Lean On Me

Posted inID Mag

Vitra HeadLine Price: $1430; $1730 with armrests; $2800 in leather www.vitra.com

I'll confess my bias toward chairs that translate great ergonomics into long-term comfort. Good looks are important but take second place, which puts the kibosh on many modern chairs (the Eames lounge chair being one exception). The HeadLine, designed by Italy's renowned Mario Bellini and his son Claudio, seems aimed at people like me: Vitra describes it as a new ergonomic concept due to its innovative means of reclining while supporting the head, neck, and shoulders. It's clear that the HeadLine is a chair on a mission, a designer's exercise that boasts interesting concepts. But in the pursuit of an ideal, its cushiness has suffered.

Words that came to mind when I removed the HeadLine from its shipping crate include athletic, minimal, hard, technical, and finally, Mr. Spock. (The curvy aluminum exoskeleton and headrest recall the profile of Vulcan ears.) But the chair didn't look comfortable. Indeed, when you first sit in it, the lumbar support is there to jab you, a stern reminder that humans need back support whether it feels good or not. Overall, HeadLine feels pretty hard. Better than a wooden bench, but not your father's overstuffed easy chair.

The designers intended the stiffness. Soft chairs are more likely than firm chairs to hurt your tush, causing coccydynia, a condition that has been compared to being impaled on a garden cane. Thus the hardness of the HeadLine's bottom cushion is great for pinpointing your ischial tuberosities or sit bones which support your weight far better than either your coccyx or your soft parts. This is fine in concept, but after four hours in the chair, my design partner, who initially liked the HeadLine's minimalism, couldn't take it anymore. There's clearly a value in firmness, but the HeadLine might be too much of a good thing.

The only time you sink into the HeadLine is when you recline in it: According to Vitra, the chair's back has an internal plastic panel that changes shape as you lean, flattening the lumbar support so that your shoulders and back can rest comfortably. The chair's seat is also biosynchronized with its back (they move in an ergonomically correct manner) to prevent you from slipping out of the chair as you recline. The entire set-up smoothly articulates to a considerable angle, keeping you comfortably supported with your weight properly distributed if it reclined further, it might serve well as a dentist's chair. (Though a HeadLine without armrests, like the one I tested, leaves your arms dangling if they aren't folded across your belly. Why make the armrests optional when they are actually essential?)

The chair's reclining motion is meant to solve a problem you might not be aware you had: The designers claim that by allowing you to lean back in the archetypal posture of a daydream, the HeadLine facilitates thinking as well as sitting. It's an impressive feat of engineering and design. But I confess that the act of reclining in a task chair seems oxymoronic to me. And haven't people in desk chairs done okay so far, thinking up things like the Internet, the iPod, and American Idol?

Beyond its failure to coddle, there are several simple things the chair does well. Levers and switches adjust the chair's height, the force required to recline, the seat's fore-aft position, and the height of the ever-present lumbar support. Therefore, it can accommodate people of different sizes, even though it looks made for large ones. And perhaps the highlight of the chair is Vitra's 3-D warp-knitted fabric. It feels superb, just coarse enough to keep you in place without feeling rough. The chair comes in perforated leather as well, but the fabric might be too good to pass up. I'd take a sofa made of it. Finally, it's laudable that the chair is almost entirely recyclable and that half of it is made from recycled material. Perversely, this makes me wonder if a HeadLine chair has ever contained a bit of plastic or metal from a recycled Aeron Chair made by Vitra's competitor, Herman Miller. If only the designers had decided to recycle some spare padding lying about, Vitra would perhaps have had a winner.

Michael Wiklund is founder and president of Wiklund Research and Design and the author of Medical Device and Equipment Design-Usability Engineering and Ergonomics (Interpharm).