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Review of the Steelcase Please (v2) chair

This review is part of my series of reviews of ergonomic office chairs. People have wildly varying opinions when it comes to chairs, and you should always test a chair for a few days in your own work environment before buying it. (See more advice on how to buy a good chair.) Don’t use my reviews to decide which chair to buy; use them as a starting point for your own testing.

Photo of the Steelcase Please chair

In my review of the Steelcase Think chair, I wrote that it is a very good chair that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. This goes double for the Steelcase Please chair, which is a model that is almost absent from online reviews, most likely because it is only available in Europe. This lack of online prominence does not mean that it doesn’t have its ardent fans. I’ve dealt with two salesmen at my local Steelcase dealer – both told me outright that they prefer the Please to all other Steelcase chairs, despite the fact that its current version turned 14 years old this year, and, in theory, should have been superseded by newer offerings like the Leap v2 and Gesture.

If I were to sum up the “unique selling proposition” for the Please, it would be this: Please will support your entire back, even at a very wide angle of recline. As I explained in my chair buying guide, most chairs have a “lumbar gap” that appears when you recline. I understand – you’re a busy person, you don’t want to click through to that article. Let me just copy & paste the drawing that explains how the gap arises:

A simple drawing showing a backrest in an upright position and a reclined position.

The backrest, rotating around a point under the seat (red dot), moves away from the seat and the user’s lower back.

The Please is one of the few chairs that are specifically designed to minimize this effect. It achieves this goal with some interesting mechanical design. The backrest is split into two parts – thoracic and lumbar. The lumbar part is attached at a fixed angle to the seatpan, which tilts only a little bit. The thoracic part is attached to the lumbar part. Here’s how it works:

Schematic drawing showing the Steelcase Please in the upright and maximally reclined positions

(1) The mounting point (red ring) of the lumbar part of the backrest does not tilt with respect to the seat (ensuring no lumbar gap); (2) the thoracic backrest is attached to the lumbar backrest to ensure a continuous curve; (3) as the thoracic part pulls on the top of the lumbar part, the lumbar part rotates around its mounting point and the bottom of the lumbar part is pushed forward, filling in your lumbar curve

The result is that not only is there no lumbar gap, the lumbar part of the backrest actually pushes into your lumbar spine when you recline. Don’t worry though – the lumbar assembly is mounted on springs and you can adjust its firmness, so it won’t feel like an elbow in your back. Reclining in the Please makes you feel like your entire back is supported, in a way that is equaled only by the Humanscale Liberty. Furthermore, the backrest reclines very far, enabling you to achieve a fully neutral 135° hip angle at maximum recline.

Three different recline angles on the Steelcase Please

Recline angles on the Steelcase Please: (1) maximum recline; (2) intermediate recline; (3) near-upright position. The grey thing on the armrest that looks like a dead rat is a sock I put there to make the armrests softer. Sorry about that.

The adjustments on the Please are nothing short of spectacular:

  • As expected, you can adjust the resistance of the backrest. As a bonus, you get a little dial which displays the number corresponding to the current resistance setting, similar to a date window on a wristwatch – this is a nice touch that is helpful when sharing a chair with other people. Instead of fiddling with a continuous, unlabeled knob, all you have to do is remember your number.
  • There is a separate knob, with four settings, that controls the firmness of the lumbar part of the backrest. The correct setting will depend on your individual lumbar curve. This is not unheard of in ergonomic chairs, but definitely not common, so kudos to the Please for having this feature.
  • Finally, the entire backrest can be moved up or down. This is something I haven’t seen on any other chair, yet it makes so much sense – people have torsos of different height, so their lumbar curves are located at different heights. Not all chairs have “height-adjustable” lumbar supports, and if they do, these are often just extra pieces of stiff plastic placed on top of the standard curve of the backrest. Here, you are moving the curve of the backrest itself.

Once adjusted properly, the Please is probably the most anatomically correct chair you can buy. I said “the most anatomically correct”, not “the most comfortable”, because the Please is not a “comfy” chair. While the seatpan is perfectly normal, the foam padding used in the backrest is quite firm. If you’re used to a soft chair, the Please will feel a little like an ergonomically designed wooden plank. You know it’s probably good for your back, but it doesn’t give you the visceral feeling of indulgent comfort that you get when you sit down in a well-cushioned chair like the Leap or Amia.

Is this firmness a problem? I don’t think so. In fact, if you are bothered by it when you first try the chair, I would like to urge you to see past it. Firmness is something that people get used to rather quickly (as evidenced by the millions of people sitting on Herman Miller chairs – har har har), so first impressions can be misleading here. A friend of mine initially complained about the Please’s hard backrest, but after extended testing he got used to it, and ended up buying the chair.

The foam on the Please may be a bit hard, but the tilt limiter is what takes the cake. It has zero shock absorption, so hitting a tilt limit feels like that time when you rode your bike into a concrete wall. It is easily the most unpleasant tilt limiter that I have ever experienced. I cannot believe Steelcase did not see the need to put some kind of spring in there. Fortunately, I never felt the need to use the tilt limiter, as the Please has a sticky backrest, which tends to stay wherever you put it.

Speaking of which, the backrest on the Please is similar to that on other Steelcase chairs like the Amia or Gesture. For a detailed discussion of sticky backrests, read my chair buying guide – here, I’ll just note that a sticky backrest makes it easier to switch from the upright position to the reclined position (and vice versa) – all you have to do is push against the backrest (or take your weight off it). On the flip side, because the backrest resists small movements, there is no way to rock in the chair.

Like the backrests on the Amia and Gesture, the one on the Please achieves a nice balance between how stable it is and how easy it is to change positions, unlike the Leap’s, which feels sluggish in comparison. Things aren’t so good when it comes to micromovements – not only is the mechanism sticky, the backrest lacks the flexibility that would permit even limited rocking (for an example, see the Leap clip in my FAQ).

The fact that the backrest is not springy doesn’t mean that it’s rigid. Although the backrest is made up of stiff plastic panels with padding on top, the thoracic part of the backrest is mounted elastically (there is a rubber joint and two flexible plastic hinges). It changes orientation in two directions – for instance, when you turn your torso left or right, it turns with you.

The thermal performance of the Please is pretty standard for a foam chair – in side-by-side comparisons, I could not detect a difference in thermal comfort between the Please and the Leap. It’s not ideal for working in temperatures exceeding 25 °C, but not as dramatically bad as the Gesture.

There is an exposed piece of the frame to which the lumbar backrest is attached – if you keep your keyboard very close to your body (practically above your lap), it is possible to bump against the frame with your elbow. It also depends on the height of your armrests versus the height of the lumbar backrest. If repeated, this sort of minor trauma can produce cumulative, irreversible damage to your ulnar nerve. I take this issue quite seriously and paid a lot of attention to it in various keyboard-heavy and mouse-heavy scenarios. In my particular setup, it wasn’t a real problem, but I definitely recommend watching out for this issue when you test the Please. (You can also attach something soft in that area to prevent the problem.)

Armrests

As I publish this review, it is already somewhat out of date – Steelcase has just updated the Please with new “4-D” armrests, which follow the outstanding design used on their other chairs like the Leap, Amia and Think. The model I tested had basic, “plastic” armrests with no left–right adjustment, and my experience with them was generally bad. First, they are uncomfortably hard (which is a potential health issue). Second, I was unable to comfortably type with my forearms on them (due to the poor adjustability). Third, they tilt together with the lumbar part of the backrest, making them somewhat difficult to use in a reclined position. The one good thing about them is that they retract quite a long way, so you can sit very close to your desk if you wish. On the whole, I found them barely usable.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to test the new armrests because a display unit with 4-D armrests is not available at my local Steelcase dealership – so, for example, I can’t tell if they are any softer than the plastic ones. However, going by the video I linked above, I can tell they certainly have enough adjustability to let you rest your forearms on them while typing. On the negative side, they do not stay level as you recline, just like the old plastic ones. They are also, like the type I tested, shorter and narrower than those on other Steelcase chairs. In other words, although they’re still not Leap-quality, I’m sure I could live with them.

Of course, all of the above is only relevant if you use armrests. Many people don’t.

Headrest

You can order the Steelcase Please with a middling headrest. It sits quite a long distance behind your head, and has no back–front adjustability. In a reclined position, it is possible to rest your head on it if you tilt your head way back (although I found it uncomfortable), but if you want to keep your eyes on the screen, you will need a pillow, and a thick one at that. Paradoxically, the fact that the headrest is located so far from the back of your head makes it better than the one on the Leap. They’re both equally unadjustable, but the one on the Please at least doesn’t get in the way when you’re sitting upright.

I did find the headrest, such as it is, useful when relaxing after work – watching movies or listening to music. I would put a pillow on top of it, so that I could keep my gaze on the monitor. While the position was initially very comfortable (in fact, it made me want to fall asleep), I could never maintain it for very long – after 20-30 minutes, I would typically get some sort of pain in my neck. Perhaps this problem could be eliminated with the right pillow size. All in all, if I were buying a Please, I’d get one with the headrest (which is something I would never say about the Leap). By the way, the headrest can be removed without difficulty – the operation leaves two empty mounting holes in the backrest.

The design-conscious among you should note that the headrest only comes in black (that includes both the plastic and the fabric), which is unfortunate if you plan on getting the better-looking white frame.

The Tom Test

Let’s see how well the Please did on my checklist:

  • Easy changing between at least two positions (near-upright and reclined): Pass. The sticky backrest makes it super-easy to adopt any position you like without fiddling with anything.
  • Open hip angle in the reclined position: Pass. Very large maximum recline angle.
  • Lumbar support: Pass. With the ability to adjust both the height and the firmness, the Please is the chair to beat when it comes to lumbar support.
  • Backrest should adapt to your back: Pass. The two-part, elastically mounted backrest does the job.
  • Seatpan must not be too long: Pass.
  • Micromovements: Fail. You don’t even get the micro-rocking of the Leap/Gesture/Amia.
  • Armrests (if you care about them): Should be fine if you get the newest “4-D” ones, but I haven’t tested them, so I’ll hold my judgment.
  • Annoyances: Nothing serious. The tilt limiter is brutally hard, but you don’t really have to use it. The foam padding on the backrest is unusually hard – you can get used to it, but it will never be comfy.

Final words

The Steelcase Please is probably the most anatomically correct chair you can buy. Once you adjust it, it will fit you like a glove and it will maintain this anatomical fit across the entire range of recline. And – I should add – the range of recline is huge. Yeah, in case you can’t tell – I really like that backrest. The only real problem with it is the lack of rockability.

Other than that, the Please is a chair without significant flaws. In fact, after my testing campaign in which I tested more than ten high-end chairs, the Please came out on top of my list, tied with the Leap. They’re both well-fitting chairs, but the Please has a smoother backrest mechanism that encourages position changes, a less annoying headrest, and a backrest that supports you fully even when you’re reclined. The Leap, on the other hand, has better armrests, supports micromovements to an extent, and is softer. It’s a heck of a choice, and in the end my decision was more or less a coin toss.

I should also mention that the price of the Please is quite reasonable – it’s over €100 cheaper than a comparable Leap model. If you’re a European looking for a good computer chair, you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t check out the Steelcase Please. If you’re in North America, please accept my sympathies – you’re missing out on a great chair!

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Review of the Steelcase Think (v2) chair

This review is part of my series of reviews of ergonomic office chairs. People have wildly varying opinions when it comes to chairs, and you should always test a chair for a few days in your own work environment before buying it. (See more advice on how to buy a good chair.) Don’t use my reviews to decide which chair to buy; use them as a starting point for your own testing.

Photo of the Steelcase Think chair

After test-driving the Herman Miller Embody and the Steelcase Gesture, I felt a bit down. I had just tried out two top-of-the-line models from the two most renowned high-end chair manufacturers and neither was good enough. Would I ever find a suitable chair for myself? As it happened, my next candidate, the Steelcase Think, restored my faith in ergonomic chairs.

The Think is something of an overlooked model in Steelcase’s lineup. In fact, I wasn’t even supposed to try it out. The salesman who gave me a demonstration of Steelcase chairs didn’t even consider it worthy enough to show it to me, and I had never seen it mentioned on the Internet, so I wasn’t even aware of its existence. The only reason the Think ended up in my apartment was that, on a later visit to the Steelcase dealership, I noticed one of the employees sitting on it, and requested a quick test. Apart from the stylish design (which I admit was what caught my eye in the first place), I noticed it had a unique recline mechanism, a mesh backrest, and highly adjustable armrests. It definitely deserved an extended look.

The Think is – in my humble opinion – the best-looking chair made by Steelcase. Its striking lines make more conventional models like the Leap or even the Gesture look positively mundane. I think it could even give the gorgeous Herman Miller Embody a run for its money.

The backrest on the Think is unique. It has a coarse mesh supported on a flexible, plastic “ladder” that presumably is there to prevent you from “falling in”. There is also a built-in, non-optional lumbar support – a plastic-and-metal bar that you can slide up or down. Here’s a clip showing how the backrest responds:

For complicated reasons, I actually test-drove the Think twice, with a 6-month break in between. On my first test, I found the backrest comfortable enough, as did one of my friends (who ended up buying the Think and is happy with it). However, another friend immediately rejected the Think, complaining that the plastic strings in the back dug into his upper back. On my second test – for reasons I cannot fully account for – I started feeling the same hardness that my other friend had noticed. After several hours, my shoulder blades got a bit sore from the continuous pressure. I had to place a thin layer of white foam (the type LCD displays come in) between the 3D mesh and the topmost string, which solved the problem for me (and made the chair look slightly less good). After about two weeks, I removed the foam and never looked back. I suppose my back just got used to the small discomfort.

Apart from that brief episode, the Think’s backrest was pretty comfortable for me, although it is, of course, a highly subjective thing. I will say this, however: if you’re looking for comfort, you would do better to pick a chair with a padded backrest or one made of a soft mesh (i.e. not like the Herman Miller Aeron or Mirra).

The backrest on my test model was the default, “3D-Knit” version. You can also order a backrest that’s covered in fabric – which might temper the hardness of the plastic ladder, but doesn’t look as good as the 3D-knit version (I think Steelcase knows this – in their marketing materials they only show the mesh backrest), and provides less airflow (though not dramatically so – the fabric is quite thin). I think I would recommend the mesh version (with the foam mod, if necessary).

Speaking of airflow, the chief advantage of a mesh backrest is coolness, and the Steelcase Think does not disappoint. On hot summer days, with the temperature in my room exceeding 27 °C, the Think was 25% cooler to sit on than the Steelcase Amia. Wait a second, what does “25% cooler” even mean? Glad you asked. That’s a totally subjective figure which is supposed to represent how hot I felt after sitting for a period of time (between 30 and 45 minutes) on the Think versus how I felt on the Amia in the same conditions. Yes, I know it’s pseudoscience, but I did many rounds of tests, and I stand by my figure. I’m comparing the Think with the Amia because I happened to have those two chairs in my apartment at the same time. The Amia’s thermal performance is comparable to that of the Steelcase Leap or Please. All of these are chairs with padded backrests.

The lumbar support is quite subtle – the plastic bar is almost as flexible as the “rungs”. I didn’t feel a big difference even when I moved it all the way down. I think the chair would benefit from a stiffer lumbar support.

The unique backrest is attached to a unique reclining system. The Think is equipped with a weight mechanism. With most chairs, you get a knob that lets you choose how strongly the backrest pushes you forward. The optimum position of the knob depends on your body mass (heavier users need more resistance, or else they will drop all the way back) and your preferred recline angle. With a counterweight system, the backrest is connected to the seat, so that a heavier user will automatically get a more resistant backrest. The most obvious advantage is that the chair doesn’t have to be adjusted for each user, making it great for environments in which the same chair is used by different people. (This review, however, won’t be concerned with that scenario.)

Usually, the biggest weakness of weight-based systems is that they only take into account one of the two variables that determine the backrest’s resistance (your body weight) – and not the other (your preferred recline angle). As a result, you’re locked into whatever the chair’s designers decided to be the “optimum angle” (for an example, see the Humanscale Liberty review). The Steelcase Think eliminates this weakness by giving you a four-stop dial to modify the weight-based recline angle:

  1. Upright (tilt limiter) – 111°
  2. Mid-stop (tilt limiter) – 117°
  3. Near-upright (“boosted” setting) – 115°
  4. Maximum recline (standard weight-based setting) – 123°

Here are photos showing positions 1, 3 and 4:

Photo showing 3 main positions on the Steelcase Think chair

I did not include a photo of position 2 (mid-stop) because it is almost indistinguishable from the “boosted” setting. The only difference is that with the boosted setting, you can recline to the max if you push hard enough, while the mid-stop setting has a hard limit. I’m not sure why anyone would prefer a hard limit to a gentle, bouncy limit.

The recline mechanism is of the “smooth” type – you can tilt the backrest back and forth around some “neutral” position, but you cannot recline too far back because the force exerted by the backrest on your back will eventually go up. In fact, the resistance on the Think increases quite steeply. Whereas most other “smooth” chairs are pushovers that will let you easily tilt the backrest back by a large distance, the Think fights back and will quickly ramp up the opposing force. It does not feel like a rocking chair – it’s a more crisp, high-energy sensation, like bouncing against something. The Think is, in fact, the most “bouncy” chair that I’ve tested. Viscerally, I found it quite satisfying, and I think this kind of springy, limited rocking is a good match for an office chair, as rocking over a large distance would probably make it more difficult to type and use the mouse.

I am quite convinced that the combination of a smooth backrest and the four-stop position dial is a near-perfect system. This is for two reasons:

  • You can instantly switch from a “typing” (near-upright) position to a “casual browsing” (reclined) position, and back again (because the two positions are pre-set, you don’t have to fiddle with a continuous knob every time). This encourages frequent position changes.
  • You keep the ability to rock, whether you’re near-upright (position 3) or reclined (position 4). This is not the case when you use a standard tilt lock or tilt limiter. Rocking is fun and probably good for your health.

You might think that the pre-set recline angles – as opposed to “infinite”, continuous resistance adjustment – limit your freedom to set the recline angle “just right”. However, in my testing (and I had the chair for several weeks), I never once wished for an extra preset. In fact, adding intermediate stops would ruin the main advantage of the chair, as more clicks would be required to go from a near-upright to a reclined positions.

It would seem that all the chess pieces are in place for a resounding victory – finally a chair that lets you easily switch back and forth between a near-upright and reclined positions, with one click (of a knob), without sacrificing “rockability” – a feat that is out of reach for Steelcase’s “sticky backrests” (Leap, Gesture, Amia, Please – which have very little rockability) and for the “smooth backrests” like the Herman Miller Embody (which have no rockability when the tilt limiter is engaged).

Unfortunately, the Think squanders some of its advantage because of mechanical details. Although the resistance dial on the Think is thankfully pretty easy to access, you have to perform some gymnastics in order to switch from one mode to another. You cannot simply turn the knob – you have to lean forward before that. If you neglect that first step, the knob will (1) not turn at all, or (2) it will turn but the mode won’t change (the click sound will be subtly different). The second failure type is particularly user-unfriendly because it doesn’t give you sufficient feedback that you did something “wrong” and can have you wondering why the new mode feels the same as the old mode. (In some cases, you can turn the knob and then lean forward to “activate” the change, but this works only for some position changes and it’s probably best to just use the more universal sequence in all situations.)

I also have to mention that, after a few weeks of using the chair, the mechanism degraded to the point that it became completely impossible to switch from mode 3 to mode 4, no matter what I did with the backrest. The only way I could get it to work is by turning the knob very rapidly from mode 1 to mode 4. This is a clear mechanical issue that would be covered by warranty – I’m not sure if it’s a manufacuring defect with my demo unit or a manifestation of some design flaw. The issue is not shown in the video below because it cropped up after I recorded it.

All the mode-switching gymnastics are made easier by the fact that it is quite easy to lean forward on the Think due to its “bounciness”. The optimal technique is to first lean back, compressing the spring in the recline mechanism, and then have the spring push you forward with little effort from your abdominal muscles (and without bending your lumbar spine too much).

At great expense, I made a video so that y’all could see exactly how the recline mechanism on the Think works:

The biggest problem with the backrest (and the chair as a whole) is that it doesn’t recline far enough. The maximum hip angle is only around 123° – even less than the Steelcase Amia and Herman Miller Embody. When using the chair, I often wished that I could give my lumbar spine a bit more rest.

Another pretty serious issue is that the lumbar support keeps sliding down, especially if you use the fully reclined position a lot. During my tests, I had to readjust it a few times a day. This is a surprisingly common problem – I’ve experienced it, to some degree, on every Steelcase chair fitted with a height-adjustable lumbar. Fortunately, on the Think, the issue is easy to fix by sticking two appropriately sized pieces of plastic or hard cardboard into the slot in the side of the frame, below the tabs which are used to move the support. It worked perfectly for me – no more sliding down lumbar support.

Photos showing the lumbar support on the Think in the initial position and after two hours of sitting.

The lumbar support on my Think would keep sliding down, especially if I switched positions a lot. (Actual photo before and after 2 hours of use.)

The armrests on the Steelcase Think v2 are one of the best in the industry:

  • They stay level as you recline, enabling you to keep using them in all positions.
  • You can adjust them inward in order to support your forearms as you touch-type.
  • You can retract them quite far, enabling you to move close to your desk – you don’t have to stretch your arms out to reach the keyboard.
  • You can pull them down if you want them out of the way.
  • The armrest caps have the right amount of friction to allow you to slide your forearms on them as you move the mouse.

There are minor differences between the armrests on the Think and the excellent armrests on the Leap and Amia. The Think’s armrests have a bit less left/right adjustability (though still enough to comfortably rest your forearms on them as you use the keyboard) and the caps are less soft (though by no means hard). If I had to criticize the armrests on the Think, it would be on that last point – though, in truth, they never caused me any discomfort when using the chair. I only noticed the difference later, after I had the chance to try out the Steelcase Leap.

The Tom Test

How does the Think fare on my checklist? Let’s have a look:

  • Easy changing between at least two positions (near-upright and reclined): I’m not sure. The reclined position is not very reclined. You can go from the near-upright position to the reclined position with a single click of a dial, but you have to lean forward first.
  • Open hip angle in the reclined position: I’m not sure. The backrest doesn’t recline enough.
  • Lumbar support: Pass. It’s pretty good, but keeps sliding down unless you mod the chair.
  • Backrest should adapt to your back: Pass. It conforms to your back better than most chairs, but the plastic supports can dig into your shoulder blades.
  • Seatpan must not be too long: Pass.
  • Micromovements: Pass. The best “rockability” among office chairs, in every position.
  • Armrests (if you care about them): Pass. Exceptional adjustability, no real shortcomings.
  • Annoyances: Lumbar support keeps sliding down. Mechanical glitches when switching positions.

Final words

The second edition of the Steelcase Think is a good ergonomic chair that I feel does not get the attention it deserves. After testing about 10 high-end chairs, I was seriously considering buying a Think because of its good airflow (suitable for hot summers), and the unique reclining system that enables rocking in every position and – on the whole – easy switching between positions (despite some mechanical niggles). I am also partial to good armrests, and the Think’s are almost perfect. Finally, at $840 or €670 (incl. VAT), the Think is priced more reasonably than other high-end chairs.

On the negative side, the Think doesn’t recline far enough to give your lumbar spine a satisfactory rest break. There are also annoyances like the sliding down lumbar support and the plastic ladder in the backrest which may put uncomfortable pressure on your shoulder blades (both problems can be fixed with easy mods). If you’re willing to look past those issues, I can definitely recommend giving the Steelcase Think a test-drive. In the end, I did not buy a Think – although if I ever come into some extra cash, I’ll be tempted to get one as my “summer chair”.

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Review of the Herman Miller Embody chair

This review is part of my series of reviews of ergonomic office chairs. People have wildly varying opinions when it comes to chairs, and you should always test a chair for a few days in your own work environment before buying it. (See more advice on how to buy a good chair.) Don’t use my reviews to decide which chair to buy; use them as a starting point for your own testing.

Photo of the Herman Miller Embody chair

Let me tell you about effect the Embody has on people. I went into the showroom of my local office furniture dealer with a budget of about €800, stretchable to a non-negotiable limit of €1,000. With a price starting at €1,400, the Embody was strictly out of the question. But there it was – sitting there with that skeletal backrest and gorgeous design, like some prop from Star Trek that accidentally ended up among regular chairs. It would have been a shame not to try it out, if only out of curiosity.

As the flexible backrest cradled my back and the plastic “pixels” massaged my muscles, I started gently rocking back and forth, trying to think about how to drag out the conversation with the salesman to avoid having to get up. “Come to think about it”, I thought, “perhaps I could add €400 to my budget. After all, an ergonomic chair is an investment in health. You can’t put a price on that!” The salesman must have noticed my reluctance to get up. “People look at various chairs, but everybody always ends up on the Embody”, he mused. A couple days later, I was test-driving the Embody in my room.

The Embody seems to take a page out of Apple’s playbook – not just in terms of the design (it could have been designed by Jony Ive), but also the hard-to-justify price. There is no denying that it is a beautiful piece of industrial design, far better looking than the much-touted Aeron. I really can’t think of many chairs whose design is in the same league as the Embody – perhaps the Steelcase Think or Gesture, but that’s it.

The backrest on the Embody is a very flexible sheet of plastic supported by a matrix of loosely connected H-shaped “pixels”. As I mentioned above, the feeling you get when resting against it is that of being cradled and massaged at the same time. I didn’t make a video, so here’s a clip from TheTechReviewer’s review:

The thing about the backrest is that the flexibility is all in the upper torso. In the lumbosacral region, the chair is quite rigid. After 2 hours of sitting, I noticed my sacrum started getting sore from the plastic pegs digging into my spine. I am not the only one who’s run into this issue – one of my friends felt the same way, and there are a lot of online reviews which include the same complaint.

Whether or not you find the Embody uncomfortable in the sacral area, you will probably agree that it is not a “comfy” chair. It does cradle your back, and it does massage it, but it is a rather firm massage. If you want a feeling of induldgent comfiness as you settle into your chair after a long session at the gym, look elsewhere.

The shape of the backrest on the Embody can be adjusted with that knob on the right you can see in the above clip. This is similar to the “lower back firmness control” on the Steelcase Leap. What this does is change the shape from more of an S shape to a straight I shape, or vice versa. If your back is more curved, you need more of an S shape (the lower curve of the S fills in your lumbar region). I was able to mitigate the sacral discomfort by straightening the backrest, but then the upper curve of the S also became straighter and started pushing my upper torso forward in an uncomfortable way. Because the knob controls two sections of the backrest at the same time, there was no way to adjust it to fit the shape of my back. Perhaps the sacral part of the backrest could be made more comfortable by adding some foam in the right place, but I didn’t have the time to test it – plus there’s the question of whether you should have to do that kind of thing on a €1,400 chair.

The innovative backrest is attached to a bog-standard “smooth” synchro-tilt mechanism. This forces you to sit in what is essentially one position – you can recline a bit if you exert your back and thigh muscles, but the resistance rises quickly and you won’t be able to hold the position for any significant length of time. There’s a knob to adjust the resistance, but you cannot use it every time you want to change your position because you’ll go crazy trying to find the right setting for relaxing, and then the right setting for working, every single time. (The knob is continuous – there is no visual or tactile feedback as you turn it, so good luck getting back to your optimal working resistance if you change it.)

There is a trick that lets you recline without using your muscles – you can shift your body weight by putting your arms behind you like so – but then you can’t operate your mouse, so you cannot, for example, do casual browsing in a reclined position. Another way is to make the backrest resistance very low (so you can achieve a good recline angle for an extended period) and, when you want to do some serious typing, engage the tilt limiter to keep yourself (near-)upright. The tilt limiter then acts as a switch for changing position from upright to reclined, and vice versa.

Making heavy use of the tilt limiter is the best solution – though I should probably call it the “least bad” solution because it has some disadvantages. First, the Embody’s backrest doesn’t have a lot of inherent springiness, so when you hit the limit, it’s not exactly super-comfortable (see below clip from bkwtang’s epic review).

Second, if you’re being kept upright by the tilt limiter, you can no longer rock on the chair, and rocking is good for you.

Third, the tilt limiter control itself does not lend itself to frequent use. You have to move the tilt limiter lever by two stops to go from a near-upright position (tilt lock 2 – 112° hip angle) to a reclined position (tilt lock 4 – 127° hip angle), which is somewhat annoying. What’s worse, the lever is positioned at the very back, under the seatpan – hardly the most convenient location for a control that you’re supposed to use many times a day. (On the plus side, it looks like you don’t have to take your weight off the backrest in order to go from one tilt lock setting to another, like on the Aeron. But I’m going by the linked video here, so don’t take my word for it.)

Changing your position frequently is vitally important from the point of view of ergonomics, and your chair should encourage you, not discourage you from doing so. I feel that any chair that doesn’t let you easily switch from a near-upright (110–120°) “typing” position to a highly reclined “thinking / casual browsing” position (around 130°) cannot be called truly ergonomic. (I am well aware that, by this measure, the vast majority of office chairs are not ergonomic.)

The maximum hip angle on the Embody is around 127°, which is similar to the Steelcase Amia and considerably less than on the Leap or Gesture. That’s not a great result – I would like to see at least 130°.

If the smooth backrest makes it hard to switch between two positions, at least it gives you the ability to rock back and forth around your normal position, which is fun and probably good for your health (though less important than frequent position changes). However, if you use the tilt limiter as described above, you will obviously lose “rockability” in the near-upright position.

Photo showing the construction of the seat on the Embody chair

The bottom of the seat on the Embody

The thermal performance on the Embody is excellent. Your back rests on a porous fabric and the flexible plastic backrest, which has tiny ventilation slits. There is no foam in between. The seat is foam-free as well – it’s built like a mattress, with a layer of plastic hexagons on top of plastic springs on top of metal(?) strings. It’s a brilliant design that provides 30–50% better cooling (subjectively) than foam without sacrificing too much comfort. During long sitting sessions in an ambient temperature of 25 °C or higher, the Embody is much cooler than foam-based chairs.

As expected on a Herman Miller chair, the armrests are nothing to write home about. I found them hard to use because they’re a bit too long and there is no back–front adjustment. As a result, they kept bumping against the edge of my desk as I tried to move closer to my keyboard and monitor. About an inch shorter would have been perfect for me. Your mileage may of course vary.

I was able to adjust the armrest width so that I could use them to support my forearms when typing. The in–out adjustment of the armrests is achieved in an unusual way (again, I’m borrowing from TheTechReviewer here):

The result is that if you adjust the armrests inward for typing, they will also have a bit of a slope, which may make it harder to reach for the mouse because your forearm has to “climb the slope”.

A bigger issue is that the armrests tilt back as you recline, taking your arms away from your desk. This is a problem, because you cannot, for example, read something in the reclined position while using the mouse to scroll the page. Here’s how the Embody compares with the Steelcase Gesture (which has very level armrests):

Two photos showing the reclined armrest angle on the Gesture and the Embody.

Armrest angle on the Gesture and the Embody at the same recline angle (Embody’s maximum recline). Source: bkwtang’s long review.

It’s impossible to review the Embody without talking about the price. This is one heck of an expensive chair. The base price in the US is $1260, but Herman Miller will charge you an extra $40 for the better-looking white frame, and (outrageously) an extra $200 for the softer, more breathable Balance fabric (highly recommended given how hard the backrest is), bringing the total to $1400.

The Tom Test

  • Easy changing between at least two positions (near-upright and reclined): I’m not sure if it’s a pass or a fail. You can use the tilt limiter as an “upright/recline switch”, but the lever is hard to reach, and then the backrest becomes a bit too stiff in the upright position. The reclined position is not very reclined.
  • Open hip angle in the reclined position: Pass. Much better than the Aeron.
  • Lumbar support: Pass.
  • Backrest should adapt to your back: I’m not sure. The backrest is flexible in the upper body, but the lumbosacral part can be hard and unforgiving. Could be a pass for you, depending on your back shape.
  • Seatpan must not be too long: Pass.
  • Micromovements: Pass. You can rock on this chair, as long as you don’t use the tilt limiter.
  • Armrests (if you care about them): Fail. They don’t stay level, are a bit too long, and the “sloping” width adjustment is not well-designed.
  • Annoyances: Other than what I’ve listed above, none.

Final words

Like most chairs with smooth backrests, the Embody is primarily a chair for sitting in one position – the “intensive working” position. You can try to make it do two positions, but it will make you feel it wasn’t really designed with that in mind: the tilt limiter makes the back a bit too stiff, the mechanics of switching from one position to another are a bit too cumbersome, and the limited recline angle does not let you truly relax your lumbar spine. In terms of allowing easy upright/reclined changes, it’s really not that different from your average $200 office chair with a synchro-tilt mechanism.

Since I consider changing your position to be an ergonomic priority, a chair that gets a mediocre grade in that area cannot get a great overall grade, even if it is perfect in all other ways (and, to be clear, the Embody isn’t).

Although the top part of the backrest feels amazing thanks to the innovative “pixel matrix”, the sacral section is quite hard and eventually caused soreness for me, my friend, and at least some other people (judging from online reviews). In my case, it would have been enough to send the chair back, but it could be absolutely fine for you, as long as you don’t mind firmness.

This is not a chair for armrest-lovers. Although they’re an improvement over the Aeron, a gaping chasm separates them from the best efforts from Steelcase.

I did not buy the Herman Miller Embody and I cannot recommend it, but it is a great-looking chair with some intriguing features. I would very much like to see some of the innovations used in it – particularly the pixelated back and the mattress-like seatpan – make their way into other chairs.

 

Thanks to Kornak Meble in Wroclaw, Poland for letting me try out the Embody and a few other chairs.

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Review of the Humanscale Liberty chair

This review is part of my series of reviews of ergonomic office chairs. People have wildly varying opinions when it comes to chairs, and you should always test a chair for a few days in your own work environment before buying it. (See more advice on how to buy a good chair.) Don’t use my reviews to decide which chair to buy; use them as a starting point for your own testing.

Photo of the Humanscale Liberty task chair

What does sitting in a Humanscale Liberty chair feel like? Let me put it this way. If, one day, I wake up and every chair in every waiting room in the world is a Liberty, I will know I’m in heaven. The comfort level of the backrest is off the chart. The three-part mesh adapts to the shape of your back without making you feel like you’re falling in. It has the perfect amount of “give”.

The backrest is mounted on a hinge located at the height of your lumbar spine. That is a beautiful, beautiful thing, to quote everybody’s favorite U.S. President. When you push on the top part of the backrest, the bottom part pushes back, filling in your entire lower back, down to the sacral area. In combination with the mesh, this creates a quite unique feeling of your entire back being cradled in a uniform way. It feels a bit like floating in air. Actually, the level of support is not uniform – 60-70% of the support is in the lumbosacral area, which helps maintain a healthy lumbar curve.

In addition to the hinge, the whole backrest tilts back as you recline. This is achieved by means of a counterweight mechanism, which means there is no way to adjust the resistance – the resistance is always proportional to the weight placed on the seat.

The Liberty has a kind of default position you naturally adopt when you sit in it (see photo below). In theory, the counterweight mechanism should ensure that the standard position is the same for every user (regardless of body weight). In practice, there are slight differences due to anatomy – for example, if your upper body is 75% of your total weight, while my upper body is 70% of my total weight, you will be sitting at a larger recline angle.

The backrest is not “springy” – the resistance goes up as you recline, but not sharply. If you want to recline further, you only have to put a bit more pressure and it will stay in that reclined position. And it reclines incredibly far:

Photo showing the default position and the maximally reclined position on the Humanscale Liberty chair.

The “default position” and the maximally reclined position on the Humanscale Liberty task chair.

So reclining is not a problem (other than the fact that if you stay in that position for a long time, you’ll kill your neck). What is a problem is sitting upright. You cannot really sit more upright than the default position. And you will probably want to, since the default position on the Liberty is quite reclined.

Let me explain what I mean by “you can’t sit upright”: You can use your abdominal muscles to pull your torso forward to achieve a more upright position, but the backrest won’t give you enough support to maintain that position for any length of time. The other option is to push your lower back out. The backrest has a hinge, so if you push the bottom section back, the top section will tilt forward, making you more upright. Problem solved? Unfortunately, pushing your lower back out is the single most harmful thing you can do to your back while sitting. You want to maintain a healthy curve in your lower back (that’s what lumbar supports are for). I fear Liberty users who want to sit more upright (for example, people who type a lot), will end up hurting their spines.

Another thing that I consider dangerous is that the hard metal edges of the backrest are positioned right behind the soft part of your elbows when you’re typing. It might not be an issue if you have a wide build, but for me, the only way to avoid constantly bumping my elbows on the frame (and irritating my ulnar nerve) was to sit much further from my desk than I like to. The root of the problem is the concave shape of the backrest, with the sides sticking forward.

As I described in another post, repetitive pressure on the ulnar nerve is no joke. It can result in permanent disability. In truth, just that problem alone is enough for me to disqualify the Liberty as a chair for computer work. I’m just not prepared to take the risk. Here’s a photo I made to demonstrate the issue (notice where my right elbow is resting):

Photo showing the author sitting on the Liberty chair

The hard backrest edges on the Liberty can put pressure on your ulnar nerve. Notice the position of my right elbow as I type.

In addition to being extremely comfortable (in the default position), the Liberty is an admirably cool chair. The mesh, predictably, ensures excellent airflow around your back. The real positive surprise is the gel seatpan. It conducts heat away from your bottom much better than typical foam, without compromising on comfort. To my knowledge, Humanscale is the only major ergonomic chair brand that uses gel seats. The idea offers such clear advantages that I cannot fathom why other manufacturers don’t do it. Steelcase, hello? Why do you insist that my butt has to be on a material that’s used for thermal insulation? Anyway, potential buyers should note that the gel seat is not a standard feature on the Liberty – you have to ask for that option.

The one knock against the Liberty’s seatpan is that it doesn’t tilt back when you recline (it only goes up, which is a natural side-effect of the counterweight mechanism). This goes against standard ergonomic guidelines for chairs. In combination with the slightly slippery fabric on my demo chair, it sometimes made me slide a bit forward when I reclined (depending on what pants I was wearing). If you plan on getting the Liberty, I would recommend choosing high-friction upholstery.

The armrests on the Humanscale Liberty are quite useless:

  • The only adjustment you can make is change the height
  • I found they’re set too wide (48 cm) to enable me to rest my forearms while typing (they may be OK for very wide users)
  • They extend a bit too far – as a result, they made me sit a bit too close to my desk than I found comfortable.
  • They tilt together with the backrest, so if you recline beyond the “default position”, they tear your hands off the desk (but they’re too wide anyway, so it doesn’t really matter)

In general, I preferred working with the armrests lowered out of the way.

One final thing before I move on to the wrap-up: I have seen an unusually high number of complaints on Amazon about the build quality of the Liberty – armrests falling off, that kind of thing. That sort of thing shouldn’t happen on a $1000 chair, though it should also be noted that Humanscale offers a generous 15-year warranty.

The Tom Test

How does the Liberty fare on my checklist? Let’s see:

  • Easy changing between at least two positions (near-upright and reclined): Fail, because there is no truly upright (or near-upright) position. You can be reclined or more reclined.
  • Open hip angle in the reclined position: Pass.
  • Lumbar support: Pass. The hinged backrest does wonders here.
  • Backrest should adapt to your back: Pass. The hinge + mesh cradles your back brilliantly.
  • Seatpan must not be too long: Pass.
  • Micromovements: Not great. You can move the backrest back and forth, but there’s no springiness that would encourage micromovements.
  • Armrests (if you care about them): Fail. See above.
  • Annoyances: Hard backrest edge may hurt your elbows.

Final words

As I hinted in the introduction, the Humanscale Liberty is a fantastic chair for waiting rooms. It can be a great chair for workers who sit behind a desk, but use a computer only occasionally – in fact, I have met office workers who wouldn’t give up their Liberty for the world. It can be an outstanding chair for relaxing, watching a movie on your computer, maybe playing a videogame. It’s likely the most comfortable office chair you’ve ever sat in, and that’s no small thing. Everyone should try sitting on it at least once.

However, the Liberty is just not a good chair to operate a computer from. You cannot really sit upright (= more upright than 120°) in it, and the unfortunate shape of the frame will likely pose a risk for your ulnar nerve.

 

Thanks to Kornak Meble in Wroclaw, Poland for letting me try out the Liberty and a few other chairs.

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Review of the Steelcase Gesture chair

This review is part of my series of reviews of ergonomic office chairs. People have wildly varying opinions when it comes to chairs, and you should always test a chair for a few days in your own work environment before buying it. (See more advice on how to buy a good chair.) Don’t use my reviews to decide which chair to buy; use them as a starting point for your own testing.

Photo of the Steelcase Gesture chair

When I first sat on the Gesture at my local Steelcase showroom, I liked it the most of all the Steelcase chairs because the backrest offers heaps of support in the lumbar area. Other models, like the Leap and the Please, seemed lacking in comparison. After two days of sitting on the Gesture, however, I learned that there is such a thing as excessive lumbar support. The foam in the lumbar section of the backrest is quite thick and an hour of non-stop sitting in the reclined position left me with a slight numbness in that area. (I should note here that my lumbar curve is deeper than average.) I think a chair should offer more support in the lumbar area than in the thoracic area, but when reclining on the Gesture, I felt like I was sitting on my lumbar spine. (The lesson I took away is that something that feels great when you try it for 15 minutes can get tiresome after several hours.)

My test chair had the optional height-adjustable lumbar support, which is just a piece of hard plastic that provides extra rigidity. After using it for a while, I found it completely unnecessary – in fact, the built-in lumbar support was already excessive for me. Furthermore, the plastic bar kept sliding down and I had to readjust it every couple hours. I also noticed that the fabric on my test chair had small holes in the area behind the adjustable lumbar.

Of course, all of the above is just my opinion, and it’s very possible that the lumbar-heavy quality of the Gesture would work great for you. Still, I would definitely advise paying attention to this when testing the chair. It is also worth noting that the curviness of the backrest on the Gesture is not adjustable (unlike on the Leap), so either it’s for you, or it isn’t.

The Gesture improves on the biggest flaw of the Leap – the sticky backrest that lags behind as you go from a reclined to an upright position. Both chairs have backrests of what I call the “sticky” type. Once you choose a recline angle, the backrest will tend to stay there, held in place by static friction. This enables you to put the backrest “just the way you like it” without fiddling with any controls. The cost is that it takes more muscle effort to move the backrest. In addition to that, in the Leap, the backrest is mechanically coupled to the seat, so that when you recline, the seat moves a little bit forward. Not only does this feature have no real advantages (see my upcoming Leap review for more about it), it also increases the friction of the backrest. I’m glad to see that Steelcase has done away with it in the Gesture.

The backrest on the Gesture is similar to the excellent, flexible backrest on the Leap. I didn’t make my own video of it, but here’s a clip from bkwtang’s detailed YouTube review. Notice how the lower part of the backrest flexes in response to movement and how far it reclines. The maximum hip angle is no less than 135°, which is considered the anatomically neutral position.

The backrest may be flexible, but it is heavier and less springy than on the Leap. While on the Leap it’s possible to effect a kind of low-amplitude rocking motion (which is probably a beneficial form of microexercise), the Gesture’s backrest is somewhat more static. When it comes to micromovements, then, the newest offering from Steelcase is a small step backwards.

There is a minor mechanical problem with the Gesture’s tilt limiter. It often won’t engage in the most upright position, even if you take your weight off the backrest. You have to reach back and pull the backrest with your hands, or rapidly bend over (not good for your spine). Here is where Bkwtang stumbles on the problem in his video. I’ve seen the exact same issue on two demo chairs that I tested. While disappointing on a $1000 chair, I consider this a minor niggle, because I don’t think a tilt limiter is very useful on a chair with the “sticky” type of backrest. The inherent friction makes it possible to maintain any recline angle you like without a tilt limiter. Still, if – for some reason I cannot fathom – you intend to use the upright lock, you should be aware of this issue.

Let’s move on to what for me is the biggest flaw of the Gesture: its thermal performance. Because Steelcase wanted to enable users to sit on the Gesture in a variety of positions, including sideways, they fitted it with the thickest seat cushion on the market. Since the thermal insulation provided by foam is directly proportional to its thickness, the result is that the Gesture is the hottest chair I’ve ever sat in, and I’m certainly not the only one who has this opinion – some Amazon reviewers call it the “swamp chair”. In my particular work environment (no air conditioning, normally > 27 °C indoors in the summer), it’s a deal-breaker, but if you use this chair in an office where it’s never hotter than 25 °C (77 °F), you will most likely not notice any problem. (Even a few degrees less makes an enormous difference in the subjective feeling of warmth.)

By the way, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can avoid the heat problem by choosing the right fabric. My demo unit was upholstered in a polyester fabric, which – according to Steelcase – is the coolest fabric choice (Atlantic – which is the European equivalent of Cogent: Connect). In reality, the fabric doesn’t matter. If you’re sitting on a few inches of foam (the best thermal insulator known to man), the milimeter-thick outer layer is negligible, so long as it’s not something crazy like plastic foil. (I did some fabric tests and discovered no discernible difference between polyester and wool fabrics of comparable thickness.)

There is also something weird about the way the cushion is profiled. Both I and one of my friends noticed that the cushion puts more pressure on the thighs than usual, with my friend describing it as “uncomfortable”. We human beings are designed to sit on our buttocks, not thighs, so this is probably not ideal from the point of view of ergonomics. Most likely it’s another adverse effect of designing a chair that tries to do too much.

The main thing everybody always talks about when they talk about the Steelcase Gesture are the armrests. This chair has the most adjustable armrests in the world. You can put them low (so they’re out of the way), high (e.g. for holding a tablet in front of your eyes), wide or narrow. You can easily pull them back if you like to sit close to your desk (or if you have to because of your eyesight) – they certainly won’t bump against the edge of your desk. Their adjustment range is even greater than on the legendary “4-D” armrests of the Steelcase Leap. (Again, I refer you to Bkwtang’s video.)

Unfortunately, there is one thing I don’t like about them – they’re covered in a high-friction rubbery material that pulls on your skin a bit when you move your forearms. As I like to place my right forearm on the armrest when I’m using the mouse (it increases precision), a rough surface hinders my forearm movements and forces me to move the mouse with my fingers, which is ergonomically verboten. (To clarify, it’s not that the Gesture fixes my forearms in one spot – skin and muscles are loose enough that I can move my forearm left–right and forward–backward even my your skin is fixed in one place – but I lose the ability to slide around the armrest.)

The armrests on the Gesture stay pretty level as you recline, and I did not find the slight tilt to be an issue. Still, it’s another area in which they are a tiny bit worse than the armrests on the Leap.

On balance, I think the armrests on the Gesture are a small step back compared with the Leap. Yes, there’s even more adjustability, but the Leap’s armrests already do 100% of what I need them to do (which is mainly retract enough to allow me to sit close to my desk, and adjust inward so I can rest my forearms while touch typing), and they’re covered in a more pleasant, smoother material that doesn’t restrict my movements. In my book, the old champion remains unbeaten.

The Tom Test

Let’s check the Gesture against my checklist:

  • Easy changing between at least two positions (near-upright and reclined): Pass. The sticky backrest makes it trivial to adopt any position you like.
  • Open hip angle in the reclined position: Pass.
  • Lumbar support: Pass. In fact, the lumbar support was a bit too much for me.
  • Backrest should adapt to your back: Pass. Excellent flexible plastic backrest.
  • Seatpan must not be too long: Pass.
  • Micromovements: Pass, but just barely. The back mostly stays where you put it. You can rock, but only a tiny bit.
  • Armrests (if you care about them): Pass. Superb adjustability marred by rubbery caps.
  • Annoyances: Gets quite hot. Cushion in the seat feels a bit weird to some people. Upright lock is glitchy.

Final words

The Steelcase Gesture is a good chair for computer work, but it is a chair that shows how difficult it is to improve on the Leap. It fixes the Leap’s most nagging issue – the excessively “laggy” backrest – but introduces two other significant problems: an overheating seatpan (with a foam that feels a bit weird to sit on) and unnecessarily high-friction arm caps. Unlike the Leap’s, the backrest curve is not adjustable, so its prominent lumbar profile is either for you, or it isn’t – for me, it was a bit too much, but I could live with it.

All of the issues I’ve listed above have a degree of subjectivity. If it never gets above 25 °C (77 °F) in your office, you won’t notice the thermal issues. If you don’t use armrests when typing or mousing, you won’t have a problem with the arm caps. You may or may not find the seatpan puts pressure on your thighs. And the lumbar-heavy backrest may be a perfect fit for your spine. The Steelcase Gesture is definitely worth trying out in your own workspace, but perhaps not as your first choice.

 

Thanks to WES in Wroclaw, Poland for letting me try out the Gesture and a few other chairs.

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