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With Less Materials, How Do We Create Something That’s Truly Innovative?

The Sayl Chair for Herman Miller looks to be another masterwork of design from Yves Béhar. PSFK speaks with him about how the idea for the project...

Dave Pinter
Dave Pinter on October 19, 2010. @DavePinter
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Last week, PSFK attended the NY launch event for a new line of Herman Miller chairs designed by Yves Béhar of fuseproject. The Sayl chair line is the result of an intense 2 year collaboration to develop a refined seating solution for an affordable price point. Yves Béhar spoke with PSFK and gave us some insight into how the project required a combination of both fresh thinking about design and production.

How did this project with Herman Miller begin?

It began in 2002 following the Leaf Light and once that project was done we were looking for something significant, something informed to work on.

It started with a question, ‘Could a lower cost chair be made, but a Herman Miller lower cost chair with all of the ergonomic and material considerations and design criteria being met?’ We didn’t know what lower cost meant, so we went into an explanation of what it could mean. We basically went into an exploration of what it meant to dematerialize a chair and what we might gain from that. From the company and individuals stand point.

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Development sketches and models for the Sayl Chair.

Can you describe the brief you were given?

Initially the idea was ‘What would be a lower cost chair that would fit well with the Asian environment. (specifically) the kind of office space. For me, the design of a task chair is always about sort of designing a product, but also designing a product within an era. The workplace is changing a lot. It is more horizontal and becoming more transparent. (It used to be) ‘I need a big chair to show of my status, my power and that I am on a higher pay raise than everybody else.’ I think that is disappearing.

So I wanted to create a chair that reflected this new era with it’s sense of horizontality. A chair that creates a sense of  sitting in a highly efficient smart tool, not one that is just there to say something about you.

So you have created a state of mind. It is not only the chair that is efficient, but the environment that the chair promotes.

Yes. There is this notion of efficiency of dematerialization of doing a lot, without extraneous materials and extraneous parts. In order to do something like this you really have to start from the ground up. Most chairs at this price point, because we really got to a low price point, are made from off the shelf parts. This is a very inefficient process because even though you already have two parts you then need to make a third part in order to put them together. When you start from scratch, from the ground up, you can essentially make every part as efficient as possible. You can then throw materials away!

Then the question becomes, ‘with less materials, how do we create something that is truly innovative from a comfort standpoint?’

So with the sail backs, the stretched elastomer backs they are extremely complex to make but they are extremely efficient for what they deliver for the amount of material that we used. In fact they sort of became an ergonomists wet dream because they were able to go in and refine every inch relative to the spinal support and the lumbar support. Areas where we wanted more resistance and strength while at the same time have control over areas that we wanted to be softer.

The other thing we did was remove the notion of a frame. All office chairs have some kind of frame, whether they are made of a mesh material or a foam material, they have a frame. But the frame takes away a comfort area. So we have a chair that looks smaller and yet the surfaces all the way to the edge are usable and comfortable. It was all a matter of removing all of the extraneous parts, starting from the ground up and reinventing the way a chair holds together.

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The chair’s name seems to give a hint to where you looked for inspiration. Can you tell us about that?

We needed a structure that could hold up to 350 lbs while simultaneously using less material. The visual inspiration for this came from bridges and the way that they can handle a tremendous amount of load and yet all you see are wires and cables. All of the explorations were basically bridge like. The other thing I looked for came from windsurfing, which I have been doing for years. What you have there is the efficiency and tension. You can distort a plane by stretching it over a frame and the resulting shape is what you need for sailing. Here (pointing to chair) the resulting shape is what you need for sitting. The shape you need to match for the body to rest comfortably against a surface.

We briefly sat in three variants of the Sayl, the upholstered back, the suspension back, as well as the sled base and found them all to be comfortable. Although the real comfort test would be sitting in the suspension back for an 9 hour work stint. In terms of the design, the translation between the wheeled star base model and the sled base is good. It is clear that Yves spent a lot of time getting all the models to be a cohesive set with each having some distinctive interest. The chair is 93% recyclable, continuing Herman Miller’s commitment to offering environmentally responsible products.

Beyond the design, the price of the Sayl is equally compelling. The suspension back will sell for around $350 which is a new price strata for Herman Miller.

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Herman Miller

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