What do you sit on?

“What do you sit on?”

“What do you sit on?” is a question I’m occasionally asked. I’ve spent the last several years reading about the history of chairs, going to academic conferences about ergonomic chairs, designing and prototyping new chair designs, talking to people who are interested in sitting (and many folks with challenges when it comes to sitting), and just generally thinking about alternatives to standard chairs. Heck, I even write a blog about this stuff, which you seem to be reading. So I suppose, “what do you sit on?” is not a weird question, but still, I’m usually at a loss for how to reply.

We have lots of different chairs around the house- not only ours, of course, but about every other active chair on the market, as well. I’m pretty much always sitting on prototypes of active chairs, trying to understand what’s good and what’s bad about each of them, and then moving on to the next design. And while I always have lots of choices, to me, sitting is research that I can do while emailing, writing, and all that other stuff that one does at a computer or table. And the research is really about which chair do I think other people might like. The question of which chair I might want for myself, which chair I might choose to sit on, isn’t typically top of mind.

Lately, however, I’ve developed a clear preference, and it’s not at all what I expected. Here’s the scoop:

About a year ago we set out to make a chair that could be “free”; that is, a design for a chair that would supply most of the benefits of active sitting that folks could make very inexpensively for themselves out of plywood. I didn’t think adults would be interested in a bare bones active chair, but I did think that schools might be interested. If schools could make their own chairs they’d not only have better chairs, but they’d save money on furniture for their classrooms. Additionally, we hoped that fostering a sense of empowerment and community might prove valuable. We called this the ButtOn Chair project, and set up a website for folks to download the design.

And, so far, so good. The CNC file to make these things has now been downloaded over 1,000 times, and a TEDx talk I gave about this project has been view almost 4,000 times:

Initially, multiple design compromises were required to make the ButtOn Chair as inexpensive as possible; heck, it’s made out of plywood. Yes, the ButtOn Chair’s height is “adjustable”, but only once. Because the height is “adjusted” by sawing off enough of each leg to make it the right height, you can always make it shorter, but you can’t make it taller. There isn’t a lot of padding on the seat, just about an inch of felt. And while the seat rotates, it only rotates about 45 degrees right and left.

But lots of kids have already spent months sitting on ButtOn Chairs, and love them. And against all odds, I find that I really love this thing, too. What I like about the ButtOn Chair is that it actually does everything you’d want in an active chair pretty well: it provides subtle, active sitting that’s as good as the best designs out there. 45 degrees of rotation is all one really needs to get out from under a desk; it fits most people (even if this may require a bit of sawing); and it’s actually pretty comfortable. It only weighs 5 pounds, so it’s easy to shift around the house. Finally, it’s far and away the least expensive way to experience how active sitting can improve one’s posture and inject more exercise into daily life.

The ButtOn chair works particularly well for me for a few reasons, I think. Because I work at home, I can get up and go for a walk or stretch on the floor whenever I need a break, so I rarely sit for more than an hour or two; those in cubicles may not be so lucky. And, because I’m the only person using this chair, it’s the right size for me there’s really no need to adjust the height. Finally, I really like the economy of this design: only what’s absolutely necessary, and nothing that’s not. Truly a minimalist’s chair.

So, while the ButtOn chair certainly isn’t the best choice for everyone, for some folks it may be all they need.

It’s funny how these things go: we set out to make a chair for kids, and may have inadvertently created a chair that could be the preferred seating option for at least some adults. I’ve pretty much given up trying to predict these sorts of things. Maybe it’s just a matter of creating the best design you can, and then listening to folks who will be happy to tell you what it might be good for.

For more on ButtOn chairs (what they look like, how to make one, where to get one premade in a box, stuff like that) check out the ButtOn Chairs project website: buttonchairs.org

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