Micro Mart ‘Computing Furniture: What to Avoid’

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Computing Furniture

Until recently, I’d never really given much thought to what my computer sits on, or what I sit on while I’m using it. This negligence is no doubt the reason I’ve accumulated what is, on reflection, a really ugly collection of home office furniture. Each morning when I sit down to work I’m greeted by a chewing-gum grey MDF desk, a matching plastic angle poise lamp, and a perilously leaning stack of WH Smiths cardboard drawers. There’s a choice of three objects to sit on, two which are supposed to be good for my spine, and then the one I actually use, a large, leather-effect, swivelling 1970s bank manager type chair.

One of my spine-friendly options is an object no childless adult should really admit to owning: a large, inflatable ball. More commonly seen accessorising bendy women in Pilates classes, the ball purports to strengthen my core but mostly just weakens my resolve. Its fiddle factor is immense. Between attempts to balance on it cross-legged, pretend to be a weeble, or see how far I can get across the office by bouncing (answer: quite far, though we lost quite a few books from the living room shelves downstairs), it’s proved itself a major distraction.

My other supposedly healthy choice is an ergonomic kneeling chair which makes me feel oddly virtuous when I use it, as if I might pop off any second to go for a run up a Swedish mountain or hand rear an organic lamb. The downside is that after twenty minutes or so, my shins go completely numb. Hence my preference for the comfy bank manager chair, which has the added bonus of being a decent Bond villain prop should you get bored preparing your tax return.

None of these items are things of beauty. None of them makes me feel like Captain Picard on the deck of the Enterprise. None of them (and this will make sense later) looks even remotely like a massive scorpion. In short, it’s time for an upgrade. So what are my options?

Option 1: The Executive Look

In the late nineties, it seems you were nothing if your rear end wasn’t parked in a Herman Miller Aeron. Costing upwards of £900 the Aeron came to be known as the iconic computer chair of the dotcom bubble. Made from an aerated mesh with unique suspension technology and more adjustments than an MP’s expenses claim, this little beauty remains the holy grail of computer chairs. Unfortunately, its price means that much like the holy grail, it remains the stuff of legend for most of us, though bargain hunters will be able to pick one up second-hand for around £400.

The Herman Miller website describes the Aeron as “widely copied but never matched”, and they’re not wrong on the first count at least. You’ll find Aeron knock-offs in most price ranges, from the £30 stack at Morrison’s, to the mid-range selections at office supply shops. The switch from imposing, high-backed leather to breathable, tech-friendly mesh symbolised a shift in the world of business. Computer furniture was reborn for an age of youthful start-ups, and while the dot coms fell, the Aeron remained standing.

What about those of us with more humble budgets? A basic guideline to follow is that your computer chair needs to be adjustable in height and seat depth to fit you correctly. It should provide lumbar support to your lower back, as well as allowing your feet to sit comfortably on the floor. A problem with many lower-priced chairs is their ‘one-size-fits-all’ seat depth, which leaves some with the choice of either using the back rest, or putting their feet on the floor, but not both. Anyone struggling with a too-large seat or back pain might want to try an additional lumbar support (look up the Contour Freedom Back with built-in vibrational massage for around £30, or the range of Backjoy posture-correcting supports for around £25).

Unfortunately for back-pain sufferers, it might be cheaper to buy a new spinal column on the black market than some of the chairs designed to alleviate discomfort. One high-end solution for those with no budget constraints is the Spinalis range, which features a moveable seat on a spring-like base mimicking the movement of rocking on a balance ball. New, the basic model costs upwards of £700 and the Pilot version retails at over £2000, so clearly not an option for everyone.

A more affordable solution could be to purchase a balance ball chair base, which you can find online for around £40 including the ball. This will give you spine-friendly 360 degree movement along with the stability of a chair. Kneeling chairs, for those who don’t mind experiencing numb shins from time to time, also come widely recommended for back pain sufferers.

Option 2: The Fitness Regime

A different way to maintain your health while using a computer emerged in 2007, when some canny medical types designed a workstation/treadmill combo designed to stem the tide of obesity in sedentary office workers. The concept is now commercially available as the Walkstation and the Walkspace, as well as becoming a popular home construction project for creative computing fans hoping to stave off weight gain. Expect to spend around £3000 on a ready-made device.

Rizki Tarisa’s Go Workstation took things one step further in 2010. An exercise bike, ergonomic lounge chair and workstation combo, the Go feeds the green energy produced by a pedalling computer user back into its gadgets. Its design may have the disadvantage of looking like an extracted molar from the mouth of a futuristic giant, but if you can cope with that, then pedal away, as long as you’ve £4000 plus to spare.

However inventive, I’m somewhat sceptical about the prospect of combining computer-use with exercise. The treadmill version at least requires a fair amount of coordination on the part of the user, and relies upon no exciting distractions popping up on your monitor to send you sliding backwards to the floor. Speaking from experience of the time they installed little TVs on the treadmills at my gym, I know that a particularly excellent kitten vid on www.cuteroulette.com (or in the case of the gym, a nightmare-inducing episode of Embarrassing Bodies), and I’d be done for. Next please.

Option 3: The Space-Saver

Whatever Grand Designs tells us, not everybody in the UK lives in a vast converted warehouse or Scottish castle, meaning space is at a premium for most. It follows then, that freestanding workstation ‘concepts’ moulded to look like the transporter pods in The Fly or Mork from Ork’s shiny white spaceship aren’t going to be practical for the majority of us. So how best to economise on space when it comes to computer furniture?

Nifty space-saving solutions abound in glossy home furnishing magazines. Install a bespoke understairs home office nook, they tell us, or fold back a hand-painted trompe l’oeil screen to reveal a slimline desk, chair and shelving set-up. Something tells me that these furniture porn centrefold spreads wouldn’t look quite the same starring the coffee mug ringed beech-effect Argos desks most of type away at. That’s not to say there aren’t things we lesser mortals can do. A bit of creative thinking with lower-end modular furniture (and some spray cleaner for the coffee rings) and you’ll be surprised where your hardware can be tucked away.

One great space-saving design is the StudyBed, a computer desk which folds down in one smooth move to become a ready-made bed. A big plus for me is what I like to call the ‘super villain’s lair’ factor (though a disappointing lack of imagination has been shown online in terms of customising them with dry ice and bubbling laboratories). It’s a neat system, but one that wouldn’t work for me. Even if I had the £1000-odd it would cost for a single, both my desk and bed are too paper and penguin-bar strewn to revolve them without crushing valuable things in the move. The sad truth is that if I had a StudyBed, I’d never switch it from the bed position. What this says about me I’m not sure I want to know.

Option 4: Something for the Kids

Having run the gamut of guilt and manipulation modern buggy manufacturers impose on parents, you lot should be well-prepared for the question of what to consider when buying computer furniture for your kids. You’ll have digested the fact that without a £300 cot mattress, your child will develop the curved spine of a woodlouse, so will understand that letting them rest their tiny chins on the family computer desk whilst balanced on an adult-sized chair is tantamount to child abuse.

Luckily for parents, along comes the £1600 Young Explorer computer workstation. A specially built desk with integral computer for kids aged 3-7. It comprises desk, storage seat, 19” LCD monitor and desktop PC pre-loaded with educational software. Dubbed ‘baby’s first cubicle’ by some who see it as a depressingly early introduction to the sometimes stultifying world of corporate life, the Young Explorer will familiarise your child with the workings of a home PC. That is if they don’t just prefer to play with the box it came in.

Most of the commercially available computer furniture for kids stays within the pre-established style guidelines for children’s furniture as a whole, that is to say, it’s horrible. Girls are served up an insipid selection of puke pink, jewel-encrusted princess and Hannah Montana swivel chairs, whereas boys are given much cooler rocket and car-shaped desks. I wonder if you let girls mess about with computers from a young age without being gurned at by Disney bimbos, would the UK’s woeful shortage of women in IT and Computing-related study and careers start moving in the right direction? Just an idea.

Option 5: The Genuinely Outrageous

As my personal search has yet to come up with a realistic option, let’s throw practicality and budgets out of the window for a moment and gawp at some genuinely outrageous items. Now, if your dream computing experience involves reclining inside an enormous £25,000 sci-fi scorpion, then Novelquest have just the thing for you. For the price of a deposit on a house, you can buy the Emperor 200 Workstation, fitted with more technology than you could shake a memory stick at. There’s a Windows PC with Intel Core processor, 3 LCD monitors and a touchscreen, an integrated PS3, Apple universal dock, Blu-ray player and webcam, not to mention a butch graphics card, lighting system, BOSE 5.1 surround sound system and cold fission semiconductors… (okay then, maybe not that last one).

Many of these super-expensive workstations look more like gyroscopic astronaut training systems than a place to sit and check Twitter. Marvel at shiny egg-shaped sci-fi miracles which pop open to reveal sleek screens and plush seating. Be amazed by supine workstations, rocking chair workstations, ones that dangle Damocles-like monitors over your head as you lie in bed. At this end of the market, the possibilities genuinely seem endless.

If, like me, these beauties are a little out of your price range however, you can always spend £12 on a set of 5 ‘Pimp My Office Chair’ coloured casters for your wheelie chair. It’s practically the same experience, I gather.

Option 6: Keeping it clean

Less of an option, and more of a sensible guideline to avoid e-coli, this one. You’ve probably heard the reports claiming that, because of eating at our desks and lack of proper cleaning, computer keyboards supposedly contain more bacteria than the average toilet seat. It didn’t take savvy manufacturers long to begin playing on such stats and bring us pro-hygiene computer furniture and accessories. You can now buy mouse mats with built-in anti-bacterial protection, as well as computers and monitors designed specifically not to be repositories for dirt and germs.

It is certainly worth considering the ease of cleaning whatever your computer furniture is made from. As a rule of thumb I’d say plastic and glass, good, cork and bearskin, bad. I’ve inexplicably held onto an untreated pine IKEA corner desk from my student days that’s probably now a Noah’s Ark for germs from the last century, preserving whole species for future generations. Whatever it will look like, my new workstation is going to be made from something easy to clean.

Conclusion

Thus concludes our brief gad about the world of computer furniture. But what of my predicament? Well, all things considered, my chewing-gum grey MDF isn’t really that bad. Until the day arrives when I can stand tickling a transparent wall in magic gloves like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, I think I’ll just stick with what I have.

10 Guidelines for Using Computer Furniture

As a fully qualified former health and safety officer, I can tell you with some authority that although rules are often made to be broken, the ones that help you maintain full use of your spine, wrists and eyeballs are not. It’s wise to heed the following guidelines when setting up and using your computer furniture:

1. Adjustment, adjustment, adjustment

Buy the chair with the most adjustable parts your budget will allow you. Then adjust it, dear Liza.

2. Keep your feet on the ground

If you’re short of limb, you may need to invest in a footrest. That, or do what I do, and make use of one of the surplus boxes of laminate flooring your husband is storing indefinitely under your desk.

3. Your knees need to be able to get fully underneath your desk.

Position filing cabinets, shelving, and unused boxes of laminate flooring well out of the way of your legs.

4. Your forearms should be approximately horizontal when typing.

Adjustable arm rests and a desk that’s the correct height for you should mean this happens naturally.

5. Stretch regularly, take frequent short breaks and change your position as often as is practical.

This is when the balance ball bouncing challenge really comes into its own.

6. Don’t stretch to reach your keyboard.

Even if this means disturbing the cat.

7. Position your desk so sunlight doesn’t reflect onto your monitor.

Easily achievable by installing a blind, not having your desk face a window, or living in the North of England.

8. Position your monitor screen just below eye-level, with the top third at the same level as the bridge of your nose.

Your neck will thank you.

9. Buy a docking station or external keyboard and monitor if you’re using a laptop for any length of time.

Your wrists will thank you.

10. Clean your workstation with disinfectant regularly

Unless you’ve got a scientifically curious mind, in which case, you could not and then just wait to see what happens.

This article originally appeared in Issue 1158 of Micro Mart 19 – 25 2011