Lurking in a corner of an old-fashioned Santa Monica workshop is a chair that looks as if it might lift off at warp speed if you pulled the wrong knob. This is the Aeron, an office chair for the 21st Century, which Don Chadwick designed with Bill Stumpf in Minneapolis for Herman Miller in Michigan. It's the product of faxes and advance technology, but the creative work was done hands-on, using tools that Chadwick's cabinetmaker grandfather might have employed. "You won't find a computer here. It doesn't have a sense of feel," he says. "The only way to be sure a chair is comfortable is to sit in it."
Chadwick, who was born in L.A., studied industrial design at UCLA and has created innovative furniture, on his own and with Stumpf, for 30 years. A knock-down chair of folded cardboard and a lightweight plastic tub chair look new but are, in fact, 1960s prototypes that were never produced. The cardboard chair was reborn as fabric-covered foam sectional seating that bears his name. In 1984, he and Stumpf designed the Equa office chair, which won Time's "best of the decade" award. "Chairs are the most interesting challenge," Chadwick says. "They offer you more freedom than other kinds of furniture."
The two designers collaborated again on a reclining chair for the elderly and disabled. After that project was canceled, they received a call from Herman Miller, a furniture company that has done well by encouraging progressive designers, to develop the Aeron. The brief was to create a chair that would meet increasingly stringent health and safety standards worldwide, and provide comfortable support for almost every task and user. It was a test of complementary skills. "Bill is strong on research and ergonomics," Chadwick says. "I'm more intuitive and like to build things." He made a quarter-scale model and flew to Michigan with Stumpf to sell the concept to the company.
Over the following 2 1/2 years, the mechanisms that allow the chair to rock back and hold any position were refined. The die-cast frame of recycled aluminum acquired a new sensuality. The seat and back underwent the biggest change: Out went the conventional padding, in came a see-through membrane that shaped itself to the body and evenly distributed weight. Like a cross-training shoe, the chair was to be versatile, light and cool--and available in three sizes.
"In the 1980s, star architects designed chairs as sculptural objects," Chadwick notes. "An office chair has to perform. But the best of them endure because they combine aesthetics and functionality."