Inventing the Office Chair: Darwin, the President and Design-Hacking

Four Generations in Four Walls: The Challenge of Creating an Age-Neutral Workspace
May 25, 2017

We may take them for granted, but today’s office chairs are sophisticated pieces of design. They allow us to travel, twist, lean, rise and sink. But how did we arrive at this gyroscopic design? Well, it took a few light-bulb moments from several people – some quite famous people, actually.

Darwin the Unlikely Designer

Evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin is often credited as the designer of the first office chair. Back in the 1840s, he wanted to move more quickly between his specimens. So, he turned his famed mind to the problem and to his armchair. In an act of what we now call ‘design-hacking’, he removed the chair’s feet and replaced them with cast-iron bed legs fitted with castors. From then on, he could wheel from specimen to specimen without the need to get up. The chair actually remains in his study, which has been restored as an English Heritage site.

A President’s Predicament

However, contrary to popular lore, Darwin was not the first to dismember his office furniture in pursuit of better mobility. Over 50 years prior, US President Thomas Jefferson was sat writing the Declaration of Independence. During this historic moment, he was perched on his own contribution to furniture design; a swivel chair. The chair in question was formerly a Windsor chair – with legs mounted into holes drilled into it the underside of the seat. However, Jefferson wanted more motion when at his writing desk. So, he commissioned a carpenter to customise the chair. The top and bottom parts were divided by castors, allowing Jefferson to pivot his seat on a static set of legs.

Leaning Towards Modernity

Darwin and Jefferson’s innovations were huge steps towards the design we now know. However, they occurred on different sides of the Atlantic at separate times. It wasn’t until 1849 that the wheels and swivel were combined in Thomas Warren’s Centripetal Spring Armchair. However, Warren added another range of motion to the design. His armchair was mounted on a series of ‘springy’ iron bands which allowed the user to lean in any direction. Yet his ground-breaking piece of design was frowned upon by Victorian contemporaries. The supported structure was deemed ‘immoral’, as it didn’t promote the upright posture they considered a sign of refinement and willpower.

Reaching New Heights

Darwin, Jefferson and Warren may have given us the ability to travel, twist, and lean. However, it took another 120 years before the final range of motion was added. In the 1970s, Wilhelm Ritz introduced the ability to adjust the seat height of his 232 Chair, which incorporated a gas cylinder for this purpose.

From Jefferson in the 1770s to Ritz in the 1970s, it took 200 years of design-hacking and innovation to allow office staff around the world to work in comfort. Who knows what we’ll be sitting on 200 years from now?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *