Recently, while I was researching an article about prison, I ran across a quote that reminded me about the chair in my home office. It was in a 1997 Washington City Paper article about the old Lorton Penitentiary that quoted a corrections officer who explained how people serving long sentences–“Star Trek time,” as the CO called it, assigned “monumental importance” to items that would be mundane in other contexts. The totem “could be a toothbrush, a bar of soap, a roll of toilet paper,” Jack Rosser told reporter Eddie Dean. “It takes on magnified importance, and it takes very little to rub a guy the wrong way.”
I haven’t paid much attention to the chair since I purchased it at Ikea in 2012, but by the fifth week of lockdown, various parts of me would smart and ache at the end of each work day, and I would wake at 4 AM obsessing about how I could make improvements to my rolling torture chamber. I read articles about adjusting your chair properly, which helped a little, but it wasn’t until I got on the phone with with Anthony Mazlish, the founder and CEO of the Healthy Back Store and former owner of Sit4less.com, one of the first retailers to popularize the Herman Miller Aeron chair, that I realized I might not be able to tweak my way out of this problem.
“If you ask people what kind of car they drive, they sort of look at you cross-eyed, and of course they know the answer,” he says. “If you ask them what kind of bed they sleep on, about 50 percent of people will know the answer. If you ask them what kind of office chair they sit on, you generally get blank stares. And those are the three places you spend most of your life.”
Since 2016, the Beltsville-based company has been selling an almost ludicrously engineered office chair called the X-Chair. Sit down in its X3 model, which I tried, and you feel like you’re SpaceX’s Crew Dragon docking with the International Space Station: The lumbar support pivots into place, and you sink into a position you can work in for hours without discomfort. Spend a little more time getting the fit just right, and yet another day of lockdown tedium gives way to…what is this strange feeling? Pleasure? Sorry, Animal Crossing, my fruit trees are going to have to wait!
The X-Chair’s “dynamic variable lumbar” support is the chair’s gateway drug. From that first “ooh la la” moment, as Mazlish calls it, you can move on to dial in the seat and back height, the seat depth, the armrests’ altitude and yaw, and my favorite, the “SciFloat Infinite Recline,” which lets you set a maximum recline angle and the chair’s resistance to it. For a fidgeter like me, this means precisely controlled rocking (the X3 offers 900 settings on this option) that cuts way down on the chaos I inflict on the other detainees in our little townhouse.
The chair business, like all businesses, is pretty weird right now. Healthy Back Store and X-Chair are essential in Maryland, and Mazlish says he and the company’s other managers space out their days in the office with days at home. On the company-wide Zoom call each week, he takes note of people’s backgrounds–are they working in a different room from the week before? I asked him how his home office setup in Bethesda was treating him. The chair, as you might imagine, he had no complaints about, but “I guess I have to be honest here,” he says. “I don’t really have a great ergonomic desk set up the way I should.”
A lot of us can relate. My rig, for example, is fine for answering emails, pounding out taxes, or the odd day working from home. I did not set up my desk with the expectation that I’d be behind it for nine hours a day for six weeks in a row with no visible end date. Mazlish says X-Chairs have been selling briskly as homebound workers realize they’re in this for the long haul. Also, Michigan, which is home to a lot of office furniture manufacturers, has been especially battered by the pandemic. X-Chair’s parts come from various Asian countries, and it’s had to add jobs to its sales-center staff. “Yes, we’re importing,” Mazlish says, “but we’re able to get people working in this country.”
I asked Mazlish for ways someone who can’t afford to buy a new office chair right now could improve their WFH chariot. Get a footrest, he advises. A heating pad can do wonders for your back. And you might be able to fit the company’s “X-Wheels,” which are similar to skateboard wheels, to your current chair. “Particularly for work at home, a lot of people are on either wood floors or tile; they’re much gentler on those surfaces,” he says.
Yes, that is exactly the kind of detail I can wrap my lockdown-addled mind around! I’m not really used to having much say in what chair I spend most of the day in, much less how it feels on different floor types. Mazlish says that’s not uncommon. Traditionally, HR managers or facilities managers bought chairs, and their occupants had no say in the matter. But from the early 2000s onward, he says, “you began this trend of people thinking about what they were sitting in. Fast forward to this moment, and it’s top of mind for everybody.”