The seat of power

The design-world spotlight is on the ‘executive’ chair, with sleek new models that are equal parts corporate gravitas and contemporary chic, reports Nicole Swengley.

April 11 2011
Nicole Swengley

Executive office chairs have long been luxurious symbols of the corporate pecking order, but have often been overlooked as aesthetic objects in their own right. A correction is under way, however, as furniture manufacturers – design-conscious companies more familiar with furnishing chic residences than fitting out corporate headquarters – increasingly embrace executive seating in their collections, while leading office seating specialists turn to top architects to combine functional excellence with an elegant, contemporary look.

An indication of this reappraisal comes from Interstuhl, a German office furniture specialist, which was awarded the prestigious Red Dot Design Award for its Silver 362S executive chair. (If this high-style, high-back chair seems familiar, cast your mind back to the last Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, in which an earlier version, the 262S, featured prominently in M’s office at MI6 HQ along with a pair of Interstuhl 101S chairs.)

Manufacturers of residential furniture – including Alias, Bernhardt Design, Cappellini, Kartell, Ligne Roset, Magis and Poltrona Frau – are now turning their attention to executive seating. “It has been a long-neglected area, but at last more of the major manufacturers are realising that executive chairs need to look good as well as be comfortable,” says Karen Howes, co-founder of interior designers Taylor Howes. “We recently furnished the private London office of a Russian oligarch using a very sculptural design by Magis. The cross between functionality and elegance is incredibly hard to get right but people do want clever designs – and are prepared to pay for them because they spend so much time using them.”

Office-furniture specialists such as Vitra are also raising their game. Indeed, this company has proved that a well-designed executive chair can see out the passing decades, giving an impression of prestige and control in corporate powerhouses. Its 1960s designs by Charles and Ray Eames (manufactured by Vitra), such as the Eames ES104 and EA217 (from 1960 and 1969 respectively), remain top of their class. Sebastian Conran, MD of industrial design studio Sebastian Conran Associates, was recently photographed in his favourite Eames ES104 (£4,083) for the Conran Classics catalogue. Describing it as “almost the ultimate in executive comfort”, he says, “The most significant consequence is the sense of control and self-confidence this chair engenders in the sitter.”

Speak to any CEO or company director and they warm to the subject as if discussing the finer nuances of a car engine or pilot’s control panel. This is, after all, their driving seat. As Bernhardt Design’s president Jerry Helling puts it: “When an executive selects an office chair it says a great deal about their stature, position and taste. A modern performance chair is an extension of the man or woman who uses it and, in this respect, is no different from a car, watch, yacht or plane.”

Take Cappellini’s Lotus chair (from £1,930) with its high back and remarkably slimline profile. Created by Jasper Morrison, who is known for his economical yet superbly functional designs, this height-adjustable chair has a removable, magnetic head-pad and is made of beech plywood covered with multi-density polyurethane foam and leather or fabric upholstery. “In the past, office chairs favoured function over aesthetics so we’ve seen many that are technically valid but ugly,” says creative director Giulio Cappellini. “Today’s office landscape is changing, and managers want more comfortable, less formal spaces that reflect their personality, as in their homes. This is affecting the design of office chairs, which, while maintaining ergonomic and functional qualities, are lighter, more colourful and less a machine than a design item.”

A sleek profile similarly defines Poltrona Frau’s Brief (from £2,820). Emilio Ambasz’s design has a high, slightly concave, curved back (height-adjustable from 116cm to 123cm) and is covered in first-grade leather and has an aluminium five-star base. Leaner still is the elegant and technically innovative AC4 designed by Antonio Citterio for Vitra (from £730). Three patents were registered for this clever chair: the basic mechanism, subdivided backrest zones and rotating armrests. Half the materials used to produce the AC4 are recycled, and nearly everything can be recycled again.

Vitra also turned to a top Italian architect for its leather-upholstered HeadLine Management chair (from £760) and, like the AC4, Mario Bellini’s chair provides optimum lumbar support, extending this to the shoulders, neck and head. When the sitter leans back, their shoulders sink into the back panel while the upper back-rest extension tilts forward to support the head. As well as helping to prevent muscle strain in the neck and shoulder areas, this allows users to maintain a horizontal line of sight even when in a reclining position.

Earlier this year Vitra launched its ID Chair, again by Citterio. Available in numerous variations (from £455) configured from four primary designs, its various styles can be used in open-plan offices to retain an overall design consistency. Technically advanced (its patented FlowMotion mechanism “enables forward and backward tilt of the ID with sychronised weight adjustment… [and] automatically adjusts the chair to the weight of the user”), it has a padded mesh or fabric back rest in colours such as aqua, coral or purple.

And, for those who prefer their office to look more like home, Poltrona Frau has cleverly translated the fashionable, quilted look of button-back Chesterfield sofas to its Oxford chair (from £2,910). Upholstered in first-grade leather, this height-adjustable chair has a walnut (or aluminium) base on castors. The sharp geometric lines of contemporary sofas, meanwhile, are evoked by Chancellor (from £2,820), a high-back leather chair also by Poltrona Frau, while Kartell’s Moorea (£479), designed by Vico Magistretti, repurposes a small, upholstered armchair on a five-star castor base.

Bernhardt Design’s executive chairs are similarly rooted in lounge seating. The height-adjustable Pilot looks equally good in a chic home office or executive suite, while its synchro-tilt mechanism offers ergonomic comfort for users of almost any height or weight. A high-back model comes with neoprene arm-pads (£1,590), and a mid-back version is available with or without arms (£1,525 or £1,360 respectively).

So whether created with a dose of domestic-influenced design or more corporate credentials, the executive chair is a hotter seat than ever before.

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