Creating something new for Herman Miller could well rank as one of industrial design’s more formidable challenges. Just look at the heritage. The Eames Aluminum Series, first produced in the late 1950s is still a desirable (if pricey) office option. The Aeron, created by Bill Stumpf and launched in 1994, shows no sign of losing its appeal; at about $1,000 (£640) a pop, the company has now sold more than six million of the mesh giants, accruing a few billion dollars of profit for the company. Jeff Weber’s Embody, meanwhile, was brought to the market in 2008 and – in spite of its six years of development and the heft of Herman Miller behind its launch – hasn’t made much of a ripple on the collective design conscience. May it serve as a cautionary tale.
On top of this sheer weight of success is the contradictory fact that the office chair offers up two problems, one physical and one cultural. First, it has to combine structure and comfort and, equally, it has to reflect the interests of its times, and the changing landscape of contemporary office life. The Aluminum series did this brilliantly, the progressive edge of its extruded aluminium frame and the clean lines of its structure representing a post-war environment where machinery was making a better world. The Aeron was the ultimate yuppy accessory – a status symbol that created the impression of being filled with more engineering per square centimeter than your black Beamer and taking up not much less space, as aggressive as the times that launched it.
Yves Béhar is well placed to create a new offering, which responds to very different times: non-hierachical workplaces in a digital world. Where the Aeron makes its presence more than felt, the SAYL should slip, politely and prettily, into any given space.
With the white structural Y-tower that supports its back and the large round plastic key that allows the seat to be heightened and lowered (the arms just rachet up and down), its language is playful and graphic, almost cartoon-like. The perforated urethane back deliberately lets light and air pass through (a clear version is still in development). Add to that the elimination of a frame (Béhar, a devotee of yoga, is vehement that a frame is an obstruction rather than a support and was determined to open up the whole shoulder area for maximum upper body movement) and it’s a chair that barely wants to be there. It takes the basic design proposition of the Embody and refines it to the point of abstraction.
This is not a chair for the complacent executive – it’s only going to cost about $399 (£255), for goodness sake. It’s more a tool for a sprightly worker, who’ll be playing with an iPad before setting off to a meeting on a bike. It’s also a poster chair for sustainability, and in that respect it fulfils Béhar’s wish that it should be ‘symbolic of its time’.
Sustainability is still the biggest buzz word, and the SAYL is a classic Cradle to Cradle product, using the minimum amount of material, having the maximum amount of recyclable parts and being as economic to ship as possible. It will be sent out ready to assemble using no tools, in half-size boxes, cutting down on waste and transport cost. Perhaps the least wasteful part of the chair, however, was in its development. While it took 70 prototypes and 1,000 sketches, the process was condensed into two years – a very short time in industrial design.
Béhar is already known for the ethical and human-centred ideals of his company Fuseproject. It has produced the XO-1 laptop for the nonprofit organisation One Laptop Per Child and the EV charging stations for electric cars, for example. Less of a tree-hugger, though, he is one of a few eco-sensitive designers to be aware that sustainability needs to be sexy.
Béhar’s stylings provide an important dimension to Herman Miller – an air of sensuality that the Embody, failed to, well, embody. When in New York, he shares an office with the equally glamorous David Adjaye (who is designing a new house for Béhar in San Francisco). His socially-minded underwear company PACT makes nice pants – but the whole production process is restricted to within a 100 miles radius. ‘If a project isn’t ethical it can’t be beautiful, and if it can’t be beautiful it shouldn’t be at all,’ he says. It sounds a little preachy but at least he’s practising it.