The €700 chair


— 10:47 PM on February 7, 2008

If you spend a significant portion of your time in front of a computer, there's a good chance you have the posture of an orangutan. There may not be anything wrong with that, and you may even go on to do great things. However, plenty of evidence shows that slouching can cause all kinds of problems, from insufficient breathing to back pain, and I think most people would agree that it's just plain unsightly. The computer is the culprit, and desk chairs typically do nothing to help. Slouching over your desk or leaning back with your chin hitting your chest is just too darn comfortable.

I know this all too well, because I've been sitting like that ever since I started using computers. When I was a teenager, I could identify my nerdiest friends by how badly they slouched. At home, I loved to lean so far back in my chair that my ass barely touched the seat edge. So I sat for years, and when I moved out and got a job, I bought myself a decent fake-leather office armchair with a tall backrest and a tilt feature. For months I thought it was the most comfortable chair I'd ever sat in—so comfortable, in fact, that I occasionally took naps in it.

Then, after barely a couple of years of use, I stood up one day and realized that the chair was in terrible shape. The seat was torn in one place, the foam had collapsed so much that I felt the hard structural support under it, and I was getting random bouts of back pain after prolonged work sessions. Since my investment clearly hadn't paid off, I decided that enough was enough, and I went on a search for the perfect chair.

Initially, I looked into Ikea's highest-end offerings, but the things were just uncomfortable. I had a look around some other furniture stores, but nothing quite tickled my fancy. I then went on the Internet and read up on the famed Herman Miller Aeron, the staple of the late 90s dot-com industry that's still priced at about a grand for the base model. I was tempted, but like any sane person, I thought paying that much money for a chair was plain crazy.

After a few more uncomfortable days spent in my old chair, I resumed my quest, and this time I discovered the Aeron's baby sister, the Mirra. In essence, the Mirra is a cheaper, more recent, and more space-agey version of the Aeron that trades its predecessor's flexible mesh seat and back for a slightly less flexible mesh seat and harder polymer back. This chair was conceived by German firm Studio 7.5, and it just screams German industrial design: a simultaneously stylish and functional look, simple and intuitive features, and rock-solid construction. It's so tough, in fact, that Herman Miller covers it with a 12-year warranty.

I was still not convinced, though. Was a chair really worth that much money? I half-jokingly suggested it to my girlfriend, hoping to shock her with mention of the €700 price tag, but instead she said, "Go for it." Suddenly, it all made sense. People like me, we spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on our computers, monitors, TVs, and other everyday items, but when it comes to a desk chair, we see no issue with settling for a $50-100 office surplus model. Yet in my case, since I work from home, I spend the majority of my time in it. Isn't a bigger investment worth it if it keeps me from having back problems when I'm in my 30s? Considering the 12-year warranty on the Mirra, I could see no reason to pass up the opportunity.

So I did it. I ordered it from a British website, since Herman Miller products are inexplicably impossible to find anywhere in France (or at least for a reasonable price). Five days after passing the order, my doorbell rang, but the mailman only had bad news—the package had been damaged during shipping. I went to check on the extent of the damage, and indeed, the chair's back was bent out of shape. I refused delivery and called the British firm, which turned out to be pleasantly cooperative, agreeing to send me a chair the next day.

Three days after this temporary setback, I received the second chair, which was this time safely stowed in a large cardboard box. The mailman helped me take it up to my apartment, and as I carried it up the necessarily four flights of stairs, I really got a feel for the product's sturdy construction. This thing is heavy. I haven't weighed it, but I'd wager it's in the 40-45 kg range (90-100 lbs). I took it out of the package and sat on it.

My working area. Cyril not pictured.

My first impression was that it was hard. Definitely much harder than my former cushion-y throne. I played with the controls, of which there ought to be enough to please anyone: you can adjust the height and depth of the lumbar support. You can roll the front of the seat forward to reduce the depth of the chair. You can adjust the armrests vertically, horizontally, and rotate them inward and outward. You can set how far back the chair reclines and even switch to a "forward tilt" position to avoid having to slouch. And there are of course the usual levers to control the seat height and recline resistance.

What's striking about all these controls is how easy they are to use. The chair does come with an instruction manual, but it almost doesn't need to. Everything is neatly accessible, and there are no nondescript levers or switches that you're wary of touching for fear of making yourself fall over. This is extremely important, because adjusting the chair well is vital. Once you've customized it to your liking, you really understand why it costs as much as it does. It's comfortable, but not too much. It encourages you to keep a good posture, but it doesn't force you to. If you decide to sit cross-legged or lean to the side, it follows your movement without getting in your way. The mesh seat and polymer back let air through, so you never get the warm, soporific feel of chairs with foam cushioning. When you recline, the chair still provides flawless back and lumbar support. I could go on.

My only complaint is with the armrests. They're nice, and they can be adjusted to practically any position. But they feel a little loose and rattle slightly. This type of thing normally wouldn't bother me, but I'm the type of guy who spends hours trying to come up with the quietest fan configuration possible in his PC, so the armrests stuck out like sore thumbs to me—even though any normal person would just ignore them and enjoy their €700 chair. Me, I took the armrests apart and filed down some parts to get the wiggle down to an acceptable level. It still bothers me from time to time, but I'm just unnecessarily obsessive like that.

All mild craziness aside, I can't say how pleased I am with this chair overall. When walking down the street the other day, I saw my reflection in a shop window and noticed that I wasn't slouching. I wasn't even paying attention to my posture, but here I was, standing perfectly straight. I later checked again when walking to the store with my girlfriend. She, too, remarked that my posture was flawless. This change initially came at the cost of a little occasional muscle pain in the mornings—the kind you might get after digging a hole or chopping some wood—but that quickly subsided and left me with a dramatically altered posture in just a couple of weeks. I didn't think that was even possible.

Sitting up straight has other advantages besides making me look dashingly handsome, too. I never feel drowsy when sitting at my desk anymore. Somehow, I feel more creative, and words come more easily when I'm writing. This may just be a placebo thing—I don't have a control Cyril to make sure—but the effect is there, and it does make sense that sitting properly without impeding my breathing would help. I still slouch occasionally while working, but regaining a proper posture is so comfortable and easy that it's not a problem anymore.

To conclude, I won't go as far as to say a chair can change your life. However, spending a decent among of dough on a chair that isn't made for orangutans really has major advantages. I encourage anyone to consider how much time they spend sitting in the same chair and whether replacing that chair with a better model would be a good investment. In many cases, I'd wager the answer would be "yes." If you're hoping to get out of the vicious circle of sub-par office chairs, I'm sure there are plenty of well-designed ergonomic chairs out there to choose from. Based on my experience, however, I heartily recommend the Mirra. The basic model starts at $599, and you can add extras like forward tilt, adjustable arms, and lumbar support for an extra couple hundred bucks. Yes, that's very expensive for a chair, but I think being comfortable all day, fixing your posture, and reducing your risk of suffering from debilitating back problems is absolutely worth the investment.

   
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