Design: He's gonna sit right down...
...and write himself a novel. But where? Douglas Kennedy was swept off his feet by a Herman Miller Aeron chair
Friday 19 June 1998
But I urgently required a desk - and the watercolourist had a friend who renovated old furniture, and found me a very simple oak desk for pounds 35. The price hurt at the time - but I needed somewhere to work at night, and instantly fell for this heavily varnished Victorian schoolhouse relic. It was a basic, functional piece of furniture - and one to which I became deeply attached. For it was at this desk that, in 1979, I started working on what became my first performed play. It was at this desk that, between 1987 and 1992, I wrote three travel books. And it was at this desk that I also hammered out my first novel, The Dead Heart, published in 1994.
In short, this pounds 35 desk became an intrinsic part of my working life. And I became superstitiously bound to it. So much so that, when my wife Grace surprised me on New Year's Day 1995 (aka my 40th birthday) with a stunningly stylish modern Italian desk (from The Conran Shop, natch), I was initially worried. After all, I'd had such professional good fortune at my old desk - surely I'd be tempting providence by retiring it after 17 years' service?
I quickly set aside neurotic superstition - especially as my new desk was such a masterpiece of contemporary design, not to mention three times the size of my antiquated Victorian item. But suddenly I was presented with another wrenching aesthetic dilemma: what was the right chair for this hyper-chic desk?
When I first acquired my 35-quid desk, I was so strapped for cash that I bought an old bentwood chair at a local Dublin junk shop for pounds 3, sanded it down, and varnished it myself. When the desk and I moved to London in 1988, the old bentwood was replaced by a red slatted folding chair, picked up at Habitat on the King's Road for pounds 15.
But, after seven years, that chair had begun to disintegrate under the weight of my increasingly hefty frame. And anyway, it looked absurd beneath the Conran Shop smoothie Grace had bought me - a bit like putting one of those beaded backrests (so beloved of minicab drivers) into the front seat of some understated sports coupe.
There was a problem, however: I was writing a new novel on spec and was hardly flush. Two hundred quid was the most I could spend on a desk chair - and nothing was to be had in those emporiums of contemporary design (Heals, Conran, Purves) for under pounds 500.
So I committed a taste crime - and purchased an absurd "executive-style chair" at Ryman's. It was very big (when I sat down in it, the top of the seat-back touched my head). It was very ersatz (moulded plastic arms, a black imitation leather - ie naugahyde - seat). An objet d'art it was not - more like something you'd find in the office of a used Skoda dealer in Bromley. But it was very cushy - even if my clothes began to adhere to its vinyl seat during hot weather. And it did see me through my new novel, The Big Picture.
Being cheap, however, meant that it was not destined for the long haul - and by the time I was beginning work on Novel Number Three, my naugahyde executive special was suffering a nervous breakdown. The seat refused to tilt backwards, it would only execute a three-quarters pirouette, and one of the moulded plastic arms had started to disengage from the frame. It was time to move on to another chair - and as my financial circumstances had improved, I could finally flash the cash and buy something really swish.
"There is only one office chair," a designer friend informed me sternly. "It's the Herman Miller Aeron Chair. It costs pounds 800 - and worth every penny".
Eight hundred pounds! For a chair! I immediately envisaged my late maternal grandfather (who grew up poor in a grimy turn-of-the-century Manhattan tenement) lecturing me from the great beyond about profligacy and excess ("I fought the Krauts in the First World War so you could spend 800 big ones on a chair?").
My designer friend noted my doubt and said: "You sit on a chair for eight hours a day, don't you?"
I nodded. "Well then, stop acting like some impoverished Puritan and take a look at the bloody Aeron!"
So I did just that, making an expedition to the Herman Miller showroom on the Tottenham Court Road. As someone with a strong resistance to all copywriter cant, I was initially dubious about the brochure I picked up at reception - especially as it kicked off with a sort of mission statement, written in technocrat-speak: "How we developed a chair that isn't just another chair.
"Designers Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf began their design process with a clean slate, with no assumptions about form or material, but with some strong convictions about what a chair ought to do for a person:
"Ergonomically, it ought to do more than just sit there. It should actively intercede for the health of the person who sits in it longer than he or she should.
Anthropometrically, it ought to be more inclusive than its predecessors.
Environmentally, it ought to be benign."
Oh, please! I thought when reading this sales pitch. It's a goddamn chair, not some lifestyle choice. But then a salesman escorted me over to see the Aeron... and I was immediately intrigued.
To begin with, it was so pleasing to the eye: a simple, elegant piece of high-tech design - the centrepiece of which was a seat that was not made out of standard foam, but from a woven material - which (I later read in a magazine article) was called Pellicle. And for those of you who don't possess a doctorate in textiles, Pellicle turned out to be "a lino-woven combination of Hytrel elastomeric polyester, Lycra and fibres," a material "that was specially developed for the chair".
The idea behind this material was to "create a `topographically neutral' surface" (the brochure continued relentlessly). In other words, the seat would conform to whatever fleshy or anorexic body collapsed into it.
And indeed, when I had my first test-sit, I found myself thinking: this is dangerously comfortable. And the fact that it was a woven material meant that my shirt didn't stick to the chair-back. And the adjustable lumbar pad on the rear of the seat did wonders for my appalling slouch. And the forward tilt mechanism combined with the inward pivoting armrests was perfect for long stints at my laptop.
Naturally, I suffered extended pangs of disappointment when I discovered that the Aeron was not capable of massaging my prostate, and also failed to increase my height by two inches. But within minutes of lowering myself into it, I knew that this was a damn good chair.
Twelve months later, I still think that. Because I'm still sitting in it. Right now.
The Aeron Chair is available at Herman Miller Ltd, Tottenham Court Road, London W1 (0171-388 7331), price pounds 800.
Douglas Kennedy won the 1998 WH Smith's Thumping Good Read Award for `The Big Picture'. His new book, `The Job', is published by Little, Brown in August (pounds 12.99).
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