Stop Sitting Still This Instant

What did your first grade teacher call you? Wiggle worm? Fidgety? Flibbertigibbet? Remember how your teacher demanded that you sit still this instant?

Turns out, your teacher was wrong, and you were right. He or she should have encouraged you to move — as in: Tommy, stop not fidgeting this moment. I won’t tell you again. Do not sit so still.

Today, research shows that students fidget in their chairs to work their way into a state of concentration. In short, wiggling helps them focus, learn, and perform in school.

Similar research findings concerning adult business people began flowing into the European world of office furniture during the 1970s and 1980s. By the 1990s, new high-end office chairs had arrived on the market. These chairs promoted productivity by allowing executives to move around and adjust their posture. The poster chair example was and remains Herman Miller’s Aeron Chair, which costs about $1,000.

“The human form has no straight lines; it is biomorphic,” according to a quote attributed to Bill Stumpf on the Herman Miller Website. Stumpf designed the Aeron with Don Chadwick.“We designed the chair to be above all biomorphic, or curvilinear, as a metaphor of human form.”

Like the human form, the Aeron chair does more than just sit there. It engages the body, folds around it, and encourages and promotes movement.

Six years ago, KI of Green Bay, WI, introduced its Intellect line of hard plastic (ABS) classroom chairs, desks, and combination chair-desks. The first high-end line of furniture designed for students, Intellect looked very cool, says Stephen Sykes, director of Market Development with Sagus International (Artco Bell is the classroom furniture division of Sagus). But it had not incorporated the ergonomic standards that had become pervasive in the business furniture market.

Still, the rest of the school furniture industry watched the Intellect introduction with interest and began to fidget as well-heeled districts — about 25 percent of the market for school furniture — bought Intellect, according to Sykes — at price points two to three times higher than mainstream furniture.

Companies that did not make high-end chairs, desks, and combos, and focused solely on the mainstream product segment, lost 25 percent of their sales. It didn’t take long for these companies to come out with their versions of high-end products. But these lines went a step further and discarded hard plastic in favor of soft plastic, a material capable of flexing and moving with the body.

The switch to soft plastic enabled manufacturers to respond to the research conclusions that had facilitated ergonomic office furniture design a decade before.

In terms of design, soft plastic chairs differ from solid plastic chairs because soft plastic designs have no hole in the back. They used raised ribbing on the back to provide strength and support. There is a user-friendly handhold at the top of the chair back. Like the solid plastic KI line, the new soft plastic furniture cost as much as twice as much of mainstream furniture.

Infinite Furniture Solutions of Cameron, TX, for example, recently came out with pLé, a flexible, ergonomic multicolored line of chairs and chair-desk combinations for students.“Our True-flex seatback and seat moves with the body, bringing comfort for daylong concentration,” says company President Rick L. Creel. “The chair design has a steel hoop in the back, and the plastic is flexible enough to wrap to the contours of your body.”

Creel goes on to say that the flexibility of the True-flex design allows pLé to accommodate small and large students alike.

True-flex is also a task chair designed to push users forward slightly and stimulate concentration. “The stiffness of the steel in the back, the forward push, and the flexibility of the plastic are the keys to the ergonomics,” Creel says. “Ergonomic design is important to waking up the classroom. Along the same lines, our True-flex pLé products come in 20 different colors, chosen to add excitement to the classroom.”

Living Ergonomic Designs

Torrance, CA,-based Virco Inc. offers two series of chairs — Sage and Zuma — designed around the ergonomic principals that have become standard in recent years. Peter Glass of Peter Glass Design LLC in Arroyo Grande, CA, and Bob Mills of Hedgehog Design LLC in Torrance combined forces to develop the Sage and Zuma lines.

“Traditional chairs have flat backs and flat seats,” says Glass. “But these chairs have a lot of contour. The upper portion of the seatback has a lot of curvature. It wraps around and hugs a user. The lower area of the back has a lumbar swell that supports that part of the spine. Below that, the back contours out to allow clearance for the tailbone. The entire back is soft and flexible and able to twist with you and encourage movement.”

“The seat of the chair is contoured, too,” adds Mills. “It has a cupped or concave bottom that shifts weight onto the thighs. The angle of the seat cants back so that you stay back in the chair.”

Contemporary student desks also have ergonomic features. The Zuma line, for example, includes a desk platform with a bowed front sometimes called a belly curve that enables students to move in close to their work while resting their elbows on the corners. The sides at the front end of the desk taper out a bit allowing the student to place a laptop and open book side by side.

Rock Your World

Virco’s Sage and Zuma lines include chairs with cantilevered frames that rock. When a student leans forward, the frame firms up, but when he or she leans back, the frame relaxes and rocks back and forth in whatever rhythm the student finds comfortable.

Glass and Mills attribute Zuma’s Editor’s Choice Award at NeoCon 2006 to the cantilevered rockers. “We brought in the judges and had them sit in the rockers as we presented the line,” Glass says. “They did exactly what everyone does when sitting in these chairs. They rocked for a couple of minutes because they were tickled by the idea. Then they stopped in a posture. A little later they rock softly to a different posture, and so on. The rockers promote movement that makes people comfortable.”

Both Sage and Zuma offer ErgoCombo chair-desk designs too. Mills calls it a self-contained ergonomic study module that can be customized by individual users. “A swivel seat allows proper alignment with work, side-to-side rotation for ergonomic movement, and easy entry and exit,” he says.

In addition, the seats adjust from 16 in. to 20.5 in. high to accommodate users of different sizes. The desktop slides back and forth to reset the “belly-room.” The chairs feature the same flexible back designs of the Sage and Zuma chairs.

More Ergonomic Furniture, More Comfortable Prices

The first wave of ergonomic chairs filled the high end of the market — the 25 percent of school districts that could afford chairs, desks, and combination units that cost two to three times the price of mainstream furniture.

Today, the second wave of ergonomic furniture has arrived, according to Sykes of Sagus International, which entered the high-end market with its Prodigy series four years ago.

While Sagus labored over the design for Prodigy, Sykes asked the company’s dealer council if a manufacturer could make a chair with all the attributes of high-end soft plastic furniture at mainstream prices. “No,” said everyone. “Can’t be done.”

Sykes disagreed, and presented his idea when a new CEO came on board Sagus at two years ago. The CEO was intrigued, and Sykes formed a committee to pursue the idea. “We brought in designer Dorsey Cox,” he says. “Dorsey developed our Discover™ series, which looks like the expensive furniture but is priced near our Uniflex mainstream offering. If you put our Discover chair next to any other mainstream chair, everyone wants the Discover chair — with the soft plastic, flexible back, lumbar swell for support, tailbone allowance, and overall comfort.”

How did Cox provide the features without the price? By using less plastic and less steel, Sykes says. Discover’s plastic shell uses 3.9 lbs. of plastic, compared to the high-end Prodigy, which uses five lbs. of plastic. Prodigy’s steel frame also uses more steel than Discover’s steel frame. “Less steel, lower cost; less plastic, lower cost,” Sykes says.

As Discover and other more ergonomic student furniture lines begin to come to market, it will become easier and easier for teachers to discipline students in the ways of this new era of constant motion. As in: Tommy, what did I just tell you about not fidgeting like this? Go on and wiggle. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself sitting in front of the principal. And believe me, you won’t sit still in that office.