Mesh vs Fabric – The History of Office Chair Material
Every day, millions of office workers around the world sit down without giving a second thought to the rich history that went into their favourite office chair’s material. But why should they? The evolution of chair upholstery hardly seems like a page-turner
Not only is it a fascinating story, but it helps explain the aesthetic and design we see in office chair trends today.
Fabric Covered Chairs
At some point in history, people became sick of sitting on a hard, wooden chair. At first, small pillows were used as a cushion, but with them being removable, it meant that they were constantly being misplaced or stolen.
It wasn’t until the late 16th century that chair frames were upholstered for the very first time. Created in England to accommodate a specific fashion choice, the Farthingale chair was named after the very large, wide-hooped skirts that were all the rage in the late 1500s. For the first time in history, women of nobility had somewhere to sit without ruining their favourite dress.
Meanwhile, across the English Strait, the French were inventing their own version of the padded fabric chair. Rococo chairs from the 1720s featured fabric-covered sections that could be swapped out to match the season or room décor
Despite it almost exclusively being enjoyed by the French nobility, the cushioning they used in these early chairs was anything but elegant. Instead of foam, latex or rubber, these chairs were stuffed with materials such as grass, feathers, sawdust, and animal hair. The only problem with this was that, over time, the cushion and seat backing would become lumpy and uncomfortable. Horsehair stuffing soon gave way to a system of steel spring cones that were held in place with a lashing cord.
Over the next few centuries, the humble fabric-covered padded chair evolved and split into many different designs made from a variety of materials. This includes leather, linen, polyurethane, cotton, wool, and other synthetics.
Mesh Covered Chairs
Despite their simplicity and how commonly they’re found in today’s office, the modern mesh chair was actually created for a completely different purpose. Back in the late 1970s, inventor Bill Stumpf was busy designing revolutionary new products for Herman Miller.
He’d already created the “Ergon”, the world’s first commercially available ergonomic chair with wheels and a swivel motion.
His next challenge was prompted by a visit to the geriatric ward of his local hospital. In the wards, waiting areas and specialist dialysis treatment rooms, Bill and his colleague Don Chadwick noticed that the only chairs for patients were large La-Z-Boy recliners.
While these chairs were comfortable enough, they weren’t very practical for the elderly patients that mostly used them. For starters, it required users to “fall” back into it because the footrest didn’t allow users to get their feet directly under them while sitting. Secondly, the lever to elevate the footrest was also difficult to manipulate. Finally, the foam stuffing spread the user’s weight unevenly while not allowing the material to breathe, causing the retention of heat and moisture.
Users of these chairs would frequently complain of pain, cramping and bedsores – all topped off by the fact that many would need assistance when it was time to get out of the chair.
With all of this in mind, Stumpf and Chadwick set out to create a lightweight and breathable chair that could be easily used by people with reduced mobility. This would be the birth of the Sarah chair, a high-end chair marketed to the elderly and those in need of lengthy medical procedures like chemotherapy and liver dialysis.
Unlike the La-Z-Boy, the Sarah chair featured a footrest that folded in under the seat when closed, leaving the user with room to curl their legs under the chair as they sat down. When
a sitter was fully reclined, fins flipped up to support her feet, just like the fins on a wheelchair. The lever was banished in favour of a pneumatic control inspired by the recline buttons on aeroplane seats.
But the chair’s greatest innovation was hidden: its foam cushions were supported not by an upholstered wooden box, as was typical at the time, but by a span of plastic mesh stretched across a plastic frame. The foam could thus be thinner and more able to mould to the body. And because the foam’s backing was exposed to air, the design mitigated heat build-up.
But there was a problem.
While everyone loved the design, it simply didn’t sell well. No one knew how to market high-end chairs to sick and elderly people. Added to the fact that the Sarah chair offered narrow margins when it did sell – it was no wonder that Herman Miller was quick to scrap the idea.
Despite this, Stumpf and Chadwick were convinced by some of the new design elements they’d invented and sought to integrate them into their next project, The Aeron chair. Closer to today’s mesh-wrapped office chair, the Aeron ditched the foam cushions that sat over the top of Sarah’s mesh covering. They argued that the mesh would conform to a user’s body while at the same time being incredibly breathable. It turns out, they were right, and the Aeron chair sparked an office revolution.
Today, mesh chairs can be found everywhere from offices to libraries and everywhere in between.
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