Review From Core 77
Buying a long-term-use product, like an office chair, is a tough decision. After all, how can you really test it out--by bouncing up and down on it in the showroom? Will lying on a mattress for 30 seconds tells you whether it's worth sleeping on 8 hours a night for five years?
With that in mind, we opted not to rush out a review of Herman Miller's new Embody chair. Instead we spent every day for just over a month living with the chair, putting it through its paces, and trying to wear it out. We also avoided reading the product copy (beyond how to adjust the chair) to avoid influencing our findings. We will refer to it now, as we write this piece up.
The last thing we want to state in this intro will be important to many of you: Be sure to take a look at Herman Miller's new website, which seeks your input and good ideas, and lets you read others'. Every week, Herman Miller goes over the suggestions and awards a free Embody chair to the best idea!
Like the Aeron, the Embody chair strives to completely surpass the competition with a new style of construction and body support. Designers Jeff Weber and the late Bill Stumpf used a breathable textile to cover multiple layers of mesh-like springs, and took a cue from the digital age by incorporating "pixelated support;" think of a bed of nails, with wishbone-shaped plastic springs in place of the nails.
The Embody features six adjustable elements, all listed below. (You'd never figure out what these knobs and levers do on your own, but a printed card that comes with the chair explains it concisely, and we had our chair "up-and-running" in a matter of seconds.)
Tilt Limiter. This lever on the back determines the maximum angle of recline; lean back as far as you'd like to be able to stretch (or sit ramroad straight if you want zero-give) and lock it into place.
Backfit. Rotating this knob alters the shape of the seatback, enabling it to "fill in" your lumbar.
In a perfect world, you'd adjust these elements once--the first time you sit in the chair--and forget about them. More on that later.
In the first week of usage, I didn't notice anything unusual about the Embody; it just seemed to be a very comfortable chair. My initial observations were:
- The seat cushion was well-balanced between providing support without feeling "dead;" it had the right, understated amount of "spring" to it.
- Armrests at the proper height make a huge difference, supporting the mouse hand. The chair I used prior did not support my arm at a height to use the mouse, meaning I have had a perennial ache on the heel of my right hand, which often rubbed/pressed against the desk while mousing.
- Loosening the tilt means you can sit at a slight recline, rather than at the rest position; I found myself switching between these two positions frequently to "mix it up," and I found the variety comfortable.
- There was a satisfaction at using a chair that, after adjusting, is perfectly fitted to you. (I am below average height and weight, so finding a chair that tilts the right amount and supports in the right places is often difficult for me.)
- The chair seems sturdy and well-built (with the exception of the arm-width mechanism, see below).
But, as I said, I didn't find these things special or extraordinary. Any good office chair, I felt, ought to offer these things.
What is extraordinary about this chair:
My opinions of the chair changed during the second week, when I went to my barber. I have always found the chairs there to be exceedingly comfortable, and was surprised to find they no longer were. I asked if they had changed their chairs. Nope, same chairs as always. But sitting in two of them (I asked to switch), I became acutely aware of a lack of support in the right places. When I returned to sit in the Embody, I realized the chair was spoiling me.
By the third week I realized I was subconsciously doing strange things in the chair. What the "pixelated support" means, practically speaking, is that you can lean back in the chair and twist into a stretch--and the chair moves along with you, supporting you at even points. It's tough to describe but it offers a certain amount of comfortable resistance without impeding your motion, and I found myself occasionally twist-stretching just to feel the chair, like a dog leaning into a scratch.
Then I found myself doing this thing where I lay my forearms flat on the armrests, move my arms back and hook my elbows on the back of the armrest, and use that tension to arch my back and stretch my neck upwards. I couldn't tell you what made me think to do this, but I now find myself doing it all the time for a simple reason: It feels good.
After catching myself in a few other weird stretches, I realized that the chair's combination of flexibility and rigidity almost encourages you to "play" with it. Not a focused kind of play; I would still be looking at my monitor and/or typing, but would find myself shifting around, wedging some body part against a stiffer element and stretching an opposite body part into the other direction.
When referring to the product copy this morning, I read that the designers apparently intended this chair to encourage you to move around in it, and there's a five-page PDF detailing how the chair was designed to promote "tissue perfusion."
In a world where sitting is more prevalent in the workplace than ever, discomfort can become all too commonplace. Much of this discomfort is tied directly to the pressure the body's weight puts on the ischial tuberosities, or sitting bones," at the base of the pelvis and the surrounding soft tissue. The longer a person sits, the more the tissue will be exposed to static pressure loads. Relieving that pressure through innovative engineering is healthier for the sitter.
I am a skeptic when it comes to these things, so I found it hard to believe the designers at Herman Miller could predict ways in which a user might want to stretch and design a chair around that. But I couldn't deny there was something to this--in other office chairs I've used, I will of course occasionally stretch; but the difference with the Embody was that I was stretching into the chair, using parts of it like some kind of Pilates ball. It really has to be experienced to be understood.
Problems and criticisms:
This chair is best used if you're leaving it in front of a single desk, as 90% of you probably do; I however work in a flexible loft situation that requires things frequently be moved around, which I'm guessing is atypical, and it has led me to observe the following about the chair:
Unlike the Embody's other adjustables, the arm-width mechanism is janky and does not feel like a well-designed mechanism. Because I work in a dog-friendly environment, I must move the chair across the room twice daily, to get it out of the way for sweeping. I inevitably grab one of the armrests to move the chair--and that armrest then clicks out of place. When I re-man the chair afterwards, returning that armrest to its desired position is always a chore; press too lightly and it will not move, press too hard and you overshoot your desired position by two clicks. There is a lot of "slop" in the mechanism.
I'd recommend choosing a dark color for the fabric. I'm not a particularly dirty person, but I often wear jeans and sit on your typical NYC surfaces--benches, subway seats, and occasionally stoops--which means gathering a certain amount of dirt. In just under a month of use, the bright yellow seat on my Embody has become faded and discolored, with darker bands where my legs go, and the color noticeably more vibrant in between. There are instructions on how to clean the fabric, but frankly I don't want to have to clean an office chair. An Aeron in use for six years simply doesn't show dirt--it could be teeming with bacteria, but darn if they don't still look spiffy.
The textured white plastic used for the "skeletals" on the back of the chair are a chore to clean. Those who work in antiseptic office environments may not have to worry about this, but after just two weeks in the high-traffic loft where I work, they had already accumulated a layer of dust, meaning I have to wipe each rib down with a Swiffer.
I realize this is all subjective, but I find the aesthetic choices behind the Embody rather peculiar, especially when compared with its predecessor. The Aeron looks high-tech, businesslike, sober, and comfortable. The Embody comes in bright, poppy colors, has a more frivolous look, and the exposed, plastic skeletals beg the question--why? These ribs unquestionably perform fantastically--sit with them for a few weeks and you'll see--but why do we need to see them? I much prefer to feel them, and a certainly don't want to clean them every two weeks; I'd prefer they were covered.
I'm also not crazy about the overall look; for me personally, it seems the chair tries too hard to draw attention to itself. I liked the Aeron because it was content to fade into the background. This chair seems like, visually speaking, it's overcompensating for something.
With a $1,600 asking price, the Embody comes on the market at a rather hard time; were this the heady dot-com boom years, when people were flush, I've no doubt you'd be seeing this chair in every office from SoHo to Silicon Valley. As it stands, I believe it will be a hard sell for companies to outfit their offices with Embody chairs when Aerons can be had for half the price.
Which is not to say the Embody isn't good; it's fantastic to sit in and, frankly speaking, will ruin you for other chairs, which will simply never measure up. Warts and all, this is the most comfortable office chair I've ever sat in for extended periods, and it does things that the Aeron cannot (i.e. twists and flexes).
Something I found amusing is that the product copy points out the chair is 95% recyclable. Anyone who drops $1,600 on this chair, and/or sits in it for more than a week, will simply never throw it away.