar, a “recline-return action,” wherein the chair’s frame, seat and back remain in smooth and constant synch with the body’s movements. “It’s different from anything I’ve ever sat on,” Wolf said. “It’s amazing how it lifts your hips when you sit back, but your feet stay on the ground.”
Another innovation, also based on user response, is the chair’s thermal-regulation properties. With such original seating technologies as VenTech Thermal Weave (used on the seatback) and Tria (a combination of Technogel, foam and compliant upholstery for the seat), #19 helps maintain body warmth while allowing the chair to breathe and keep its shape. The seat and back are attached to a 100 percent recycled aluminum frame that’s sturdy yet slight, not to mention striking. “Each element has great intrinsic value,” Richard Holbrook said. “If you saw any one of the parts individually, you’d know it was part of something special.” With 21 patents and more patents pending, #19 has made the race for a better chair considerably more exciting.
Cathy Lang Ho
Q&A WITH MARCUS KOEPKE
Does the world need another task chair?
Information about the body and our physical habits-what we need to sit and work comfortably-is constantly changing. This chair pulls together the most modern thinking on ergonomics. The breakthrough with designing #19 came when we began thinking of the human body as part of the mechanism-that’s where the name comes from. The chair has 18 core parts; the missing piece, or #19, is the sitter, who completes the chair. Doesn’t it sound so much better to say, “I sit in a chair,” than “I sit on a chair?” It’s sort of a Zen question: When does something become a chair? Answer: When someone’s using it.
What does this chair do that others don’t?
Thermal regulation is a new area of study for seating. #19 keeps a person steady at just below body temperature, which experts agree is ideal for productivity. The seat uses technology we developed. It’s a combination of a breathable upholstery, Technogel and foam, which circulates air when you sit, enabling you to remain in the chair for hours without feeling uncomfortable. VenTech, used on the back, solves one of the problems associated with mesh in other chairs-namely, the loss of body heat.
Also, this chair is perhaps the most passive ergonomic chair around. There are very few adjustments that have to be made; most are automatic. One size fits-and adjusts-to all. This chair solves a lot of problems, especially for women. One of my frustrations with seating is that most chairs are designed so that heavy men can lean back easily, and women can’t. This is because manufacturers have to meet safety specs for the heaviest person, which means that the tilt tension is usually too stiff for a woman to recline with little effort. I wanted a chair that was easy for everyone, whether you’re 100 or 100 pounds.
Is there anything unique about its process?
Allsteel’s commitment to sustainability drove a lot of our decisions. The chair’s frame and base are 100 percent recycled aluminum, and 93 percent of the other materials used are recyclable. Minimizing the number of parts, too, was a deliberate attempt to make sure that pieces could be swapped out easily for repairs or upgrades. The back and seat snap off in seconds, for example. Keeping the number of parts minimal wasn’t easy. With so few parts, each has to do more, which means that all the components were custom-designed.
The ease of assembly and disassembly also saves resources during production. We minimized gluing and welding, relying on simple mechanical fasteners that not only make it easier to trade parts, but also eliminate toxic waste and energy use. Furthermore, the manufacturing process is “gravity fed,” using the object’s own weight to move it down the production line. The chair is built from the floor up, starting with the casters and the base, enabling it to be rolled along. No conveyor belts are used, which saves quite a bit of electricity.
BIO 3Industrial designer Marcus Koepke of Marcus Curtis Design in Indianapolis has developed more than a dozen office chairs for such companies as Kimbell Intl., National Office Furniture and Hon Co. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Drawing, Art, Architecture and Planning, he spent the first 15 years of his career in the computer industry designing workstations, monitors and keyboards. This experience shaped his interest in technology’s impact on the workplace and led to his investigations of passive ergonomic systems, which he began in 1991. He holds three patents on self-balancing weight-activated systems.
CLIENT Allsteel, Muscatine, Iowa
DESIGN Marcus Curtis Design, Indianapolis: Marcus Koepke, principal; Allsteel Design and Engineering Team, Muscatine, Iowa
MATERIALS | FABRICATION Recycled aluminum frame and base, VenTech ThermalWeave patented mesh upholstery and Tria (technogel, foam and breathable upholstery)
SOFTWARE ANSYS, Mechanica, Mechanism Designer, ProEngineer, Solidworks