Our collective backs hurt. Between text messages and mouse movements, repetitive injuries are on the rise and people spend increasing portions of their days on their (increasingly large) behinds staring into a CRT tube. If the behaviors of our primate relatives are any indication of our pasts, sitting in static positions with our fingers in a blur is simply not a task for which the human body was built.
Peter Opsvik, a Norwegian designer, has been working on improving the human working posture for over forty years, with a single-mindedness that makes his whole career look like one extended project. Rethinking Sitting showcases Opsvik's career with a variety of chairs that make Bill Stumpf's Aeron seem downright anachronistic. While the Aeron looks like it could have been inspired by H.R. Giger's Alien and sports levers that promise comfort, the sparse Scandinavian design of Opsvik's chairs belies their versatility. Most chairs are composed of simple bent birch and cotton padded supports, with nary a lever to be found, but once a human being sits on it, the chairs deform, flex and rock into a variety of positions. While sitting in one of his chairs for an extended period of time remains the most visceral way to understand his designs, Rethinking Sitting does an admirable job of presenting ergonomics to those of us in less comfortable postures.
In a short introduction, Opsvik explains that the basic structure and design of chairs has remained unchanged since ancient Egypt, before quickly turning to theory and biomechanics. Speaking of chair design with a near philosophical reverence, he notes that it's harder to watch a parade than to be in one, and then ponders why "Prussian discipline" of the 1800s is still central to the design of our working places. The human body wants to move. All of his chairs stand (rock?) as testament to this single insight. Through vibrant sketches, prototypes and photos, he illustrates this concept over and over again: the body moves and the chair conforms.
The first section that showcases real world designs is entitled tilting, and includes everything from rope to spring to accomplish that goal. Beginning with cantilevered rockers, Opsvik embraces his materials and allows the bentwood to flex as users lean back. He then moves on to a chair I had in childhood, the Variable Balans, an arched "G" of wood that allowed for resting knees and upper body rocking. Later versions like the Duo Balans incorporate backrests and further support. By the time he gets to ceiling mounted hanging chairs, he's departed pretty far from the form of a typical office chair, while retaining much of the functionality.
From there, his concepts veer further from our rectilinear conception of a seat without losing sight of goals like support and scalability. Functional product shots abound, and as Opsvik has had a career spanning decades, and as the reader is shown everything from lounges that look like trees to seat-crutches that support mobile workers, we're also treated to an incidental social documentary. Rarely has the history of Norwegian feathered hairstyles been documented so thoroughly as it is here. Opsvik, however, always returns to the theory. We've learned a lot about biomechanics and repetitive stress since the era where kings sat above the peasants. Opsvik's relentless functionalism serves as a crash course for any would be ergonomic designer. It's about enough to make any cubicle jockey want to move to Scandinavia.