For the last few weeks, Steelcase has been teasing the industry with news of its latest office chair, SILQ. It promises to be “an innovation in seating design,” and with the time and engineering put into the chair, it’s bound to live up to the hype.
i+s spoke to James Ludwig, vice president of design, about what went into the creation of SILQ.
SILQ is made to fit seamlessly into a variety of working environments
The Vision Began in 2008
While working on products in 2008, Ludwig sketched out the workings of a task chair in what he described as “these four, almost plant-like tendrils.”
Eventually, this drawing would become SILQ, unveiled on January 30, but it would take nearly a decade for it to come to completion.
“Initially, I had this vision for replacing all the machinery underneath a task chair with something simple [and] materials-based,” Ludwig explained. “It seemed so obvious. [To the engineering team’s credit], we took a run at it for a couple [of] months and then realized … the ambition and the vision outpaced what we knew and what material science was able to provide at the time, including computer simulation models.”
Ludwig calls this state of limbo between what is currently possible and what is currently unsolvable “between operating within the state-of-the-art and pushing toward the edge of solvability.” The team knew what they wanted to accomplish with this design, but didn’t have the resources; materiality had not yet caught up, so the project was shelved.
“We made the conscious decision to not go halfway in the original projects that we started,” he said. “We [decided] to hold back some of these ideas knowing that, when it came out, it had to be fully materialized. It had to be a full displacement of the status quo versus a halfway there sort of thing.”
The Idea Wasn’t Collecting Dust
Although the Steelcase team didn’t want to compromise on the design of what would become SILQ, that doesn’t mean the idea was out-of-sight, out-of-mind. A couple of years later, the Gesture Chair emerged from the initial planning stages for SILQ.
Designed with the ways in which workers began to interact with new technologies in mind, the Gesture Chair allowed for nine new posture positions not addressed by seating design at the time.
Top: The original idea for SILQ ended up being integrated into the design of the Gesture Chair.
Bottom: The Gesture Chair added nine new posture configurations to the standard seated positions to better accommodate technology use.
Design that Strives for Simplicity
Ludwig considers the Gesture Chair to be a “tour-de-force” of technological advancement in seating design, he said, “for these eight years or so I've had [SILQ] rattling around in my mind, this vision and this dream of creating something simpler, more intuitive, and more materials-based.”
Using the original sketch of the tendril-like machinery and Ludwig’s growing belief that there was a simpler way to design an office chair through new materiality, the Steelcase team worked toward paring the product down to the essentials.
“There's something I talk about with my team a lot,” Ludwig said, “in that there's something magical that happens when you combine the way something looks, the way it performs, and what it's made out of in ways that are inextricably linked. I’ve only really seen that in really simple systems, like the contact lens, the heart stent, or the Swim Fin, to name a few. Really simple systems had embodied that for me. But our dream translating that into a more complex system.”
The aim of SILQ was to simplify the chair's mechanisms.
Necessary Innovations in Materiality
The introduction of carbon fiber became a game changer.
Ludwig explained, “The CEO [of Steelcase], my boss, had told me, ‘We should really start to understand what's happening with carbon fiber.’ Boeing was talking about the Dreamliner. Aerospace was moving from these high-strength, lightweight alloys into [exploring] how carbon fiber can transform the industry through understanding that lightness and stiffness [were] primary properties of carbon fiber. Car companies were starting to shift their strategy away from steel and gasoline to carbon fiber and electric. So there was something again in that zeitgeist of product development that this new material could potentially provide new avenues of innovation.”
The downside of carbon fiber? The cost.
“We were excited, but the idea is that carbon fiber is a premium material. At the time, it was about double the price, so it’s not a mass-market material.”
In response, the Steelcase engineers invented a new proprietary material and process, seamlessly joining carbon fiber with a high-performance polymer so that the price point is lower, but it holds up as if it were a mono-material base.
Coming Soon: SILQ
Both the high-performance polymer blend and the carbon fiber versions of SILQ will be made available in North America and Asia in Spring 2018; in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa in Fall 2018. The starting list price is $970.