The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

October 24, 2012

I’m Not Going to Take This Sitting Down: Making the Case for a High-End Office Chair

Filed under: Random Stuff — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:08 am

As seems to happen a lot more often than I’d like, I should apologize for being somewhat slow to post here lately.  Nothing all that unusual going on here, just the usual shortage of interesting things to write about.  I will say that I’ve been watching with interest what’s been going on with all the new tablets coming out lately (with the new iPad Mini being the latest to make its debut just today) and I could quite easily get a few thousand words out of just talking about that and making a few predictions.  Unfortunately, my current employment puts me just a little bit too close to the subject right now, to the point that I’m under a non-disclosure agreement that could get me into trouble if I was to say the wrong things about this.  Therefore, as interesting as the choices we have now are, I think I should probably leave that one alone for now. 

On the other hand, one thing I can probably talk about without getting into too much trouble is chairs.  Specifically office chairs.  If you are reading this Blog, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re sitting on one of these right now.  And, if my experience is anything to go on, there’s also a good chance that your chair manages to annoy you on a regular basis.  Perhaps you just can’t ever seem to get it adjusted quite right.  Perhaps the pneumatic cylinder keeps leaking pressure, causing the chair to slowly lower itself and need to be readjusted constantly.  Perhaps the thing is just plain falling apart.  Really, none of it would surprise me, because all the various office chairs I’ve had over the years have eventually developed some annoying problem or have just plain fallen apart.  If you do use an office chair either at home or at work, for better or for worse there’s a good chance that you’re going to be using that particular chair a lot.  If you have a chair that either doesn’t fit you well or does something to annoy you, you’re going to be spending a lot of time being annoyed by that chair.

Of course, good intentions rule the day when you’re out looking for a new office chair, most likely to replace something you’ve either used up or gotten sick of.  If you walk into your friendly neighborhood office supply store, you’ll probably find at least two dozen different models being sold, most likely with floor models for each one.  This gives you a good chance to try things out, but it also reveals a couple of things about the whole process:  The overall hierarchy of office chairs seems to be based less on quality and ergonomics than it is on how important your chair makes you look.  Granted, a big leather executive chair is obviously going to be more costly to produce and to buy than a more plebian fabric task chair would be, but it’s not like the former is being produced by highly trained artisans while the latter is being stamped out by a giant machine or anything like that.  This means that the price differences seem to be disproportionate to the material costs (presumably to keep the cubicle drones from getting chairs intended for people above their level) and seems to end up being mostly arbitrary.  One thing you do start to notice about a lot of the stuff at the more expensive side of the spectrum is that most of them seem to be trying to impersonate something even more costly.  In particular, it seems like just about everyone these days is trying to make something vaguely resembling the famous (possibly for the wrong reasons) Herman Miller Aeron chair at half the cost (which is still expensive by most people’s standards,) albeit with just enough differentiation to keep the lawyers off their backs.  Others opt for more “traditional” designs that all basically look identical except for the pattern of the stitching on the seat back, and occasionally someone goes completely off the wall with something that most sane people find impossible to sit in for more than five seconds, but at least six people on the Internet swear is the most comfortable thing they’ve ever sat on.  Oh, and there’s also the actual high-end stuff that a lot of the previous examples, but that’s another story entirely, and there’s a good chance you won’t find much in the “stuff you’ve actually heard of” category at the local office store.  We’ll get to these in a bit.

Ultimately after much deliberation and trying out basically everything in the store, eventually you settle on something, bring it home, and use it until it either annoys you endlessly or it breaks, at which point the whole cycle starts all over again.  By now, I’ve lost count of how many office chairs I’ve bought and eventually had to replace over the years.  My most recent one was perhaps the most egregious example of this vicious cycle, and the one that inspired me to do something to break out of it.  Those readers with keen memories and/or nothing better to do may recall this post on this Blog, written last July back when I was getting sick of my previous chair, an IKEA model that did pretty much what was expected of it.  That is to say, it looked vaguely stylish for some indeterminate period of time while it provided a not particularly comfortable place to sit and slowly self-destructed.  In spite of this, I managed to get nearly another six months out of the thing after I wrote that Blog post before I finally got around to replacing it.  At the time, I was in the process of being spoiled by having one of the fancy $800 chairs at my desk at work, and even though it squeaked when I leaned back in it (something I believe I complained about in the above Blog post) I still liked the chair quite a bit better than any of the other chairs I had used over the years, but wasn’t ready to fork over the big bucks to buy one.  Instead, when I did finally get around to buying a new chair, I opted for something that was a somewhat close approximation of my high-end chair at work (mistake #1) and which was on closeout at Sam’s Club (mistake #2) so I got what seemed to be a pretty good price on it.  It was one of these, and it allegedly came with a five-year warranty, so what could possibly go wrong?  Anyway,  I took it home, assembled it, and it worked great… for about three days.  At that point, the plastic back started developing cracks, and within less than a month, I was already gettingthe back of the chair replaced under warranty.  The replacement back appeared to come with some additional reinforcement over the one that came in the box, and indeed it did hold up better, but within six months, it too had begun to develop the same cracking problem. 

It was at about this point that I decided I was thoroughly sick and tired of dealing with cheap junky office chairs, and suddenly that $800 office chair at my (now former) job didn’t seem quite so farfetched.  Yes, it’s true that the main problem with a high-end office chair for most people is the fact that it comes with a high-end pricetag, but think of it this way:

  • As noted above, if you work in an office environment, the chances are good that you also spend a lot of time in an office chair, probably at least 8 hours a day. 
  • I suspect that when they’re furnishing their houses, most people probably wouldn’t give a second thought to spending $1,000 or more on a sofa that they probably won’t be using for more than 1-2 hours a day, if that.
  • An office chair with bad ergonomics can lead to all sorts of long-term problems, and leave you uncomfortable while you’re getting there.
  • A lot of the high-end office chairs are built a lot better than the cheap ones at the office supply store, and will last a lot longer.  They also come with warranties to match.

Taking these factors into account, the value proposition for one of the high-end chairs starts to look a lot more attractive than it did previously.  Given my past experience with office chairs as (partially) outlined above, if I continued with my current habits I would probably find myself having to replace my chair roughly once every 12-18 months on average, and probably spending around $100 each time on the replacement (I’m just using ballpark figures here, it’s hard to say what the actual costs might be.)  The new chair I ended up buying (a Herman Miller Mirra with all the adjustment options included) ended up costing around $750 with tax from a local Herman Miller dealer that conveniently happened to be located two blocks away from my workplace, and comes with a 12 year parts and labor warranty from the factory that should ensure that I won’t need to replace my chair again for at least that long.  Going by the ballpark figures above, I could expect to be spending anywhere from $800-1200 on replacement office chairs during that same time period, which would put me somewhere between roughly even and a couple hundred dollars ahead on the pricing by going with the higher-end chair.  In addition to the cost savings, I’d also have the advantage of not having to deal with cheap junky office chairs during that time.  In other words, it’s a textbook example of the Samuel Vimes Boots Theory of Socio-Economic Unfairness (read the passage in blue) at work, as highlighted by Terry Pratchett in his Discworld books.

So to make a long story short, I have a new office chair, and I spent a whole heck of a lot more money on it than I ever expected to spend on an office chair.  With any luck, I won’t be buying another one anytime soon.  Anyway, now that I’ve got the fancy chair, all I need is a questionable business plan and some venture capital funding, and I will be well on my way to starting the next big doomed-to-fail dot-com.  Let’s see…  I wonder what the market for 24-hour door-to-door spongecake delivery looks like these days?

July 28, 2011

You Might Want to Sit Down for This One

Filed under: Random Stuff — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 2:05 am

If I had to make a bold and highly unscientific guess, I’d say that the vast majority of the people out there reading this are most likely doing so from the relative comfort of their computer desk either at work or at home.  Which means that in most cases, you’re going to be reading this while sitting in some sort of desk chair.  And if your experience happens to be anything like mine, there’s a good chance that chair mostly just annoys the heck out of you.  Take, for example, the chair you see above.  As is the case with a suspiciously large percentage of the furniture I’ve got in my apartment, it emerged flat-packed from the Deadly Tunnel of Furniture roughly two years ago, replacing another chair from the same vaguely Scandanavian warehouse of furniture (and occasionally doom) that had at that time outlived its usefulness.  Which, to be honest, probably could have been measured in days rather than weeks, months or years, but I kept using the thing anyway until something particularly unfixable broke and relegated it to the garbage bin it had dodged for far longer than it should have. 

For some reason I can’t quite seem to figure out, this chair cost a fair bit more than the one it was replacing.  I’m guessing that they figured they could charge more because the designer had a fancier sounding name or something like that.  Either that, or they were trying to get in on the whole fabric mesh thing that all the cool chair designers were into at the time so they could use half the material and sell it for twice as much.  Either way, I don’t think it’s because they used quality materials and built the thing to last, because when it all boils down, the thing is actually pretty flimsy, and annoys me on a regular basis when I try to use it.  Sure, it still functions, more or less, as a chair, but the tilt mechanism has bent to the point where the actual seating position when tilted back is roughly halfway up the backrest, and the hydraulic cylinder for the height adjustment has developed a slow leak somewhere along the line that causes the seat to slowly slink down as you sit in it, and requires constant fiddling to keep the seat at the proper height.  Eventually, it all just gets to be too much effort to maintain, and you just crank the thing all the way up so you can get another 17 minutes of typing  out of it before it sinks back down to the bottom and you have to fix it again.  Of course, by the time you’ve reached this point I’d say you’ve pretty much thrown any semblance of ergonomics out the proverbial window, but  I suspect that the experience the people who design these chairs have with ergonomics amounts to having had someone play it against them in Scrabble for 27 points once.

The obvious solution to that problem would be, of course, to replace the chair with something that’s actually decent.  The problem with that is that the average office furniture shopper is going to be faced with all sorts of choices in all sorts of price ranges, but isn’t going to have much information that’s actually useful for figuring this stuff out.  Take, for example, these four chairs, seen recently at Costco.  Of these four chairs, there was one being sold for $79.99, one being sold for $99.99, one being sold for $179.99, and one being sold for $299.99.  Just by looking at them, can you tell which is which?  Sure, you might be able to guess, but you’d probably be wrong.  With all the various combinations of materials, features, sizes and styles, just about any of these chairs could be any of those prices.  Incidentally, that plain-looking chair in the back?  That’s the $300 one, owing mostly to the prestigious and/or pretentious brand name. on the box.

Ultimately, as is the case with plenty of other durable goods, it seems that if you’re looking for something that’s going to last, you’re probably going to need to spend some money and get a higher-end product.  Then again, that’s not always a guarantee that your chair problems are going to be solved either.  At the office, my desk is equipped with one of these fancy designer chairs, standard equipment for our workplace.  Some Internet searching reveals that if I wanted to actually buy the chair I have at my desk at work, it would cost me somewhere upward of $800.  And I do have to admit that it’s a whole lot better than the one I have at home.  It’s got about a dozen different adjustments I can make, it’s got one of those fancy mesh seats that seem to be all the rage these days, and it’s generally a whole heck of a lot more comfortable than anything I’ve ever had at home.  There’s just one problem with the thing:  it squeaks every time I try to tilt it back.  Which, given my somewhat fidgety nature, is quite often, and it’s been bugging me for months now.  So after making a quick trip home on my afternoon break to grab a couple of things, I brought back a can of WD-40 to the office to try to sort this problem out once and for all.

So upon returning to the office (it was a bit of a slow day,) I turned over the chair in the middle of my cube and began lubricating anything that looked like it could be theoretically lubricated.  This, of course, accomplished absolutely nothing as the chair continued to squeak just as loudly as ever.  So further inspection of the shockingly complex tilt and adjustment mechanisms revealed a couple more points that looked like they could theoretically squeak annoyingly given the appropriate conditions.  This didn’t do much either except for make the squeak slightly less reproducible than it was before.  Three or four more instances of overturning the chair and spraying stuff into vaguely joint-like crevices didn’t do a whole lot more good.  So now instead of an expensive fancy chair that squeaks, I’ve got an expensive fancy chair that still squeaks about half the time, and a cubicle that smells like  WD-40.  At least I think I have a semi-reasonable idea of where the problem is coming from.  Unfortunately, the apparent problem spot seems to be right underneath a highly fashionable plastic cover that prevents access to the afflicted hinge, seems to be attached in a way that renders it pretty much non-removable, and probably won several prestigious awards with its understated simplicity and elegance.  At this point, about all I can think to do is just randomly spray lubricant into that space through a tiny hole on the side and hope that some of it ends up somewhere useful.  Either that, or I could call for a chair technician who would probably charge more to fix my squeaky chair than I’d pay for an average scheduled maintenance on my car.  Which I’d probably end up doing anyway after drowning the mechanism in WD-40 somehow renders it inoperable or something like that.  And voids the warranty in the process.

You know how they say the squeaky wheel gets the grease?  Yeah, well that’s not exactly doing me much good right now.

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