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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 that had clearly been made by 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 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, which I have experimentally verified by playing Far Cry 4), a rough surface hinders my forearm movements and forces me to move the mouse with my fingers, which is ergonomically verboten. It would be overstating the point to say 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 if my skin is fixed in one place – but it does take away the ability to slide around the armrest.

The armrests on the Gesture stay pretty level as you recline. There is a slight tilt that’s not there on the Leap, but I did not find that to be an issue.

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.

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9 Comments so far ↓

  • Juan Pablo

    Will you be posting the review on the Leap anytime soon?
    Thanks for your reviews, you are making an awesome work!!

  • Chai

    Wow, thanks for the superb review mate!

    The ability to go towards thoracic extension is intriguing (27:05 on bktang’s vid), and much needed upgrade from my HM sayl which locks your thorax hard to a semi-kyhpotic state.

    Just like you I’m not a fan of the sticky backrest, Micromovements are important and I honestly believe they’ll become a standard in the future of chairs technology.

    The only other good chair I’ve tested that allow thoracic extension but no sticky backrest is the Embody, have you found any others?

    Btw regarding armrest shape/material, found a way to customize those.
    Bought highquality foam, cut to shape, and fitted with a special tie.
    Did it on my HM Sayl, one less factor when buying chairs is good for me.
    https://i.imgur.com/SBMimg6.jpg

    • Tomasz P. Szynalski

      Chai,
      I wouldn’t say “I’m not a fan” of the sticky backrest. It has pros and cons. The optimal solution would be some kind of combination of stickiness and micromovements. The Amia comes fairly close to that due to its relative springiness (but with insufficient max recline).

      About your question, I think you can only get thoracic extension if the backrest is flexible. It’s not enough if it just reclines a long way. There aren’t very many chairs with flexible backrests. Usually it’s a rigid frame with some kind of upholstery or mesh.

      • Chai

        Thank Thomasz.

        Finally had a look at the Gesture, fantastic chair, definitely a step up from my Sayl and might end up grabbing it.

        Totally see what you mean about pros/cons of stick backrest, it does allow one to easily change to different steady positions which the Herman Miller doesn’t.

      • Chai

        Update, bought it and confirm most of your points.

        Definitely a swamp chair, ended up using Seat-X (special lycra cover), which solves this problem up to 33c 50% humidity, I imagine in summer will have to wash cover once a month.

        The armrest material is poor, however I cut custom armpads from high quality foam (EVA 75) to shape, placed at elbow for maximum precision and minimal wrist strain.

        My chair’s armrests were few millimeter off from each other, found couple other people had same issue, but nothing the custom armpads couldn’t fix.

        The lumbar is excessive at lowest liveback position, however it’s *not enough* at the opposite position! (thoracic extension)
        Basically meaning wish it had about double the range both ways.

        Lack of free recline was dearly missed, and wish it had another recline lock position at around 120º

        Apart from that good purchase, 1 step backwards but 2 step forwards from my Sayl.

  • Ads

    Hi Tom, re the mechanical issue of the back not popping upright fully, I just bought a Gesture and can confirm this is not an issue relating to the tilt angle setting. Rather it’s the tilt tension setting.

    At higher resistance, the chair back pops fully upright each time. You can actually feel the subtle “live” interplay as you recline too and the lumbar is truly supported.

    At a looser setting, the back needs your hands behind it as you say, to manually return the backrest to shoulder hug sensation.

    Whether every user wants a hard reclining resistance though is the question. For some, it may be too hard on the spine. I reckon the spring-back is potent enough to kick you out of your seat!

    Thanks for this review and confirming the confusing experience I was having.

  • David

    Hi Tom

    Just recently purchased this chair, but have been very disappointed with the lack of recline in the seat. It feels unatural to me and as if I am sliding out of the chair rather than being tucked into it.

    Do you have any recommendations on which chairs to look for if I want a chair that reclines much more in the seat?

    Thanks

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