Innovation & Design

Steelcase Think Chair


0429_think_coconut
Editor's Rating: star rating

The $729 office chair is a bit of a luxury right now, but it's got superb functionality and ergonomic comfort

During a recession, it's hard to justify purchasing new office furniture, especially of the sleek and stylish variety. Sure, it was one thing to shell out $1,000 for an Aeron Chair back in the dot-com bubble days. Or even during the more recent mid-2000s boom. But spending upwards of $729 on a chic seat like Steelcase's (SCS) Think chair now?

While it seems like an extreme expenditure, it could just be worth it.

This is the conclusion I come to after trying out a Think chair in "Coconut" (white vinyl) at work for four months—the whole first quarter of 2009. If white vinyl sounds impractical, think again: Its surface was as soft as real leather, and you can wipe away spilled coffee without guilt.

The chair design features two trade-marked mechanisms created by Steelcase after consulting health experts at institutions such as the University of Vermont's Back Research Center. Flexible metal bands in the seat back support and move with your back, while the reclining apparatus underneath the seat leverages body weight to provide a smooth transition from sitting upright to leaning backward. Gone are the jarring or jerky position switches that can occur with other office chairs. And you can adjust the arm rests, covered with a cushiony plastic, so they can slide closer to the body. Move them backward and forward by nudging them with your elbows—wonderful when typing and then abruptly moving toward the phone to answer a call. There aren't any complicated levers, though you can "program" your favorite chair positions via an analog, manual knob.

Troubles Vanish

In the months I tried the chair, I saw some writing-related injuries disappear. (Full disclosure: I usually sit in an Aeron Chair.) I'm not sure this is coincidence. A small cyst in my left wrist disappeared during this time. The wrist aches I used to have from typing too much went away—although I was in fact typing more than before.

Which brings me to a caveat: When I was using the Think chair, I took fewer breaks to get up and walk around. While I certainly was productive during the first quarter of 2009, I had to wonder about how healthy these hour-long spells of sitting really were.

Another "warning": The Think chair is good-looking. Colleagues who usually don't walk past my cubicle made detours because they had heard I had a cool new seat. Invariably, they commented on the chair's striking appearance. I don't think it's a coincidence that the features added to the latest version of the Think chair (the first version was launched nearly five years ago) are new fabrics and colors. In March, Steelcase announced bright new shades that essentially, and unofficially, match the vibrant hues of the current Apple (AAPL) iPod Nano music players. On the chairs, the colors are featured in a soft, knit fabric. Sure, this is a cosmetic upgrade, but the fact that no other upgrades were announced also speaks to the effectiveness of the chair's original design and engineering.

While its price tag suggests it's a bit of a luxury right now, the real reason to buy the chair is its functionality—its ergonomic comfort and simplicity of use. But the new Think chair's jewel-toned fabrics provide a bit of a mood boost, too. And these days, who couldn't use a mood boost as well?

Jana is the Innovation Dept. editor for BusinessWeek.

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