Earlier this week I went to London’s Design Museum. The museum is located on the bank of the Thames river, a minute’s walk or approximately £400 by taxi from London Bridge. It is the sort of place that is rarely on anyone’s Top 10 —or even Top 20—list of places to see in London.
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Which is a pity really. Because it is a nice museum. Currently, the second floor of the two-floor exhibition space houses a collection of 100 designs that have been nominated for a major British design prize. This includes everything from the Angry Birds computer game to a somewhat perplexing collection of furniture.
One exhibit really caught my eye though. Among the nominees was, surprisingly, an office chair.
If I were to ask you right now to list all the things that you consider vital to a good workplace, odds are your office chair is not going to be on it. People, policies, technology, food and beverages, proximity to AC control switch, orientation of computer monitor away from reporting superior, route to lift lobby that does not pass CEO cabin—are all factors that you will probably rank highly.
Your office chair? Not so much.
But in fact many people take their office chairs very seriously indeed. Who hasn’t seen a colleague spend the entire day in a foul Taliban-like mood because their designated swivel chairs were accosted overnight by unknown ISI forces?
I have known people who take ownership of their chairs so seriously that they write their names on the back with correction fluid. Usually these are also the folks who take everything seriously in the office, send profuse complaints to HR, and give rise to office policies that are excellent in principle, but a pain in the back-office in practice.
Dear all, thanks for your feedback on the coffee machine on the 11th floor that makes excessive noise. We have now removed the machine. Thanks, HR.
Ownership tantrums apart, office chairs are actually a remarkably accurate barometer of several aspects of office life. Often, the bigger, taller and more flamboyant your chair is, the more higher up in the hierarchy you are.
Interns, as we all know, are usually never allocated chairs. For the first few days they generally shuffle about hopelessly optimistic, hoping HR or IT will allocate a workstation. Then, in a rapid education on cubicle life, they are banished to empty conference rooms. Except when meetings happen, when they all go and sit on the floor in the pantry.
Security guards and office boys get the chairs that have a wheel missing, collapsed back supports, or broken armrests. And then slowly it gets better as you work your way up the ladder. From the no-frills, no-guarantee, no-ISI mark basic swivel model for the masses, right up to the plush, leather, high backed throne of glory for the CEO.
Except, of course, if you occupy a position of leadership in an Indian public sector company. In which case your chair will be the same as everybody else’s but, as a symbol of your supremacy, you also get a complimentary turkey towel draped over the back.
The state of the chairs can also tell you how well a company is doing. Nothing foretells impending doom like rows upon rows of limp chairs with creaky backrests and squeaky swivels. Admittedly this is a weaker signal than seeing the CEO place recruitment ads for “motivated, self-driven leaders who will shred paper full-time”.
But I think demoralized chairs are at least as sound an harbinger of decline as that old classic signal: dying potted plants.
During the dot-com boom, the chair even became a symbol of success and power. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Herman Miller Aeron was the chair to be seen stoned in. Widely considered to be a work of modern art, the Aeron cost around a $1,000 each and, consequently, were some of the first things bust dot-coms tried to auction off. (Incidentally Herman Miller are also considered the inventors of the modern cubicle office. Use that in the next office quiz. That should perk everyone up.)
Jokes apart the Aeron is a very special chair indeed. I’ve sat in one a few times. It feels like you’re sitting in a firm, but gentle giant’s lap. If I ever joined a company that provided Aerons I don’t see how I’d ever quit. Or go home.
The model I saw in the Design Museum was also a Herman Miller. This new model is called a Sayl chair. According to a plaque the chair is lighter, more environmentally friendly, more efficiently designed and much more affordable than the Aeron, or other chairs from the brand.
However the plaque didn’t say how much it costs. With a sinking feeling I checked on the Internet. Herman Miller’s website reassured me that this was “a family of chairs which are as affordable as they are inventive”.
And what do they mean by affordable? The Sayl costs $500 each, and upwards.
But the chair is ridiculously comfortable. In fact I am writing this right now from the Design Museum. I am never going home again. The missus will come over on weekends.
I think it is a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com