What does it mean when a product that was produced and distributed in the business world makes its way into the cultural centers of the country? When it becomes a fixture of art museums and television programs, when the identity and the look of the chair become copied and repeated until they become the standard for the industry? When pop culture seizes on a product, as opposed to an idea or an event, that really means something. It means that product has become an idea or an event. Such is the case of the Aeron Chair, one of the least likely – and yet, at the same time, most deserving – products to achieve this distinction.
The following article is an explication of how the Aeron Chair was translated from the drawing boards and imaginations of the people who created and engineered it to the test labs and product exhibition centers from which all successful products must rise. From there, Aeron rose to the national stage, the the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the offices and conference rooms of the best and most exciting companies in America, and finally programs and films that serve as the cultural arbiters of the time. It became part of the set design for shows like The Office,, The Simpsons, 30 Rock, and House.
The Aeron Chair didn’t stop there. Of course, as everything so important and popular does, it passed from those programs into something even more meaningful — it became a template. Now, when the average American thinks of a modern office chair, the image they have in their mind is, more often than not, the Aeron Chair. If it isn’t, one can usually be assured that whatever they are visualizing is, in some sense, a close relative of Herman Miller’s ergonomic powerhouse. The Aeron Chair in popular culture means the Aeron Chair in American culture, and few products have that kind of lasting, even seismic, impact.
When a product that is seemingly simple and everyday, like an office chair, become part of pop culture’s lexicon, you know that it has had truly incredible success. Such is the case with the Aeron Chair, a product that rose from an inauspicious beginning (test groups didn’t like it because the startlingly new design turned them off at first) to become one of the greatest chairs of all time, and winner of “Design of the Decade” from the Industrial Designers Society of America. Critics love it, design enthusiasts love it, and customers have bought it in droves. All of this was enough to begin to push the chair towards a real, visible influence on American media culture. Reporters wrote about it, actors and television programs used it, and it began appearing in movies, ads, and popular photographs.
The impact the Aeron Chair has had on pop culture is by no means as seismic as the one it had in the design, office, and chair world, but the mere fact that it made a splash at all says a lot about what an incredibly popular and important chair it was. There is no office chair in the world more famous than the Aeron Chair. More than any other product of its time, this was the office chair that truly helped to define the era it occupied. When it was introduced in 1994, the tech boom was still in its burgeoning infancy, the country had a relatively new political situation, and even popular music was changing. Clinton in the White House contrasted with the GOP revolution in the house, synth-driven 80s pop contrasted with the maturing grunge scene on the west coast, and companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo began to explode in Silicon Valley. And, snugly in the middle, the office chair design revolution was touched off by the stunning debut of the Aeron Chair. In short, it was the year that “the 90s,” in the sense that we think of them, truly were defined.
The Aeron Chair was undoubtedly the iconic chair of that period in time. Even today, it remains the most popular chair in Herman Miller’s formidable stable of products, and maintains its sterling reputation and record-breaking sales over the entire globe. It’s no wonder that it has made so many high profile appearances in multiplexes and on TV screens. When a product has an impact on its time in the way that Aeron did, it’s impossible for the arbiters of pop culture to resist using it themselves. A sampling of the Aeron Chair’s many appearances in tv and film media would look like this:
The Simpsons: God sits in the Aeron Chair
Another major 90s pop culture signpost, The Simpsons, featured the Aeron in one of its episodes, “Thank God, It’s Doomsday.” In the episode, which aired on May 8th, 2005, Homer is transported to Heaven when he correctly predicts the date and time of the apocalypse. He meets God, who just happens to be sitting in an Aeron Chair. It’s no wonder – the Heaven described in the show is one in which anything you wish for comes true. The episode ends happily for the beloved denizens of Springfield, as it often does, and Homer becomes free once again to inflict his loutishness on his family and friends without reproach.
The fact that this chair appeared in a Simpsons episode is particularly meaningful from a pop culture standpoint. Not only is the show itself considered one of the greatest of all time, but the program itself has a huge amount of cultural cache. For two decades, the show has made pop cultural analysis and commentary a central point of its comedy. That it would be aware of and joke about the Aeron Chair is proof positive of the enormous impact the product made as an office chair and potent symbol of the new style of office design. Brilliant writers and performers like Conan O’Brien (Late Night with Conan O’Brien), Matt Groening (Writer, Creator, Executive Producer for The Simpsons and Futurama) and Greg Daniels (Writer, Creator and Executive Producer for King of the Hill, The Office, and Parks & Recreation) all came out of this cradle of American comedy and pop culture savvy. God sitting in the Aeron Chair is a joke, but it’s a knowing one; only a chair this popular and this singular would have been chosen for the throne of the Almighty on The Simpsons. And, hey, I’m sure he could use the kind of comfort and support the Aeron Chair offers to the user; a guy carrying the whole world in his hands has got to have some back problems!
30 Rock: Liz’s Lair
In the popular and critically acclaimed NBC sitcom 30 Rock, Tina Fey plays Liz Lemon, a harried, funny heroine who is the head writer of TGS (a thinly-veiled version of Saturday Night Live, where Fey was head writer and a cast member for many years) with Tracy Jordan. In the show, Liz’s office, connected to the writer’s room, is often used as a hiding place or a staging ground for one sort of mischief or another. Almost every time a character enters her office, Liz’s can is planted in her Aeron Chair, looking at an embarrassing website or munching on her beloved Sabor de Soledad cheese puffs (“Flavor of Loneliness” in Spanish).
The Aeron Chair has a real place in the universe of 30 Rock. During the season three plot arc that had Jack dealing with the fallout from not being offered the CEO position at GE, his high-cost executive choices both in his life and in his decor are put in relief against the more satisfying choices that Liz and her classmates in White Haven made. The Aeron Chair, though not the leather, high-backed executive power chair which can be seen in Jack’s office, is the more comfortable, more supportive, more ergonomic, and more intelligent (in terms of real and environmental cost) choice. The Aeron Chair is a staple in high-value New York offices like the ones at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Of course, Jack Donaghy probably wouldn’t be caught dead in any furniture that could be purchased for less than a grand. Fey, a practiced and accomplished veteran in sketch comedy who made her name with her “Weekend Update” broadcasts on SNL, is no stranger to current-events comedy, and would be well aware of the far-reaching effects of the Aeron Chair – that strange looking (at first) office chair that improves your circulation, productivity, comfort, and even health. Hey, with all the Sabor de Soledad that goes down in that office, she could use a health boost.
The Office: Corporate Office
Another beloved NBC comedy, The Office, often features the Aeron Chair in the New York offices of Dunder Mifflin, somewhat echoing the design sensibilities of 30 Rock. The Dunder Mifflin Office is nearly always represented as the saner, more upscale, more “together” counterpart to the ramshackle world of Dunder Mifflin Scranton. One way the writers pointed this out was to create an episode in which the office workers in Scranton joined competing teams, both trying to convince Michael (Steve Carell) to improve the office with some found money. One group wants a better copier, and the other desperately wants new chairs. The chairs they have hurt their backs and couldn’t be less comfortable. Compare them to the tastefully appointed and very comfortable Aeron Chairs lodged in the corporate office in New York (eventually the workers get nothing, as Michael blows the money on furs at the Men’s Wearhouse). The corporate offices can be seen in the episodes that feature Jim, Karen, and Michael’s interviews for Jan’s job, and the deposition episode (in which Jan, enlisting Michael’s help, attempts to sue the company for damages related to her sudden firing).
House: Greg’s Office
House, a ratings smash and one of Fox’s critical successes, also features the Aeron Chair. In fact, the good doctor himself sits in the chair in his glass-walled office (sometimes playing with his huge tennis ball). Gregory House actually serves as a rather apt metaphor for the Aeron; very well put-together from a talent/design standpoint, had to overcome initial evaluations of harshness and upsetting the norm, but quickly adopted by viewers and users. House would probably be attracted to the Aeron Chair because of its carefully and somewhat boldly designed exterior, as well as its curious and extremely impressive ability to anticipate and read the human body. It’s able to support people and make them comfortable all at once, while never losing sight of the productivity, ergonomics, and health benefits it was designed to engender as well. House always loves a good guessing game, and his ability to read the minds of his co-workers is source of pride and valuable information.
The same is true of Aeron’s designers, and of the chair itself. The Aeron, renowned for its healthful composition and ergonomically sound structure, is a fixture in many doctor’s offices, especially chiropractors! The lumbar support and carefully designed contours of the chair are great for the back and body, and can increase your health, circulation, and even productivity. A book that House would probably have read, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, features the Aeron Chair in a way that’s instructive to his character and to the character of the series. The original test groups who sat in the Aeron Chair for a few hours didn’t like it. They said it wasn’t comfortable, and they said that the chair looked terrible. The same could be said for House himself. At first, his bosses and co-workers (and even his patients) don’t like him. He’s arrogant, he’s stand-offish. His humor is cutting, even withering. He brooks no foolishness in his underlings. However, for both the chair and the man, over time these conceptions change. Researchers found that when prospective buyers and testers sat in the unfamiliar Aeron Chair for longer than a few hours, their opinion began to change. They stopped listening to the snap judgments and prejudiced opinions their brain dished out at first, and began to pay more attention to the exquisite comfort and support the Aeron Chair had to offer. The ratings for attractiveness went up as well; all the test subjects needed was a little bit of hard evidence that the Aeron was as good as advertised. The same goes for House. His staff and his patients may have an initial resistance to his methods and his exterior, but after he almost invariably solves each case with aplomb and skill, their opinions begin to change. The chair and the man couldn’t be more perfectly married.
Will & Grace: Chair Envy
Like the Aeron, Will & Grace was a show that became a sort of cultural signpost. It signified the advent of a new era of television and pop culture dialectics. Aeron is featured in the episode detailing the phenomenon of chair envy—and of course the Aeron would be front and center in any such debate over quality, cost, comfort, support, and style. On a show that knew a lot about design and style, the Aeron fit right in, and made yet another mark in its log of cultural institutions touched, featured in, and part of. The creators of Will & Grace picked the right chair for their particular brand of cultural commentary. There aren’t many chairs in the world as stylish, comfortable, and gorgeously designed as the Aeron, and any office worker would be lucky to have it. Particular envy, I’m sure, would arise over the great comfort the Aeron provides, as well as the relief from stress and low circulation enabled by its structure.
Will & Grace, was, of course, a somewhat controversial show. When it debuted there was a lot of doubt in industry and pundit circles regarding whether a show with two openly gay main characters would work. Like the Aeron Chair, Will & Grace was often put down merely because it was different; people weren’t used to it yet. But the snappy repartee and the goofy tone of the show have now been copied and recopied by other, similar programs, and it has gone down as one of the best and most groundbreaking shows of its time. A similar fate has—of course—befallen the Aeron. When things are as different, as boldly imagined and unafraid of controversy as the show or the chair, it’s risky to put them out there. But on both fronts, “new” succeeded in the end.
Various Other Media
The Aeron has also appeared in several movies, including Hard Candy, Keeping Up With The Steins, and the Bond flick Casino Royale. In Casino Royale, the chair is used by Judi Dench’s character, “M” (the head of MI6 and the woman chiefly responsible for keeping James’ ego in check). The Aeron is a natural fit in M’s office, as sleek, technological, and smart as it is. It complements the world of Bond extremely well, as it features many of the elements that make the series so attractive; flawless design, advanced gadgetry, smoothness, and a worldwide reputation. It’s not just M’s office that the chair fits well in; it’s the whole Bond milieu. This is a chair that has truly made its mark on the media–consuming public.
Of course, TV and film aren’t the only arenas in which this chair has made its name. The Aeron has appeared in numerous magazines, both industry–specific and mass market. It has been the focus of thesis research, an example used and studied in a hundred college classrooms, and the subject of books and essays around the world. One of the more famous literary works to embrace the Aeron Chair was Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, in which the New Yorker scribe attempted to explain the workings of the human mind in split seconds (“blinks”). One of the examples in the book of “locked room” thinking, or thinking that occurs without us really knowing, involves the test groups who first used the Aeron. At first, they were turned off by the newness and boldness of the design. However, when they got used to it, after they had sat in it for a while, they almost invariably grew to love and praise it. The mind didn’t actually dislike the Aeron; it just didn’t know how to categorize it, and therefore produced an incorrect split–second judgment that further experience would prove incorrect.
Over the nearly two decades that the chair has been in production, that reaction has been mirrored many times … until now, with the chair established as a universally recognized design icon. There is no furniture maker, no high level office manager or buyer, and no design enthusiast who has not at least heard of the Aeron Chair. Its reputation precedes it, and that reputation is sterling. It’s a beautiful chair, a comfortable chair, a stylish chair, a technologically advanced chair; a chair in which imagination and engineering have formed a perfect marriage—a marriage whose issue is one of the finest chairs ever made. Aeron is the definitive office chair of the last two decades, and one of the greatest designs ever. And, not coincidentally, it’s a chair that has become a staple of pop culture institutions such as The Simpsons, 30 Rock, and The Office.
With all the great media it’s been in, the Aeron is in excellent company. The chair of the century continues to leave its mark on pop culture.