Until recently, I was in the market for a new desk chair. This turned out to be unexpectedly difficult.
Three chairs ago, my then-chair was nearing the end of its lifespan. This is never pleasant, but the timing was unusually bad, since I was frantically trying to write two exam papers I needed for my degree. My concentration was not improved by my chair spontaneously returning to its factory settings. Spoing! and the back would snap perfectly vertical. Shhhhhoooo and the chair would abruptly sink to its lowest position. I vowed that if I survived the exam, a new chair was on my shopping list.
Understandably, when I went to look for the next chair, I thought I’d treat myself. My first chair had been bought in those post-college not-a-lot-of-income days, and I’d mostly chosen it for the lovely burgundy color of its upholstery. It was what the industry calls a task chair: small, somewhat adjustable, and not meant for heavy use. Years later, knowing that I spend hours in front of the computer, I wanted something a lot more ergonomic, and I was willing to put money into it if that would save me pain later. So I hit up every office supply store in the area, bounced in and out of model chairs, read the pamphlets and inserts, pushed all the levers, pulled all the knobs. I ignored the task chairs and concentrated on the managerial chairs, the ones in which there were sliders for lumbar support, seat tilt levers, and so on. Which is how I ended up with the chair I was using up until last month.
Let me just say that there’s nothing obviously wrong with my “old” chair. It’s in good condition. I treat furniture gently and it’s never had to survive a move, so it has led a cushy life, fearing nothing more than a little dust at the very back of the seat cushion. It’s nicely padded and can be adjusted in myriad ways. And it’s too big.
As it turns out, there aren’t a lot of petite chairs out there in the office furniture market for the home office. Managerial chairs are designed to be large and impressive. I could adjust this chair in all sorts of ways, but no lever or knob was going to narrow its seat by two inches or more. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but what it meant was that even at their closest setting, the chair arms were too far apart. I could rest my right arm or my left arm, but not both without holding my arms out at an odd angle, which is hardly the definition of “rest.”
It’s not that office chairs can’t be built both ergonomically and to a small size. At work, many of us got new chairs this year, and after HR finished measuring us and our desks, those of us shorter than 5’2″ were given the petite version of the standard chair: just as adjustable, but with smaller parts. While nobody needed a “big and tall” chair, these were also available. But these are the chairs you buy when you have a business’s budget to work with; they were hundreds of dollars more than I was able to spend, and I have no idea if the vendor was even willing to sell to individuals. At the affordable home office end of things, these options don’t exist.
The chair I finally found is a definite improvement over its predecessor. I will happily give up the padded arms and the faux leather upholstery of the old chair for this one’s narrower seat: I can reach the arms! When I bought the chair, the (tall and thin) salesman and I started talking, and I mentioned how difficult it was to find a small chair. He said he had the opposite problem: almost none of the chairs were big enough for him (I’m guessing he meant that most of the chairs were too low even at their highest positions). Yes, just how many men would be comfortable in those little task chairs, anyway? I find myself wondering if there are industry-wide standards for furniture sizes. And if so, are the chairs in today’s office supply stores being built to sizing standards developed decades ago when managers were usually men and the task chairs were used almost exclusively by women?