This Chair Recognizes Need for Comfort


It began four years ago with the code name “XCalibr,” a $35-million secret project named after the sword used by King Arthur to vanquish all competitors.

Eleven studies at four universities followed, while engineers pored over plans, tore them up and started again.

Now Steelcase Inc., the No. 1 U.S. office furniture maker, says it’s developed a product unlike anything you’ve ever seen--or sat in--that will change the way office chairs are viewed: the ergonomically correct Leap chair.


“When you think about it, the basic office chair hasn’t changed from technology that was around 25 years ago,” said Ken Tameling, Leap product manager for Steelcase. “The Leap chair is the first one that addresses the needs of today’s workplace and moves the way you move.”

The chair, which began shipping in September, has a patented “live back” rest whose ridges and tilt-support bars mimic a user’s unique spine motion. Studies found that just as snowflakes and fingerprints are unique, so are “spine prints.”

There are 12 discrete joints in the upper back and five in the lower that act independently of each other, and each individual sits differently at different times of the day. But most office chairs either have rigid curved backs or tilt backs for general use, providing little support.

The Leap chair takes direct aim at the top-selling, ultra-sleek Aeron chair from competitor Herman Miller Inc. as the furniture makers are finding an increasing market for more expensive ergonomic seating.

“Our customers have become much more savvy in terms of their understanding of ergonomics and how it can help them with health issues in the workplace,” said Keith McRobert, an executive in the seating group of Zeeland, Mich.-based Herman Miller. “Before, a chair was a chair was a chair.”

But in an era where the computer has become an extension of the hand--and where carpal tunnel and back pain cases are soaring--more companies are sparing no expense to provide individual seating that stresses good posture and keeps injuries to a minimum.


Of course, it doesn’t hurt that both Herman Miller’s and Steelcase’s chairs look like something you might see in a “Star Trek” movie or on the “Jetsons.”

Herman Miller’s Aeron has been on the market for more than five years and has won raves from designers and critics for its aesthetic beauty and ability to assume the shape of its user.

“Just think, we don’t buy shoes or clothes that don’t fit,” said Herman Miller’s Bob Hieftje, who was on the Aeron design team. “Why should we buy a chair that way? You spent nearly a third of your life sitting in chairs that were designed to ‘generally’ meet the needs of the populace.

“The whole idea behind the Aeron was the ability to provide support through that full range of the potential posture and application,” he said.

People change position at least once a minute to get comfortable and relieve heat buildup that comes from sitting still, but many harried workers pay little heed to medical advice that calls for them to stand up and stretch for 10 minutes every hour.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes back pain is second only to the common cold as a cause of worker absenteeism, accounting for 40% of all occupational injuries.


And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says back pain costs employers $20 billion annually in workers’ compensation costs and $60 billion in indirect costs.

Not to be outdone, Steelcase pumped an estimated $35 million into developing the Leap chair, and it was introduced to raves at the summer NeoCon office furniture show in Chicago.

Steelcase is so confident in the new, patented technology that its glossy, book-like brochure takes the unusual step of announcing: “Forget everything you’re heard or seen (even from us). There is no such thing as a user-friendly chair” until Leap.

Still, the high-tech invention comes at a high cost: averaging about $1,000 for all the bells and whistles, which include adjustable arm rests, a seat bottom that slides forward to allow the occupant to lean back and still maintain proper distance from the keyboard and seat depth adjustments for people of different sizes.

But many of the high-tech and financial firms that have been the biggest buyers of such products say the extra cost is worth it.

“[Employees] may stay longer in a day, or they’re not going to go out with carpal tunnel or other ergonomic issues,” said Heidi Jung, manager of corporate services for software firm Attachmate, which recently purchased 800 Leap chairs from Steelcase. “It goes a long way toward productivity.”


Jung chose Steelcase’s Leap chair over Herman Miller’s Aeron after employees and executives tried both in demonstrations.

“The biggest thing that was unanimous was the lumbar and back support. People felt the back support was better and more comfortable,” she said.

Steelcase says it hopes to license the design to makers of automotive and airline seats, but Herman Miller executives and other chair makers say they’re not concerned about the competition.

Herman Miller is set to begin shipping a scaled-down version of Aeron, dubbed “Caper,” in November and says Aeron still beats all comers in providing comfort by offering mesh-type seating that facilitates airflow.