Either I’m jaded or I didn’t drink enough of the koolaid, everywhere I look people (journalists) are fawning over Steelcase’s new SILQ chair, they’re publishing articles with headlines that read, “Steelcase's new, inexpensive polymer behaves like costly carbon fiber” - Wired, “This could be the next great office chair” - Quartzy, “New office chair designed to ‘intuitively’ adjust to your body” - Curbed, or “Steelcase’s SILQ is the office chair of the future” - fastcodesign, but I’m not sold, quite the opposite in fact.
To answer my own question, yes, I am jaded. But that’s only because I’ve spent my entire life in this industry, I’ve been around the office furniture industry long enough to remember a world pre-Aeron, a world without mesh, a world of chairs that weighed 50+lbs, a world of chairs that had five paddles and three knobs for adjustments, and I’m sorry to say that I’m unimpressed with SILQ.
Full disclosure: I have not had a chance to take SILQ for a spin, even so on paper I have several problems with SILQ, and problems with Big Dark Blue’s PR machine.
Problem One: SILQ at launch will not be a carbon fiber chair despite the hype, carbon fiber is expensive so a polymer was substituted for the base version of the chair, carbon fiber will be available at a later date for an undisclosed price but as of writing I’ve heard rumors of $3,000 for the carbon fiber version, considering the polymer version has a list price of $970 I sure hope you’re going to get more than just some carbon fiber for the estimated $2k premium.
Problem Two (A): The base SILQ uses a polymer, I have nothing against polymer, but Steelcase’s PR makes it sound like they just invented the stuff. In our industry we’ve been using polymers for structural components since before I was even born. Herman Miller’s Equa chair was introduced in 1984 and used a “fiberglass-reinforced polyester resin,” which would technically be considered a polymer. It was "revolutionary" in 1984, and while I’m sure the polymers Steelcase is using for SILQ are far more advanced then what Equa used, it’s still far from revolutionary. (Side note: incredibly Equa is still available to this day, that’s impressive longevity for a design that first hit the drawing board in 1979.)
Problem Two (B): Let’s take a trip down Steelcase’s own product archive and rediscover the Vecta Lucy chair from 2001, a chair mostly made of polymers including its signature feature the Pellethane back. Or let’s look at how Herman Miller’s Setu chair uses the properties of its polymer structure to create a recline mechanism that they call a "kinematic spine,"
“Material innovation gives Setu chairs their unique combination of flex and strength. The Kinematic Spine uses two types of polypropylene to control resistance and support your weight as you recline. It bends and flexes with every movement, responding to the natural ways your body moves.”
That sounds an awful lot like what Steelcase says SILQ does. I think that we’ve established at this point that this is far from the first use of polymer in a chair as a mechanism replacement, so let’s move on.
Problem Three: Carbon fiber is nothing new. It’s not new to the office furniture industry, Steelcase (Coalesse) has had the LessThanFive Chair for years now, and other manufacturers have used carbon fiber in the past. Furthermore, carbon fiber isn’t something new. I personally don’t understand why people continue to fawn over it as if it is revolutionary or new, I have 15-year-old hockey sticks that are made from carbon fiber, McLaren’s 1981 Formula 1 race car, the MP4/1 was made of carbon fiber, my bicycle is carbon fiber, I can get body parts for my VW made from carbon fiber, and I even had a belt buckle made of carbon fiber so I can keep my belt on when I go through medal detectors. The material is everywhere!
Problem Four: SILQ was designed to be simple, to automatically adjust to the user. Reading the marketing material you’d think that Steelcase just invented this, however every chair Niels Different designed over the last 20 years for Humanscale automatically adjusts to the user, as do many other chairs on the market today. It’s true that in the past Steelcase has made blindingly complicated to adjust chairs like the Leap, so I guess this is a new direction for them.
Problem Five: SILQ is not a task chair, stop trying to pass it off as one. Until Steelcase offers SILQ with adjustable arms it falls into (in my opinion) the multipurpose chair realm, like Setu, or Cobi, or the dozens of other chairs that you can sit and work in for an hour or two. Not to mention that due to its one pice design, SILQ will never be able to offer a seat depth adjustment. For those of us with shorter than average legs or longer than average legs, you’re likely not going to want to put in a full day at your desk in a SILQ.
Problem Six: Was SILQ designed in a clean room? I don’t know about you but I live in the real world, and in the real world we have this annoying thing called dust. In the past I’ve called out chairs that I thought would collect excessive amounts of dust, SILQ though might have just won the gold medal. With its one pice design SILQ has a pocket at the rear of the seat to collect dust, crumbs, and even loose change (though collecting your loose change could be a plus), but it doubles down on the dust collection with the flexible shell, it wraps around from the back of the chair to the bottom of the chair in a single solid piece. I’m calling it the “dust pan” because I’m predicting that it’s going to be a dust magnate. I have a feeling you know I’m right.
Problem Seven: SILQ seems to be function following form, rather than form following function. More often than not I find that when you focus too much on the ascetic appeal of a product you often have to sacrifice functionality, and at the end of the day products designed of the "moment" generally don’t have a long shelf life before they become stale. By contrast, Herman Miller’s Equa is a wonderful example of form following function. Equa’s design is largely dictated by its main functional element, its frame. The folded H design of Equa has aged gracefully over its 34 year production run, its simple clean lines and slim back and seat keep Equa looking modern to this day, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to say the same about SILQ in 34 years.
In an interview with Core77 Steelcase's VP of Global Design and Engineering, James Ludwig tells the story of SILQ’s design process from its beginnings in a small room with the five person team that worked on the chair.
“We literally took a small room in the Innovation Center, which is about 50,000 square feet and is quite an impressive space. But, our space for this project was something like 10 feet by 15 feet. We literally did put paper on the windows and a lock on the door, and only two of us knew where the key was hidden. It was really to protect the idea more than it was to lock us in a room.”
With everything I dislike about SILQ now out in the open, I’d like to ask something of all companies working on new products. Open up your bubble, when you design a product in a small group and you get little to no outside input, you’re bound to miss things like the “dust pan” on SILQ. But I have a solution and an offer, call me, send me an email, even a plane ticket to be an outside pair of eyes to look at your product during the design process. I don’t claim to know everything about furniture, but having someone from the outside that knows the industry come in during the design process and ask questions is invaluable. I know I’m not alone on this idea as my former colleague Rob Kirkbride and I have on numerous occasion over the years discussed this very idea, we only want to help the industry create better products.
Without all of the PR hype I feel that SILQ is a middle-of-the-road multipurpose chair that will compete with Herman Miller’s Setu. SILQ’s non mesh design enables Steelcase to offer a wide variety of textiles, including custom printed textiles which will undoubtedly carveout a niche for SILQ in the marketplace as the A&D community will have endless fun creating custom designs for their clients, as they can do with Steelcase’s (Coalesse) LessThanFive Chair. I’m sure it sits fine for a few hours, and I’m sure it’s built well, but it’s truly not revolutionary or groundbreaking. SILQ isn’t going to be a replacement for real task chairs, it’s a chair of the moment that has its place in the market, but at the end of the day I’m left feeling…
Peter Wolf via MMQB.com