Architecture & Design

Roll on - a short history of the swivel chair

Office Trends Office History Design Trends

With RIYA (design: PearsonLloyd), Bene has a new swivel chair in its programme - the likeable design and ease of use offer an inviting place to sit. We are using this product launch as an occasion to take a closer look at the history of the swivel chair.

Sitting is actually a surprisingly recent human habit. In fact, for a long time sitting as we know it today was reserved for those in power - the throne is the ancestor of our contemporary chairs. The first depictions of seated subjects were created in Egyptian antiquity and show rulers on "representative seats". Being allowed to sit on a chair was considered a sign of power and authority and remained a privilege of the Christian and secular elites until the late Middle Ages.

The chair became somewhat more popular in the 16th century.The increase in commerce led to the first "seated professions" - with increasing frequency, administrators, dealers and bookkeepers completed their tasks at a dedicated workspace, which therefore also had a seat. Since the bookkeeper’s financial ledgers were long and had to be spread out on several tables, this soon led to the invention of a chair with castors to speed up the journey from one end of the ledger to another.

Taylorism everywhere

Even then, the design of desk chairs was primarily oriented according to practical considerations. This tendency was continued and even reinforced with emerging industrialisation: From then on, the rhythm of the machines also determined the office work, which had to be completed in a disciplined, precise and methodical manner. According to the principles of Taylorism, people also had to function efficiently: everything had to be within reach on the desk so that movement would be reduced to a minimum.

This machine-oriented thinking is also reflected in the design of the first "proper" swivel chairs, the emergence of which is closely tied with the invention of the typewriter. When the first Remingtons conquered the office in the 1870s, which also lead to the introduction of women into office life, sitting finally established itself as the primary posture in the workplace. The typical desk chair, such as the one designed by Ten Eyck, was a prosaic, standard chair adapted to the secretary and having three or more feet, a height-adjustable wooden seat and a vertical, slightly springy backrest to support the spine. Unfortunately, the anonymised mass products didn’t function as they were supposed to - sitting was uncomfortable and resulted in back pain and bad posture.

Frank Lloyd Wright was one designer who created less functional, more design-oriented office furniture, developing special swivel chairs with cane work for the Larkin Company’s administrative building. Michael Thonet, probably the most important furniture manufacturer at the turn of the century, also tried his hand in office design: in collaboration with Otto Wagner, Thonet designed elegant chairs for the Viennese Postsparkasse bank, although these barely met the needs of daily office work.

Ergonomics - a magical word

Only in the 1950s did one magical word manage to make the office — and especially the swivel chair — interesting to engineers and designers: ergonomics. The goal of this new discipline was to adapt the work environment to the employees’ needs and liberate them from the stiff, right-angled sitting posture. This was to be achieved through norms, all manners of adjustment levers and mechanics - many office chairs were developed into actual sitting machines with complex technology, which the users often just gave up on.

In the late 1970s, there was a deliberate shift in thinking: while swivel chairs should correspond to people’s ergonomic needs, they should still be user-friendly. Developed by Klaus Franck and Werner Sauer for Wilkhahn in 1979, the FS was probably the first user-friendly chair with an automatic synchro-adjustment to appear on the market. Even the slogan "Sitting without a driving licence" emphasised its ease of use.

Symbiosis between functionality and design

In recent years, communication and team work have established themselves as fixed components of daily work. This also led to differentiated office layouts: The ideal office provides not just areas of retreat for concentrated work; it also offers open spaces for communication and collaboration and is a place for efficient work that also feels good. In this increasingly social and emotional office environment, the furniture also has to adapt to new demands - flexible adjustments and an attractive design are particularly desired.

The products from the London studio of PearsonLloyd offer a perfect example of this symbiosis between functionality and design: "In our work, we want to question the overwhelmingly technoid aesthetic that dominates office spaces", the designers explained. Following the Bay Chair, which is especially appropriate for team work as well as short-term, concentrated work, Tom Lloyd and Luke Pearson now present the RIYA swivel chair. Its form language and soft lines deliberately negate the usually technoid, sombre appearance of swivel chairs and is intended to create a comfortable experience for office workers. In addition to the friendly design, which represents an open and likeable office culture with a human touch, RIYA is also very adaptable: RIYA fits into the various zones of modern offices not only aesthetically but also functionally (in addition to the traditional synchronous mechanics, the chair also offers an automatic weight regulation). The technology doesn’t try to take centre stage; instead its use is intuitive, with the help of attractively designed adjustment buttons.

Following an age of rectangular wooden chairs and over-equipped, mechanical devices, the RIYA has brought us into the office of the 21st century, in which the chair is neither a status symbol nor a sign of hierarchical superiority. A good swivel chair has an appealing design, satisfies the employees’ ergonomic needs, and is still easy to use. "Human touch" instead of sitting machine - that sounds good, doesn’t it?


Angelika Molk

Corporate Marketing Manager