The Battle to Unseat the Aeron, the World’s Most Coveted Office Chair

Bloomberg article written by Matthew Boyle featuring our CEO Federico Negro

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Illustration: Ricardo Rey for Bloomberg Businessweek

After 30 years of furniture companies trying to dethrone it, a contender has finally arrived. Too bad no one’s at the office.

Like many great innovations, the Aeron was a spin on a different product that never panned out. In the late 1980s, Herman Miller, which had long outfitted offices with armchairs, desks and lamps, went after a new target: old people. They developed the Sarah, a functional foam-cushioned chair that was a serious upgrade from the bulky vinyl La-Z-Boy recliners of yore. But no stores existed to sell furniture to older adults, so the new model languished until a few years later, when Herman Miller thought to ask the Sarah’s designers to apply its underpinnings to an office chair.

Pages from a 1994 Aeron sales catalog.Source: Herman Miller

Today, an Aeron rolls off the manufacturing line in Holland, Michigan, every 30 seconds, and more than 9 million have been sold to date. It’s also become the white whale of rival office-furniture makers who’ve been chasing it for three decades. That’s because high-end “task chairs,” as the industry refers to them, are the profit engines of the $21 billion office-furniture market. Stylish, sturdy and comfortable, premium office chairs are the result of rigorous design, engineering and manufacturing processes (cast aluminum, injection molding, proprietary fibers), a high-performance seating weapon that can justify those steep price tags. While office desks and cabinets are relegated to interchangeable commodities, the chair tugs at more emotion: Workers become quite attached to them. “There’s an intimacy there,” says Sara Armbruster, president and chief executive officer of office furniture maker Steelcase Inc., MillerKnoll’s biggest competitor. “There’s also a lot of intellectual property and innovation that’s reflected in the profit margins of the product.”

The Karman (right) is angling to best the Aeron (left) by going “beyond leading mesh office chairs to provide effortless comfort.” Photographer: Ryan Jenq for Bloomberg Businessweek

Michael Wolf, who’s written a furniture-industry newsletter since 1990 and witnessed the sector rebound from the dot-com crash and the 2008 financial crisis, says he’s never seen a more perilous time to be in the business. “Nobody knows what the future of the workplace looks like. These guys are totally confused about what to do,” he says. “If nobody figures out what’s next, everybody is screwed.” Federico Negro, an architect behind Canoa, an app for interior designers to find secondhand furnishings and manage their spaces, puts it more bluntly. “Every city is filled with what used to be offices,” he says. “I call them furniture warehouses.”

By Matthew Boyle

March 6, 2024

Read the full article here