Bill Stumpf (1936 – 2006), inventor of the modern swivel chair

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Ergon Chair by Bill Stumpf
Ergon Chair by Bill Stumpf

In 1976, the Ergon chair was introduced by Bill Stumpf, a designer for the American furniture company Herman Miller.

Early Life

Stumpf was born in St.Louis where his father and grandfather were brewers at Aneheuser-Busch. When he was 13, his father died and Stumpf’s mother decided to move to Winona, Minn, to be near to her family.

He served in the Navy and earned a bachelor of fine arts at the university of Illinois and a master degree att the University of Wisconsin, then returned to Winona in 1970. In the mid 80s Stumpf moved his studio to Minneapolis.

Stumpf joined the staff of Herman Miller in 1970 and established his design firm two years later while continuing to work for Herman Miller.

Two haemorrhoid pillows sewn together

It had a foam-filled back and seat, gas-lift levers to change the height and tilt, and five-star legs with easy-glide castors. One customer who wasn’t sure about it said it looked like “two haemorrhoid pillows sewn together to make a chair.” We would know right away that it was a regular office swivel chair.

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Adjustable Height

Before Stumpf, the standard way to sit in an office chair was with both feet flat on the floor, knees together, legs bent at right angles, and back straight. Since it was up to the worker to sit up straight, chair designers focused on making chairs that showed who was in charge. Height was so important that few chair seats would go lower than 45cm, even though the average woman’s leg from the bottom of her thigh to the floor was closer to 40cm.

Studied Time-Lapse Photography

Then, in 1966, Stumpf started studying orthopaedic data and the movements of office workers with the help of time-lapse photography while doing research at the University of Wisconsin. He wrote a paper called “A chair is chair is a problem.” It said that “many of us spend eight hours a day in a chair that is uncomfortable, limits our movement, and hurts our performance.”

Science of Ergonomics

The Ergon was based on the new science of ergonomics, which was first used to design aeroplane cockpits during the Second World War. This science tried to make a better fit between workers and their office spaces. Stumpf’s research showed that chairs shouldn’t support one “correct” posture. Instead, they should encourage movement so that workers can spread the stress of sitting across their bodies. Businesses jumped on the Ergon quickly because health and safety rules wereย getting stricter all the time. It became the standard place for office workers to sit down.

Aeron Chair

In 1994, he collaborated with Chadwick, an industrial designer based in Santa Monica, to invent the Aeron chair, an innovative and striking piece of furniture that quickly became part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The chair, which is sold around the world, features a high and wide contoured mesh back, soft and adjustable armrests and a mesh seat with a sloping front edge.

Aeron Office Chair by William Stumpf and Donald Chadwick
Aeron Office Chair by William Stumpf and Donald Chadwick

Sources

Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing. https://amzn.to/3ElmSlL

Bill Stumpf, 70; Designer Helped Create the Aeron Office Chair. (2006, September 2). The Los Angeles Times 02 Sep 2006, Page Page 72 – Newspapers.com. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.newspapers.com/image/192850817/?terms=%22Bill%20Stumpf%22&match=1

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