High risk, high reward

Talking longevity – from the Aeron Chair to a half-century’s worth of work – with rule-breaking industrial design legend Don Chadwick.


Written by: Kelsey Keith

Photography by: Laure Joliet

High risk, high reward

To understand designer Don Chadwick’s point of view, consider the landscape. Specifically, the chaparral canyon where he’s made his home since 1965, and more broadly, post-war Los Angeles.

Chadwick, born in 1936, is a native Angeleno who moved to a canyon north of Brentwood over 50 years ago. In the early 2000s, following the runaway success of his most well-known design, the Aeron Chair, Chadwick enlisted architect Frederick Fisher to build a new studio on the property, where he still maintains a daily practice.

Chadwick’s body of work – largely concerned with seating – is substantial, wide-ranging and mostly self-generated: he’s experimented with rotationally moulded plastic, with rigid urethane, with self-skinning foam and with sling suspension.

Overhead view of Pellicle material samples in blue and green with handwritten labels to describe them.

Material samples from Pellicle development, c. 1993.

Black pen sketch on white by designer Bill Stumpf of back and seat of Aeron Chair prototypes with handwritten copy next to it.

Bill Stumpf sketches demonstrating possible suspension and textile covering with attachment techniques, c. 1992.

Chadwick credits his early curiosity with materials to a childhood interest in mechanics, which dovetailed with a UCLA industrial design education informed by professors plucked from the local aeronautics industry. The innovations derived from wartime technology factor into Chadwick’s thinking, as well as Herman Miller’s mid-century catalogue: ergonomics (a study first applied to military pilots), fibreglass (derived from the aerospace industry) and moulded plywood (famously explored by Charles and Ray Eames in their wood veneer leg splints). 

Bob Blaich, former vice president of design at Herman Miller, brought Chadwick onto the Herman Miller roster in the early 1970s precisely for his “deep interest in new materials and processes”. The designer’s experiments with injection-moulded foam yielded one of that decade’s most distinctive sofas – a curvy, modular lounge system – and Blaich then paired Chadwick with another design talent, Bill Stumpf, on a brief to rethink the office cubicle. While the resulting system, Buroplan, never came to light, Chadwick and Stumpf’s budding partnership relied on the former’s focus on materials and fabrication, and the latter’s obsession with human ergonomics.

A black and white candid photo of designers Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick with pieces of the Equa Chair prototype.

Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick working on the Equa prototype, c. 1983.

 

Twenty years later, of course, the duo would introduce their Aeron Chair, a seating archetype that would break all the rules for what an office chair could look like – and how your body could feel at the end of the day. And while materials (a brand-new suspension textile called Pellicle) and ergonomics (designed to fit bodies from the first to the 99th percentile) were paramount from Aeron’s inception, so was the idea of longevity. The result is a chair that’s highly engineered, suitable to nearly every body, and designed to last. Chadwick is his own best advertisement: he rotates between several editions of Aeron, including his original design produced in 1994.

When you and Bill Stumpf were starting to work on Aeron, what were the principles that you were driving toward in terms of materials? Obviously, 30 years ago, people weren’t talking about sustainability in the way they are now.

No; but we were cognisant of the fact that traditional office chairs were composed for the most part of foam and fabric. And even with the Equa Chair that we worked on before the Aeron Chair, we tried to reduce the amount of material. We came up with this flexible shell that you can sit on directly, or you could put very thin pads on it. We tried to minimise the material of the chair itself. 

A black and white image featuring an outline drawing of the Aeron Chair superimposed over a globe and a cloud and ocean illustration with the recycling symbol next to it.

Slide from Aeron concept presentation, c. 1994.

 

How did Aeron come about?

It was quite a challenge when we were given the assignment, because we had to outdo everything that Herman Miller had ever done – at least, in the eyes and minds of Bill and myself. We had done a lot of earlier work on ergonomics, kinematics – if you study some projects that never got into production, they had certain ideas, relevant ideas, that we could take from and put into this Aeron Chair.

What was so vanguard about the chair?

The major departure from 99 per cent of office chairs, if not more, was in developing from scratch a suspension material that conformed to the body’s movement. That would have a certain amount of resiliency and elasticity and allowed different sizes of people to sit on the chair and still be comfortable. On top of that, we figured it’s better to have a chair come in sizes. That way, we can cover the greatest percentile of potential users. Those were all new ideas at the time. 

The most obvious difference between the Aeron and any other chair at the time was the Pellicle.

Black pen sketch on white of the basketweave Pellicle material pattern.

Pellicle visual study by Don Chadwick, 1992.

A front view of a black Aeron Chair on white background.

A view of the Pellicle material, a first-of-its-kind elastomeric suspension, in its final form.

Making the best, better for Earth

Exact same chair, just a little more sustainable.

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