The Kneeling Chair: A Brilliant Failure

The kneeling chair is a striking object to look at. It has no back, no arm rests, and no legs to speak of. And, without a sitter, it may not be clear what it even might be for.

Variable™ Balans® kneeling chair

And yet this design is now an icon of chair design, so much so that it has inspired designs that are even harder to comprehend as “chairs”, for example this iteration:

primate kneeling stool

So, it seems settled that, whatever it is, the kneeling chair is a chair.

As sometimes happens with furniture, the kneeling chair was called into being by a particular need at a particular time. In the 1970’s computers were becoming an appliance that engaged people’s attention for hours at a time, and so it wasn’t long before prolonged sitting proved to be a problem for those in the thrall of early personal computers: back pain, neck pain, swollen ankles, and a host of other problems led to a search for a better way to safely it for long periods.

Kneeling chairs were the first piece of furniture conceived specifically for use sitting in front of computers, and were originally called “computer chairs.” The basic design was the work of Hans Christian Mengshoel, but the design was adapted and by Peter Opsvik and others. The hope was to allow people to sit all day, motionless, by dividing their weight between their shins and their sitting bones. The chair also enforced an open hip angle, thus encouraging a physiologic lumbar lordosis in the spine.

Unfortunately, kneeling chairs have several shortcomings. For example, kneeling chairs come in only one size (and aren’t adjustable), while humans come in quite a range of sizes. It’s improbable that a single size of kneeling chair would be just right for everyone, or even a majority of people. More problematically, while kneeling chairs encourage better spinal posture, they extinguished most spontaneous movement; once ensconced in a kneeling chair even squirming was pretty much impossible. Indeed, the point of the kneeling chair is to enforce a single posture, and it succeeded brilliantly. It turns out that sitting in a single posture can be pretty unpleasant for many people. In one study while the kneeling chair improved back pain for some, for many subjects’ back pain was made worse.

The kneeling chair has been around for over 40 years but despite this longevity it has a surprisingly thin academic resume. Only a handful of papers have been published, and while it seems clear that this chair promotes more lumbar curvature, there is scant evidence for any real advantages. No research seems to have been published in the last decade, suggesting that researchers have abandoned this design as a solution to the problems inherent in sitting.

Nevertheless, the kneeling chair continues to be widely available on websites that sell back pain solutions or “ergonomic” furniture. This seems to be more a testimony to the ubiquity of problems caused by standard “ergonomic” chairs than the kneeling chair’s success at solving it. Bottom line: the kneeling chair was a stunning innovation in the 1970’s, an entirely new way to “sit”, but enough time has passed now that we would know if this chair was the answer. Although the posture imposed by the kneeling chair is better than that imposed by standard office chairs, because kneeling chairs also impose a designer’s ideal posture on the hapless sitter, it’s unlikely to work for most people who have to sit a lot. Which is most people, unfortunately.

dr. turner osler, co-founder of QOR360
Dr. Turner Osler

1 Bridger, Robert S., et al. “Palliative Interventions for Sedentary Low Back Pain: The Physiotherapy Ball, the Kneeling Chair and Conventional Ergonomics Compared.” Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting. Vol. 44. No. 29. Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, 2000.

2 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18810008/

MD Designed

Meet Dr. Turner Osler

Turner is the CEO and Founder of QOR360. Dr. Osler is an academic trauma surgeon turned research epidemiologist who has published over 300 peer-reviewed medical papers and book chapters. As a physician who’s suffered from a tyranny of conventional chairs for most of his life, Dr. Osler’s quest for a healthier way to sit led him to develop The Eccentric Bicylinder, a shape that is central to QOR360’s ergonomic, healthy, and active seating products.

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