One of the Aeron’s designers was Bill Stumpf, the son of a gerontology nurse and a preternaturally keen observer of human behavior.
The American populace was aging quickly, assisted living facilities were rare, and hospitals lacked ergonomic furniture suited to long-term care. In each environment, Stumpf and Chadwick observed the surest sign of an opportunity: furniture being used in unintended ways.
The homely workhorse common in both medical and residential settings was the La-Z-Boy. In hospitals, the elderly often got dialysis in semireclined La-Z-Boys; at home they spent hours in them watching TV.
So he was well primed in the late 1970s, when the American furniture company Herman Miller began casting about for growth prospects and hired Stumpf and Don Chadwick–who had done several pieces for Herman Miller–to investigate the potential of furniture for the elderly.
It seemed like a tantalizing market opportunity.
Don Chadwick & Bill Stumpf
Those observation studies and focus groups “made Bill and Don focus on seating, in a way they never had before.”
says Clark Malcolm, who helped manage the project
“The chair becomes the center of one’s universe. These sorts of realizations at the time weren’t just overlooked, they weren’t [deemed] important,”
The La-Z-Boy was terribly suited to both settings. The elderly, with weakened legs, had to back up to the chair and simply fall backward. The lever for reclining was awkward to reach and hard to engage. And, worst of all, the foam stuffing, often upholstered in vinyl, spread the sitter’s weight unevenly while retaining body heat and moisture—potentially causing bedsores.
Stumpf and Chadwick addressed all of those problems with the Sarah chair, which was finally completed in 1988, as part of a larger study of in-home medical equipment dubbed Metaforms.
To solve the falling-backward problem, they settled on a footrest that, when closed, folded in under the seat, leaving the sitter with room to curl her legs under the chair as she sat down, thus bracing herself.
When a sitter was fully reclined, fins flipped up, supporting her feet—like the fins on a wheelchair—and keeping them from falling asleep. The lever was banished in favor of a pneumatic control inspired by the recline buttons found on airplane seats.
Sarah chair mechanical prototype developed by Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf, c. 1987. Image from the collections of the Henry Ford.