Room by Room

So You Think You Can Sit!
Check Out the Chairs of Peter Opsvik

Norwegian designer Peter Opsvik connects the need for balance and movement in our chairs to our basic nature (and need to fidget). Modifying his 1979 Variable Balans, he added a backrest on the Thatsit Balans that allows you to lean back or sit “side saddle.”
Photo Credit: Varier

Norwegian designer Peter Opsvik connects the need for balance and movement in our chairs to our basic nature (and need to fidget). Modifying his 1979 Variable Balans, he added a backrest on the Thatsit Balans that allows you to lean back or sit “side saddle.”


: The seat of the Variable Balans is mounted on rockers to allow you to “lightly pump,” which improves circulation and mental concentration. Downward tilt makes the chair more comfortable. Knee pads prevent you from sliding off.
Photo Credit: Varier

The seat of the Variable Balans is mounted on rockers to allow you to “lightly pump,” which improves circulation and mental concentration. Downward tilt makes the chair more comfortable. Knee pads prevent you from sliding off.

Opsvik designs chairs like the Balans Thatsit to incorporate as many sitting positions as possible because "every sitting position is wrong after five minutes."
Photo Credit: Varier

Opsvik designs chairs like the Thatsit Balans to incorporate as many sitting positions as possible because "every sitting position is wrong after five minutes."

As I write this, my body posture defies easy description because I am sitting on one of Peter Opsvik's Variable Balans chairs.

It does not look like anything you have in your house or that you have ever tried in a furniture store. It has no back or armrests. The seat, which tilts downward, is on rockers. It has knee pads, which are also attached to the rockers. I have one foot extended forward, while my other foot rests on a knee pad. This has raised my knee, which now supports my right elbow as I tilt forward at my desk and write my first draft by longhand.

It's the sort of contorted position that I thought only a texting teenager could achieve, but it's so easy with this Variable Balans, I wasn't even aware of my raised knee until I started describing it. Though this feels a bit odd, I am quite comfortable as I gently rock back and forth. The rocking motion helps my circulation and facilitates blood flow to my brain. As any ergonomist will tell you, this should improve my mental acuity, a good enough reason for this writer to try almost any chair at least once.

I've changed position again. This time both knees rest on the knee pads, so that the angle between my thighs and torso is about 120 degrees, a much more comfortable position than the one we assume when we sit in most chairs, with our backs straight up, at a 90 degree angle with our thighs.

Given my sitting experience with the Variable Balans, you might suspect that this Norwegian designer has a complex approach to ergonomics and chair design. In fact Opsvik applies a very simple formula: "A chair should allow both balance and movement."

Opsvik explains this in some detail in the recently published American edition of his "Rethinking Sitting" (W. W. Norton, $40) — possibly the best book I have read on chair design — as well as on his Web site, opsvik.com

Opsvik connects the need for balance and movement in our chairs to our basic natures. For most of human history we have been continually in motion, as we sought food and shelter. Fast-forward to 2009 in the industrialized West, and most of us spend most of our days sitting. But, he emphasizes, our need to move, squirm, fidget, turn, rock, twist and tilt remains. We need chairs that provide good balance to prevent our backs, necks, arms and hands from becoming unduly stressed. At the same time we need chairs that allow us to move because, as he put it in a recent interview, "no one stands or sits like a statue." Opsvik's approach to ergonomics is somewhat unorthodox. He said he doesn’t favor any particular sitting position because they’re all good, and he tries to design chairs that incorporate as many of them as possible because, he said, "every sitting position is wrong after five minutes."

Opsvik does differ from American ergonomists in his focus on mobility over adjustment and his use of the feet, which he called the "ignored extremities in ergonomics."

"If you let your feet and legs control the movement of a chair, instead of doing it by moving your torso," he went onto explain, "you will move more easily and you will be more comfortable."

 

In the Gravity Balans you can sit upright to work with a laptop, read, watch TV, nap or sit at the dinner table.
Photo Credit: Varier

In the Gravity Balans you can sit upright to work with a laptop, read, watch TV, nap or sit at the dinner table.

Tilted all the way back in the Gravity Balans, you feel “weightless.” It’s Opsvik’s favorite when he comes home from work.
Photo Credit: Varier

Tilted all the way back in the Gravity Balans, you feel “weightless.” It’s Opsvik’s favorite when he comes home from work.

Opsvik’s Capsico office chair seat has corners cut so that thighs and torso form a wide angle in every sitting position — facing forward, sideways or backward. Backrest corners also are cut out for resting elbows or turning completely around and hugging the backrest as you lean forward.
Photo Credit: izzydesign

Opsvik’s Capsico office chair seat has corners cut so that thighs and torso form a wide angle in every sitting position — facing forward, sideways or backward. Backrest corners also are cut out for resting elbows or turning completely around and hugging the backrest as you lean forward.

Conventio is Opsvik’s plastic stacking chair with a hinge under the seat that allows rocking back and forth — just enough movement to keep you awake and paying attention.
Photo Credit: izzydesign

Conventio is Opsvik’s plastic stacking chair with a hinge under the seat that allows rocking back and forth — just enough movement to keep you awake and paying attention.

 

 

 

Opsvik developed his Variable Balans design in 1979. He has since refined it, adding modifications such as a backrest to the Thatsit Balans that allows you to lean back or sit sidesaddle.

At the end of his own workday, Opsvik heads for his Gravity Balans, which is larger than the others in his Balans series, with angled rockers. In it, you can sit upright to work on a laptop, read, watch TV, nap or sit at a dining table. When this chair is tilted all the way backward, I can personally attest that a sitter will be as close to weightlessness as an earth-bound, non-astronaut is likely to experience.

Opsvik's residential chairs are so far afield of conventional design that most consumers have to try them before grasping their ergonomic benefits. His office chairs have achieved wider acceptance because in that arena the health and performance benefits of ergonomics are widely appreciated.

Opsvik's most successful office chair is his Capsico. As with all his designs, it has some unusual details. The corners of the seat are cut out so that your thighs and torso form a wide angle in every sitting position — whether you are facing forward, sideways or backward. The corners of the backrest are also cut out, allowing you to lean back and rest your elbows while you ruminate on a report you just read. Or, you can turn around, face backward and hug the backrest while you tilt forward to chat about that report with the person in the next cubicle. Each of the Capsico's five legs has grooves so that you can sit with your feet perched on them; with the barest push of one foot you can tilt backward or forward.

Opsvik's Conventio plastic stacking chair should be adopted by every organization that holds meetings or gives lengthy presentations. The hinge in the seat allows a sitter to rock back and forth with just enough movement to stay awake and pay attention.

Opsvik's ideas about the benefits of chairs that allow plenty of movement may eventually be applied to the classroom. Mark Rapport, a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida, has conducted a number of experiments that measure the movement of children as they perform tasks that test their working memory (the part of the brain that you use to solve math problems like 27 times 14). He found that all children move as they do this and that children with ADHD move about twice as much.

He does not endorse any chairs, nor has he tested any to see whether they improve performance on working memory tasks. "But intuitively," he said, "you can say that a chair that allows movement might be beneficial to children in school because we know from our research that they need to move to stay alert, just as adults do."

For more information about Opsvik's home furniture, including his Variable Balans, contact his American distributor, New Designs for Comfort, newdesignsforcomfort.com.

For more information about his office furniture, including his Capsico and his Conventio, contact his American distributor, izzydesign, izzydesign.com.

June 2009