Marcus Field (6ft), editor of Blueprint magazine, acted as our design expert; Shelley Grobler (5ft 10in) - "I like to perch, not sit" - joined me (5ft 6in) in the "active chair users" camp; Emma Bartlett (5ft 4in) noted that she likes to "lean back a lot".
The panellists sat on each of the six chairs in a work environment for a day - with some omissions, since testers quickly gravitated towards their "favourite" chairs and were reluctant to give them up. We assessed our six chairs on their range of functions, comfort and aesthetic appeal - the last being a vital factor in choosing the winner of our survey since, for many, its original price can only be justified by its re-sale value.
From pounds 258; sample pounds 707
Illustrating the vast difference in price often found between basic models and their superior cousins, the Credo chair we tried came equipped with arms and headrest - the latter on its own curved stem, which together with its bright purple upholstery and back shaped like an insect's torso caused several testers to unite in the opinion that it "looks like a triffid". Despite complicating variations, the Credo's main feature is a rocking mechanism which allows the chair to follow your movements and "encourage healthy variations in posture," according to the instructions. It proved comfortable for all sitters, but you have to learn the functions: a lever marked with a mauve blob adjusts height; one with a yellow dash lets you slide the seat forwards and two buttons allow you to move it up and down. Marcus Field found the Credo "well-made, if slightly over-engineered" but said the symbols on the levers helped greatly. Other testers agreed that the facility to lock this rocking chair into doze position for lunchtime was its greatest asset. "A great kipping chair," said Emma Bartlett.
*SVEN CHRISTIANSEN BALANS
From pounds 260; sample pounds 330
Popularly (and incorrectly) referred to as "kneeling chairs", cheap imitations of the Balans fail to take into account that the chair is supposed to hold you in perfect balance - it's your shins which should prevent you from sliding forwards, not your knees. The concept of the Balans was invented by a helicopter pilot (Hans Christian Mengshoel) and it is marketed "for active, forward inclined postures" - not to mention as a remedy for back problems. The chair's cunningly arranged pads for bottom and shins are also alleged to "open up the angle between hip and chest, to increase circulation." The majority of the panel was entirely prejudiced in its favour before the trial. "I like to see things which challenge the form of the office chair," said Marcus Field, who then found he couldn't get his feet in any sort of comfortable position. Shelley Grobler seized the sample on arrival, hailing it as "very Zen. It's like a magic mushroom, and perfect to perch on," but revealed red weals on her shins after 20 minutes of said perching. Despite high hopes that this would be the simplest seat for a busy journalist, a day of intermittent use gave a distinct feeling of backache. It ruins the creases in your trousers, too. Meanwhile office visitors were facetious about the Balans and most refused to sit on it - clearly any semblance of kneeling is still a deeply humiliating position.
Like other chairs manufactured by Vitra, an ultra-chic company which specialises in commissioning leading designers such as Philippe Starck, the super-comfortable, streamlined and deceptively simple looking, black leather Meda is named after its creator, Alberto Meda. Launched in 1996 it will be on sale in the UK from October and has already been described as "a classic" in design circles. Notwithstanding "all this designer snobbery" (Shelley Grobler) the whole panel admired the Meda's looks, with Marcus Field praising its "elegant profile", "unobtrusive levers" and "anonymous, but classy" styling. Its simplicity is appealing, since the sitter's own movements cause the chair to move in a fluid way, encouraging mobility. It was the only chair whose arms seemed at all useful - they have wide, slimly padded leather rests at the right height and angle to any desk. On the whole, the Meda is more comfortable than the Charles Eames (below) - and cheaper - so if you feel like taking a gamble on a classic of the future, this could be the chair to buy.
****HERMAN MILLER AERON
From pounds 506, sample pounds 720
Described by a rival manufacturer as "a wonderful piece of seating architecture", the Aeron is the quintessential "cross-performance" chair, which allows the sitter to perform any and all office tasks. It comes in three different shell sizes, has more knobs and levers than a toy train and was thought by testers to look "like a preying mantis, or a dentist's chair". Its major selling point (apart from comfort) as far as Emma Bartlett was concerned, was its super-supportive mesh seat and back: "the coolest thing to sit on in hot weather". Despite an accompanying video to explain the Aeron's features and philosophy, she declined to fiddle with "all the knobs and levers" which adjust the rocking motion, tilt, height and so on. The fact that "everything moves" irritated Shelley Grobler, who declared this chair to be "just like a car - perfect for a man, but I don't really feel I'm at work in this." True to (male) form, then, Marcus Field loved it, saying it was "the TVR of chairs" and that he found it "really seductive. You want to touch it and get into it and use the levers, like a lovely car." Small wonder that the Aeron is often seen in City dealing rooms.
*****CHARLES EAMES SOFT PAD
"During the recession, you could find any number of Charles Eames chairs for sale in the small ads of Building Design," recalled Marcus Field, pointing out the collectability of this chair. "It was a terrible moment when architects had to cash in their heirlooms." Eames (1907-1978) was an architect and film-maker as well as a designer; his life's work will be featured in a major exhibition at the Design Museum next year. The chair's high cost is accounted for partly by production costs - and partly by the fact that its design remains the "ultimate, minimalist executive chair" (Emma Bartlett). "It's like a Rolls-Royce," insisted Marcus Field. "It may not be ergonomically perfect, but there are other features which make you forgive any shortcomings." All testers felt it would last forever, with the leather wearing nicely and the possibility of recycling minimal components after a lifetime's use. Most importantly, it is a piece of furniture which fits into a home interior and could double as a dining room or occasional chair.
*KNOLL SOHO TASK CHAIR
From pounds 250, sample pounds 280
Produced by Knoll especially for "small offices and home offices", the SoHo comes in three violent colours (orange, lime or yellow). It has a sliding seat mechanism and simple under-seat controls, but there its appeal ends. For despite the huge difference in cost with the other chairs surveyed, the SoHo "looks and feels cheaper than it is" according to Shelley Grobler, who added, "Apart from the fact that it looks like a Teletubby, I hate this chair." It seemed less comfortable than many low cost typing chairs and Emma Bartlett complained about the "rough, itchy, woven fabric which scratches your legs." It is lightweight (23lb), but as the castors don't move well, it's hard to pull across a carpeted floor. "This would be a big compromise," said Marcus Field, who acknowledged that he was worried about how long the chair would last, with its hard plastic pedestal and easily stained upholstery.
Credo and Balans from Sven Christiansen, tel: 01483 302728; Meda and Charles Eames from Vitra, tel: 0171 408 1122; SoHo from Knoll, tel: 0171 236 6655; Aeron from Herman Miller, 01225 428471. !