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Review of the Steelcase Amia 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 Amia chair

In early 2017, after spending hundreds of hours testing high-end ergonomic chairs, I found myself in a dilemma. I had narrowed down the choice to two chairs – the Leap and the Please from Steelcase – but for the life of me, couldn’t decide between them. Compared with the Leap, the Please offered the option of a usable (if awkward) headrest, but had uncomfortable armrests. The Leap’s armrests were just perfect, but the optional headrest was so bad that I would never buy it, and the backrest was excessively sticky, which meant that changing the position would sometimes take too much work. Since both chairs are thickly padded with foam, I also had a crazy idea to buy a second chair – a mesh-backed Steelcase Think – to save myself from overheating during hot Polish summers. Yeah, I know – as if one high-end chair wasn’t expensive enough…

Amidst all this decision paralysis, I had a nagging thought: I hadn’t yet tried out another well-reviewed Steelcase chair – the Amia. On paper, it looked interesting enough – the same armrests as the Leap with a smoother recline mechanism, albeit at the expense of a more limited recline angle. The only problem was that the Amia was not available in my local Steelcase dealer’s showroom and I really didn’t want to risk ordering a new chair sight unseen. But what if the Amia would turn out to be the best of the bunch? It seemed my only option was to buy it used – I would get the chance to test it out, and if I didn’t like it, I could always resell it for not much less than what I paid for it (something you can’t do with a brand-new chair). To cut a long story short, a few weeks later I had a two-year-old Amia chair in excellent condition.

Backrest

Of all the high-end chairs by Steelcase, the Amia is the most “vanilla” when it comes to the backrest. All the other backrests in the Steelcase lineup have some distinguishing feature: the Think‘s is suspended on plastic strings, the Please‘s is made up of two parts which move separately, and the backs on the Gesture and the Leap are super-flexible. And the Amia? With its completely rigid backrest frame, you could easily confuse it with your average $100 chair from the office store.

People’s backs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, so any ergonomic chair worth its salt should have a backrest that adapts to the user. It may seem like the Amia’s design does not address this problem, but the chair has a secret hidden inside the backrest – a set of metal strings placed between the backrest frame and the upholstery:

The inside of the backrest on the Steelcase Amia chair

This guitar-like contraption means that the chair conforms to your back better than a standard office chair. The plastic flaps at the top ensure a smooth transition from the bulging lumbar section to the flatter thoracic (upper-back) part. The “guitar” is movable – you can grab the two plastic tabs and move it up or down, to make sure it properly fills your lumbar curve.

The first problem with this design is that the guitar strings are not very tense and give way at the slightest pressure. This is good if you like soft chairs, as it makes the Amia easily the most comfy chair in the Steelcase lineup. However, from a strictly ergonomic point of view, you can’t get away from the fact that it makes it quite easy to slouch. If you have a tendency to let your lumbar spine drop backwards when sitting upright, this chair won’t stop you. For me, it’s not a huge problem as I have developed a habit of maintaining a reasonably good lumbar curve, but for people who are not careful about their posture, it’s a serious disadvantage.

The second problem is related to the adjustability of the “guitar”: the damned thing just won’t stay in place! If I put it at the height that’s most comfortable for me, it will drop down a little every time I recline in the chair. When I use the chair, I have to reach back and pull the tabs to the proper position every 3–4 hours. The problem is related to the fact that your back actually exerts a downward force on the strings when you recline. I have tried to tackle the issue with some non-invasive mods, but I have had only minimal success. Perhaps I could glue some velcro to the plastic tabs to attach them to the backrest frame, but for now I’ve just learned to readjust my chair several times a day.

The backrest is attached to a recline mechanism of the “sticky” type, very similar to the one in the Please and the Gesture chairs. For a detailed explanation, follow the link – but briefly, the backrest has a little bit of static friction that tends to make it stay in place until you deliberately change the angle. In contrast, most office chairs have a “smooth” backrest, which tends to tilt forward or back very easily (it’s enough to shift your weight the tiniest bit to make it move). The only reason why you don’t drop all the way back on these chairs is that they have a spring that pushes you forward – the further back you recline, the higher the counterforce. (That’s why staying reclined on a “smooth” chair often requires constant muscle work.)

Like the Please and Gesture, the Amia offers a nice balance between stability and smoothness. It won’t react to your fidgeting, but if you decide to change the recline angle, you can do so effortlessly. There’s none of the excessive noise and friction you get on the Leap.

The most obvious shortcoming of the Amia is the limited recline angle. I measured the maximum recline angle at 126°, which is considerably less than the ergonomically recommended neutral angle of 135°. When sitting in the chair, I often find myself wishing the backrest would go further back. If you’re like me and your idea of work includes periods of sitting in deep recline to watch videos or browse written content, you will always feel constrained in the Amia. Ergonomically speaking, it’s good to un-flex your lumbar spine from time to time; unfortunately, the Amia doesn’t really allow that.

Steelcase Amia in the maximum recline position (left) and the upright lock position (right)

(left) Amia at maximum recline; (right) Amia with the upright lock engaged

The tilt limiter is, well, “limited”. You can lock the chair in the upright position (hip angle of about 112°), or you can unlock it. That’s it. There are no intermediate locked positions, and – honestly – this is just fine. Because of the sticky backrest mechanism, the back will stay at any angle you wish anyway.

As you can see in the photos above, the seatpan tilts back a little as you recline – but not nearly as much as the backrest. This is in line with standard ergonomic advice – the slight tilt prevents your butt from sliding forward and losing contact with the backrest, while still allowing you to open the angle between your torso and your legs, and relax your lumbar spine. Most office chairs work this way (it’s called the “synchro tilt”), but there are some exceptions like Silicon Valley’s favorite, the Herman Miller Aeron, on which the seatpan tilts back so steeply that your hip angle barely opens up.

Micromovements

As a matter of mechanical necessity, the sticky backrest on the Amia won’t allow you to rock the way you would on many office chairs. However, you are not completely deprived of healthy micromovements. The backrest is mounted elastically, so there is a significant amount of bounciness regardless of your position:

Although there are other “sticky” Steelcase chairs which allow some degree of micromovements (Leap, Gesture), the Amia leads the pack here. Rather than feeling “encased” by the chair, you feel that the chair welcomes movement a bit more than its more expensive cousins. I don’t know what they did to make it so springy, but if I were the CEO of Steelcase, I’d do that on their other chairs.

Besides the lumbar support that doesn’t stay in place, I did not notice too many annoyances in the many months that I’ve sat on the Amia. The hinges to which the backrest is attached do have a tendency to creak, but I’ve found that if I remove the seatpan (here’s a good instructional video) and spray some lithium-based lubricant on those hinges, the backrest becomes butter-smooth and stays that way for a good couple of months. Once properly lubricated, my Amia is dead silent – something I can definitely appreciate after my experience with a brand-new Leap which makes clicking noises regardless of the amount of lubricant sprayed into it.

Thermal performance

The Amia is significantly cooler than both the Leap and the Please, which is surprising because it uses classic foam padding just like the other chairs. Part of the reason could be that the padding on the seatpan is a bit thinner (thermal conductivity is inversely proportional to the thickness of the foam) and the simple backrest does not fit your back as snugly as on the more flexible chairs, leaving more room to breathe. When it gets hot in my room (> 25°C), there is a considerable difference – I can sit longer on the Amia before it gets uncomfortably hot than I can on my Leap. If I were to come up with some guesstimates, the Amia feels perhaps 15-20% cooler than the Leap, though about 25% warmer than the mesh-backed Think.

Armrests

The armrests on the Amia are excellent. The chair uses the exact same armrests as the Leap, which has, to the best of my knowledge, the best armrests in the solar system. They provide an impressive range of adjustments and – fussy as I am – I have never had difficulty getting them to do what I wanted – whether it was typing, using the mouse, using a gaming controller, or even holding a tablet with my elbows on them. The inward adjustment is more than enough to rest your elbows on them while typing – which is a rare quality, even with expensive ergonomic chairs. You can also pull them down if you want to move super-close to your desk. Here’s a demonstration which I appropriated from an official Steelcase video:

There are ergonomists who advise against resting your forearms while typing, and I used to think so, too – but that was before I had the chance to try the armrests on chairs like the Leap, Amia or Think.

The material of which the armrest caps are made is a masterpiece. It’s nice and soft, which is important for preventing ulnar nerve injury. At the same time, it’s slippery enough to allow your forearms to slide on top of them as you move the mouse – but not so slippery as to make you lose grip. Finally, it doesn’t overheat your skin on hot days. It’s pretty much unimprovable.

The armrests may be the same as those on the Leap, but they are mounted differently. One immediate consequence is that you can retract them a tiny bit further – though this is neither here nor there. A more important difference concerns how they move. On the Leap, the armrests always stay perfectly level, no matter how far you recline – here, they tilt back together with the seatpan. This means that in the fully reclined position, the armrests have a bit of a slope. This is not ideal, but the tilt is not large enough to prevent you from getting adequate support for your arms, even when playing first-person shooters in the reclined position (in the interest of science, I played some Far Cry to test this). Finally, the “stalks” of the armrests on the Amia have more play (you can wiggle them), but this doesn’t affect the operation or produce unacceptable noise. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m kind of splitting hairs here – for all intents and purposes, you won’t get better armrests than this.

The Tom Test

Let’s run the Amia against my checklist:

  • Easy changing between at least two positions (near-upright and reclined): Pass, but note that the reclined position is not very reclined.
  • Open hip angle in the reclined position: Fail. Does not recline enough.
  • Lumbar support: Fail. The guitar-like support is too mushy to prevent slouching, and it keeps sliding down. This is the area where the Amia is the weakest.
  • Backrest should adapt to your back: Pass. It adapts to your back pretty well, and is the most comfy Steelcase chair I’ve tested. Too bad it doesn’t enforce the correct lumbar curve a bit more aggressively.
  • Seatpan must not be too long: Pass.
  • Micromovements: Pass. It’s not a smooth-mechanism chair, so it doesn’t enable serious, high-amplitude rocking, but you do get a satisfactory amount of micro-rocking, more than I’ve seen on any chair with a sticky mechanism.
  • Armrests (if you care about them): Pass. Top-quality armrests.
  • Annoyances: The lumbar section slides down very easily. The hinge joints on my chair like to creak if I don’t lubricate them every 6 months or so.

Final words

The Amia fails on two crucial points: the string-based lumbar support is too soft to prevent lumbar flexion, and the backrest does not recline enough to properly relax the spine. For these two reasons alone, I’d be reluctant to recommend it as your main “workhorse” chair.

At the same time, I have to note that there are plenty of things that it does better than other chairs. The backrest moves silently and quietly. Thanks to its elastically mounted backrest, it promotes micromovements more than any other chair with a “sticky” Steelcase-type backrest. The foam padding is cooler than on comparable chairs, and this is achieved without compromising comfort (indeed, the Amia is more comfy than the Please, Leap, Think or Gesture). The armrests are excellent.

I bought a used Amia and sat in it for a few months, but – having tried many other chairs – I felt that I could do better, so eventually I got a Leap (though the Please was so close that it was essentially a random choice). Still, the Amia is good enough that I don’t want to sell it. I’d rather keep it around as a second chair that I use from time to time (it’s probably not a good idea to sit in one chair all the time), especially in the summer. Considering the fact that I bought it for about half the price of a new chair, it doesn’t seem too extravagant.

The pricing for new Amias is a bit weird. In Steelcase’s US online store, the Amia is priced at $680, making it a budget-friendly alternative to the Leap, which costs $980. However, in Poland (which I assume is indicative of Europe as a whole), the Amia is only €70 cheaper than the Leap and actually €50 more expensive than the Europe-exclusive Please. It’s easy to see why there are so few Amias here in the Old World.

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