Workspace Roundup: Ergonomic Chairs

As techies, there are few components that affect us more so than our chairs. Sitting in a chair for countless hours every day has a notable impact on our bodies. A crappy chair can cause immediate duress and also lead to prolonged pain. A quality chair, however, can do a lot of good for you.

Proper lumbar support, being reasonably adjustable, sufficient padding, all these components play a role in pressure your body absorbs while sitting. Acquiring a proper seat should be a nobrainer, but it seems to be a value many people neglect.

In this piece, we’ve taken a look at some of the dominant players in the ergo chair market. There are few better options out there, and thusly few more expensive. But we believe that if these chairs are out of your price range, the present features can serve as a guideline for your purchase of a personally realistic alternative.

Steelcase Leap

Price: $900 shown—$800 base

Topping out our list is the Leap from Steelcase. Widely touted as the Aeron killer, the Leap features everything one could possibly ask for in an ergo chair. Featuring ten adjustable points, it’s easy to situate this chair precisely to personal demands.

Those controls allow you to manipulate seat depth and height, lumbar height, lower and upper back firmness, tilt and various options for the arm pads. It comes in leather, but I demoed a cloth version, which appeals to me more than leather.

From a build perspective, it feels like something from the ’50s. It’s heavy-duty and quite heavy—in my excitement to remove it from the boxes, I pulled my back and spent the next several days limping around, sweet irony.

The sheer quantity of ergonomic options on the Leap can be a bit daunting to start. It definitely took me a few days to finally get it situated in an agreeable fashion and then a few more days to tweak it to perfection.

But after sitting in it for about two weeks, I’m curious how I lived life before it. My entire body feels a good deal happier.

Let’s face it, everyone is vastly different, and a chair that works for one person might not work for another. Steelcase covered its bases here. By allowing users to fine-tune all of the chair’s functions, it has essentially created a chair personalized to each sitter.

The downside? Cost. It’s not cheap, but it’s oh so worth it. You might have to sell a kidney to afford one, but your neck and back will thank you (at least after you finish healing from that kidney extraction). – BR

HumanScale Liberty
Price: $885 and up

When word came down from on high that I would be reviewing the ergonomic chair of my choice, I decided to take a slightly different path than my colleagues here at the Gear. Most ergonomic chairs have the tendency to resemble the chairs seen in cockpits of starfighters. They tend to be brash, sci-fi-looking affairs with more knobs than could possibly be needed, and a techno-mechanical style befitting something Giger would dream up. When I found the Liberty Chair, made by the people at HumanScale, I knew I had my iconoclast.

Looking more like something you’d find in an office than most, the Liberty is as simple as ergo chairs get, yet is fully functional and does its job splendidly. While I believe that a chair is a chair is a chair, I now feel that ergonomics might have a place after all. Sitting in the chair feels like any other, save that you get the comforting reclined feeling even when sitting upright. For someone like me, who has the posture of a 90-year-old grandmother, that’s important. The height adjustment knob, which is the only visible of the several adjusters on the fine chair, easily puts me at the right height for my desk. I tried the chair with three desks, and it handled them all nicely.

A nice feature I’d never seen before (but now find is commonplace on ergo chairs) is the sliding seat. The cushion slides forward or backward to better suit your posture, relieving stress on your lower back. The mesh back supports your back if you’re sitting or reclining equally. One feature I noted was that, when looking at my computer screen and reclining, the screen stays at eye level. My head’s elevation changes very little, a nifty trick indeed, and something video editors might look on favorably.

The chair’s controls are relatively simple, I counted only three adjustable settings, but that’s all you need. Of the four people I had try the chair, all were able to make it fit them perfectly with just these controls; the rest adjusts automatically.

The only downside to the chair were the casters. If your office is like mine, there are cables and wires everywhere under your desk, from computers, gadgets, cellphones, video decks, you name it. My current office chair ($39 from Costco) negotiates these hazards like a Humvee in the field. The Liberty, however, got tangled and bogged down, forcing me to physically lift it several times to free it. While cleaning and organizing my office is an option, it’s not likely. Had the chair larger casters, I’d probably be able to scud over the plastic and metal jungle with ease.

In all, if you’re looking for a simple yet fully functional ergonomic chair, the Liberty should be on your list of contenders. And as a standard work chair, it gets the job done. So much so that when the HumanScale field rep shows up to reclaim her Liberty after testing in January, she may have a fight on her hands. – MH

VIA Swopper
Price: $500 and up

The Swopper from Via is the perfect choice for those that want the health benefits of an ergonomic chair without all the maddening back, seat and arm adjustments. And if you’re into training your core muscles, its “sitting in motion” design concept will help you do that, too.

The build of the stool is pretty basic: a cushioned seat on a giant spring. You adjust the tension of the spring by twisting a collar on the stool’s post at the bottom of the coil. This dictates how much movement the chair will have. There’s another pneumatic height adjustment, but that’s it.

So the idea is that once you’ve properly adjusted the Swopper according to your height and weight (the included instruction pamphlet lays it all out) and you sit in the proper position (yeah, it’s detailed in the instructions as well), all of your back and stomach muscles will go into action, helping you balance on the stool while you work.

The Swopper is overall comfortable. However at first, while you’re getting used to sitting on it, it can get uncomfortable if you stay on it for longer than 30 minutes at a time. Simply standing up for a bit cures this though, and after using the Swopper for a while, you won’t need to do it as often.

Its compact size is one of the Swopper’s biggest benefits. Those in cramped cubes or tight working spaces will enjoy not having a big, bulky ergonomic chair. And because you can easily swivel and turn any direction, it’ll work well for anyone that’s constantly reaching for things around their work area or frequently standing and sitting.

If you’re the type that likes to lean back in your chair when you’re on the phone, this is not the chair for you. Also, if you like arm rests, skip the Swopper. But it’s a great stool for training your muscles to do without the multiple stationary comforts of most all ergonomic chairs. – JG

Herman-Miller Mirra Chair

Price: $550 and up

Available in basic and full-featured models, the Mirra Chair is a good blend of modern office looks, ergonomics and price. Yes, there are plenty of similar-looking chairs on the market and at lower prices (the Mirra starts at about $550 for the basic model), but the superior comfort and quality construction are worth the cost, especially if you spend all day sitting.

The basic model is well, basic, with only a pneumatic adjustment for height, standard tilt and fixed armrests. Step up to the full-featured model and you get a tilt-limiter, adjustable arms, a FlexFront seat that lets you add or remove a curve to the front of the seat pan and—probably the best feature—a lumbar support. The lumbar support can be easily moved up and down the back of the chair, so putting it in the perfect position for your back is a snap, and you can adjust the amount of tension on it as well.

The seat is extremely comfortable for extended work sessions considering it has no cushioning. Both the backrest and seat pan are made from taut, breathable mesh allowing for good support and air circulation as well as a more individualized fit as it shapes to each user. All the adjustments are simple to operate and stay locked into place.

One of the nicest parts about the Mirra is you can pick different colors for the backrest, the seat pan and the frame. There are eight colors for the back and seat and two for the frame. Depending on where you buy it, you can also get a number of caster options for different flooring surfaces. True, coughing up nearly $800 for a desk chair is a tough thing to do, but your body will thank you for it. – JG