Today’s office chairs are marvels of modern engineering, with complex systems of springs, pivot points, and mechanical elements that can be adjusted ad nauseam–people tall, short, large, and small can manipulate the chair so it’s comfortable for them. But the furniture brand Steelcase, maker of high-tech office chairs, is going back to basics with its latest offering: a new task chair called SILQ made partially of carbon fiber that has only a single lever to adjust for height.
It’s also a chair designed for the flexible workspaces of today’s office, where workers move from meeting room to communal work area, and maybe stop by their desk on the way. SILQ marks a transition from the endlessly customizable task chair of the past decades, designed for an age when people were expected to sit at one desk all day long. Steelcase’s VP of design and engineering James Ludwig believes that when work is dynamic, office furniture should be just as flexible. “If you move from space to space, if the environment is more intuitive and responsive without you having to worry about it, it’s more successful in letting you do what you need to do–which is not decode your environment and figure out how to personalize it,” Ludwig says.
Steelcase, a 105-year-old company based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has long built its reputation on endlessly adjustable office chairs. But back in 2008, Ludwig had an idea for something different. He sketched out a chair suspended on tendril-like feet with an elegantly curved back. The idea was that the material of the chair would be able to replace some of the machinery. He handed it off to his engineers and asked them to make it for him, but they were unable to find a way to reduce the complexity of the machine the way Ludwig imagined.
The design was filed away until 2016. With advances in materials science, Ludwig found the perfect material to bring his vision to life: the lightweight but strong carbon fiber, which is also used in airplanes and high-end cars. And now Steelcase is debuting a new office chair with a carbon fiber back. By taking advantage of carbon fiber’s properties, Ludwig and his team were able to eliminate many of the mechanical elements in the chair. The result, called SILQ, has only 30 parts, when your average task chair has more than 250 parts. But with the simplicity of the design comes an even simpler idea–people don’t really want to adjust their chairs at all. But that’s a difficult problem to solve when people come in some many shapes and sizes. Because of the flexibility and strength afforded by the carbon fiber back, every other part of the chair adapts to the person sitting in it, whether they’re six-foot-three or five-foot-three.