Introducing.... Sayl Work Chair

Says Behar, who recently won a prestigious prize for his One Laptop Per Child laptop design and is noted for his work for BMW, Coca-Cola and Canal+. "We wanted to remove as many elements from a standard chair design to make it lighter and more affordable, so the attention became focused on the frame, which typically tends to reduce the ergonomics and add materials. And since a suspension bridge is essentially frameless….”

Some 1,000 sketches, 70 prototypes and $13m later, the result is the Sayl. It is arguably the most technologically complex yet materially simple chair to date from the American furniture design giant Herman Miller.

But in essence Sayl comprises a Y-shaped strut – like the Golden Gate's towers – made of glass-filled nylon and over which is stretched a web of elastomer, an injection moulded plastic similar to the kind used to make the soles of trainers.

Each strand of the plastic has been individually designed to microscopically different thicknesses, subject to some 1,300 calculations, so that the tension across the web is variable – stiffer and stronger at the centre, where the back needs most support, but more flexible at its sides, allowing it to mould to the individual's posture rather than, as with most chairs, forcing the sitter's posture to adapt to the chair. Vertical strands support the spine, while lower, horizontal ones provide lumbar support. A trampoline effect – and machine testing that pulled and pushed each strand 1.5 million times – ensures the web bounces back into form to support the next body. "It may look lightweight, but it still needs to carry a 300lb person," Behar notes.
The design also follows what Behar calls a dematerialistic approach: handles and other parts were hollowed out where possible, reducing materials used by 45 per cent compared with a typical office chair. Where the seat structure is usually four or more parts bolted together, Sayl uses one part. Similarly, while a more standard office chair's back comprises up to five layers of materials, Sayl has one.

That also provides Behar's answer to the pressing question: does anyone actually need another kind of chair, even a designer one? "Chairs can be made in a much more technologically-advanced way than they were even just 10 years ago, and it's important to redesign everything according to the technological resources available," he suggests. "A chair is still one of the greatest design challenges – it has to be structurally and ergonomically functional, but there's nowhere to hide. The design of a car is essentially hidden under a shell, but that of a chair isn't just exposed, it's felt in your body."

Behar's approach means the Sayl – named in reference to the sail-type look of the chair's back, with the spelling a nod to the shape of its support strut – is not only especially comfortable, but 30 per cent lighter than previous chairs from its maker and a third of the price, allowing HermanMiller to reach what it hopes will be a wider customer base, especially the growing number of people who have home offices. As Bret Recor, Behar's technical director, notes: "It needed to be a radical use of technology to make the idea of a mass-market chair of this standard genuinely affordable.

As well as already breaking the company records for advance orders, the Sayl is a timely chair, its stripped-down approach touching on the vital need for more sustainable design (it will also be manufactured in three continents, to minimise the carbon footprint of transportation).
"A new chair isn't just technologically innovative but has to also reflect the ethos of work in the times it's made," he argues. "Work today is very different to how it was even just a few years ago. The time was when an office chair was a statement of status – the higher up the chain you were, the bigger and more padded your chair and the higher its back. We expect more transparency and more horizontality in the workplace now, and the office chair needs to express that.

Source: The Independent, London, Monday 3 January 2011