I live in my office chair. Live in it. It’s where I do my work. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, or even good for me. But it’s a fact.
Having a comfortable seat to work from is a big deal. In the early days I used an orphaned kitchen chair. It was great for tipping and teetering, but hell on my back. When I moved to L.A. and started screenwriting I bought myself a cranberry ergonomic office chair that looked like it meant business. In less than a year it broke me down until I had to sleep on the floor in order to be able to function the next day.
By the late 1990’s I’d gotten to the point that I hated the idea of working. Not because I didn’t have things to say or ideas percolating, but because work was physically painful. Like a jackhammer operator with white knuckle, the repetitive stress of sitting had worn my body down to the point that I couldn’t sit.
So I did some research. I looked at chairs as devices, looked at ergonomics as science and art (and marketing fraud), and looked at my personal needs, which included being able to slump, slouch, and otherwise fidget while lingering over a sentence or word. After a while, no matter where I started my search on a given day, I kept coming back to a chair that had been brought to market in 1995. The Aeron.
By now you’ve probably seen one yourself. Maybe even sat in one. They’re mod looking, and for a while were considered très hip. If you ever inquired about the price, you also know they’re expensive.
I don’t consider myself cheap. I don’t spend a lot of money, even when I have it, but that’s because most of the things I find interesting are pretty much free: thinking, writing, gardening (unless you get into exotics), being. But I’m quite serious about expenses, and I tend to think a purchase through — and all the more so if it involves a significant outlay.
I don’t remember the exact amount, but I think I paid roughly $700 for my Aeron chair in 1999. I bought it direct from Herman Miller, via their new online store. It came with all of the arm, seat and support adjustments, and arrived in my residential neighborhood as part of an LTL load on a semi truck. I can still remember opening the box and hoping against hope that I hadn’t just shelled out a pile of money for the privilege of injuring myself in grand style.
My hope, in spending $700 dollars on a chair, was that the annual (or even per diem) cost would come down drastically as the useful life of the chair was extended. I viewed the chair as a tool, and I tend to take care of my tools. Even at the time, my thinking was that if the chair lasted five solid years (and I expected it to last longer), the per-day cost to me would be thirty-eight cents ($0.38). After all the pain and frustration I’d dealt with in just trying to do my work, I was willing to take that gamble.
That was eleven years ago. In the intervening years I’ve never had a day where my Aeron chair hurt me. I’ve had days when I didn’t want to work — even weeks and months — but not because of my equipment. And that was the only goal I had for that chair. Don’t hurt me. When needed, it’s even allowed me to put in heavy, heavy hours. And I feel the hours. I just don’t feel the chair.
The per-day cost for having a comfortable place to sit and work is now down to seventeen cents a day ($0.17)m or $64 a year. For somebody who only uses their office chair for paying bills twice a year, that might not be worth it. For someone who uses their office chair constantly, that’s equivalent to the cost of a moderately-priced dinner for two, or a new pair of moderately-priced shoes. It’s even possible, if you’re working writer, or anyone slaved to a computer screen, keyboard and desk, that the increase in productivity (via comfort) would pay for the chair over time, if not profiting you outright.
As with any mechanism, however, things wear down. For the most part my Aeron is as it was on the day I received it. There are no splits in the arm rests, no failures in the mesh seat and back. Recently I noticed, however, that the seat post had begun to wobble a bit, and in the past few weeks the wobbling had become a distraction. I felt as if the chair were perched atop a gimbal, and I could feel myself locking my hips and legs in an attempt to keep the chair from wobbling too and fro.
Being fairly handy I looked into what might be the cause, and found a broken bearing race in the bottom of the seat post. I wasn’t sure that was the cause of the teetering — the tolerance of the bearing seemed fairly small relative to the amount of tipping — but the race was clearly cracked. So I called Herman Miller to see if I could buy a replacement.
Now, we all know what it’s like to call a company and deal with customer service or tech support. But instead of all that, in short order I was talking with a very nice rep who asked me to crawl under my chair and retrieve a few numbers from a white tag she said I would find there. From those numbers not only did she conclude that I needed to speak with a local dealer, but she also informed me that the chair was still under Herman Miller’s original twelve-year warranty, which I had forgotten about.
Now think about that for a moment. When was the last time you bought anything that had a twelve year warranty? Yeah, me either.
Thinking the bearing might be replaced for free, or for a small shipping and handling charge, I contacted the local dealer. Rather than just sending me the part, however, the dealer put me in touch with their service manager, who contacted me and arranged to come to my house and fix my chair.
Seriously. A house call. For my chair. At no cost to me. For an eleven-year-old product.
Name any product experience you’ve ever had that beats that.
On the appointed day the service manager showed up and not only replaced the bearing, he replaced the entire seat tube. Why? Because all pneumatic tubes have a useful life. (If you’ve ever owned a pickup with a topper, you’ve probably had to replace a strut or two for the same reason, and sooner given exposure to the elements.) He also replaced the seat pan of the chair, because Herman Miller strengthened them in several places after some early material failures.
I don’t know what I thought the useful life of my Aeron would be. Probably a decade, just to grab an obvious number. Now I’m thinking twenty years, even if I have to pay for parts and service in the future. And other than the seat tube, I’m not really sure what else is going to wear out from regular use. I don’t use the chair as a step stool. I don’t even tip back in it very often.
If you spend a lot of time in a chair, I think you should at least consider buying an Aeron. I know they’re even more expensive now, and that money is tight for pretty much everyone. I’m not saying you should go into debt or that you can’t live without one, but I do think you should give it some thought.
— Mark Barrett