Origins of Active Furniture Design
Editor’s Note: The following article contains excerpts, with permission, from an article originally published in The Ergonomics Report™ on June 8, 2005. Last week, in recognition of the recent passing of Dr. Douglas Englebart, the inventor of what we know today as a computer ‘mouse’, we shared Ergonomics Theory in Computer Mouse Design, which referenced Englebart’s early work. In the article below, designer Jack Kelley remembers working with Englebart in those early computing days, and describes the origins of what we might call “active workstations” today.
When Jack Kelley began his career as a furniture designer in the 1960s, he had never heard of ergonomics. Few people had. It would be another 10-15 years before it became a more common word. Yet from the first, the Michigan man was designing ergonomic furniture.
Interviewed for The Ergonomics Report™ in June, Kelly talked about his years as a designer for furniture maker Herman Miller Inc., and more recent years as principal of his own design studio.
Computer technology was in its infancy at the start of Kelley’s career, and was progressing at a blistering pace. He paid close attention to the advances, using them ergonomically to enhance the design process and, increasingly, to shape his design solutions. His first design successes grew out of his association with two visionaries of the 1960s who also, without knowing the word, paid dues to ergonomics.
Dr. Douglas Englebart developed computers at the Stanford Research Institute in California to “augment human intellect,” as he put it. The scientist foresaw a time when computers would be outside the realm of research labs and in offices and homes. Introduced in an era when computers were room-sized behemoths, his vision startled many associates. They were also startled by his descriptions of videoconferencing and other marvels of the World Wide Web three decades before it came into being. And Englebart invented and used a computer mouse some 20 years before Apple introduced the device to the marketplace.
Englebart was an “action man.” He wanted to stand or sit down or recline as he worked, and to put his feet up on the desk while he was using his computer, Kelley recalled. The Stanford scientist needed furniture that would allow him that kind of mobility, and there was nothing on the market to suit. “What he was basically trying to do was to set up a work space that would be responsive to using the computer that he was trying to develop for a better, easier thing to work with from a human standpoint,” Kelley explained.
Englebart contacted Robert Propst, then President of Herman Miller Research Division, for a solution. Propst, the other visionary in Kelley’s early career, sent him to Englebart’s Stanford office. “I spent two weeks out there observing, photographing, measuring, and also observing to see what kind of a problem he was encountering,” said Kelley, who was a Research Associate at Herman Miller when Propst assigned him to assess the computer scientist’s needs.
“I came back and made a proposal to Bob Propst, and said, this is what I think, he needs,” Kelley recalled. The Michigan designer said he personally built the prototype for Englebart’s solution, a private height-adjustable workstation with a vacuum-formed tray. A bulky computer keyboard mechanism, a mouse and another input device sat on top of the tray. Kelley’s design called for a pad for Englebart’s mouse, so the Michigan designer is credited with inventing the world’s first mouse pad.
You could sit in the chair and swing the unit, which was supported by a structure attached to the chair, over your lap, Kelley explained. “You could swivel, tilt, put your feet on the desk. You could be in practically any position you’d want to be.”
The Stanford assignment gave Kelley an early understanding of the complexities of working in computer environments, and an abiding interest in the technology.
When Kelley, a Navy veteran from the Korean War, graduated from the University of Michigan in industrial design, Herman Miller gave him a full time job with Bob Propst.
In the 1960s Propst was on a mission to change the office environment, which he saw as a place that “saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment.” With Kelley’s assistance as lead designer, Propst invented the Action Office. The world’s first open-plan, modular-panel office system, it features furniture components that can be reconfigured to suit any function. The system challenged traditional assumptions of what office furniture should be, and was built around the way people really work and communicate.
“This Action Office is one of the first entries to the office environment where you could adjust the table height,” Kelley noted, adding that it could be altered in 1-inch increments. “If you wanted a table work surface height of 24 inches because you were only 5 foot 2 inches, that’s where you had it. If you were a taller person, you took it up to 32 inches or wherever. Or even stand up.”
Kelley’s special contribution? “The thing that I really got involved in was understanding what the problem was, and Bob Propst was the one who taught me. He was my mentor, you might say.” Paraphrasing the Herman Miller inventor, Kelley said you have to be research-oriented to define what the problem is, and once it is discovered, the solutions come fairly easily. “When you do the research,” Kelley said, expanding on his mentor’s precept, “you might discover things beyond what the problem is that can certainly enhance the solution that you finally come up with.”
It’s been more than 40 years since it was introduced, and the design changes have been small. Action Office 2, introduced in 1988, did little more than make provision for computer paraphernalia and for more adjustability. But in that time, the options proliferated. There are now hundreds of ways to customize the functions and appearance of the system. “When we introduced that in 1968, there were only 13 components in the whole system,” Kelley recalled. They were deliberately kept at a minimum so as not to confuse anyone placing an order, he said, but this reasoning became impractical. “One thing led to the next, and the last I heard there were thousands of parts.”
Kelley was named Corporate Director of Design at Herman Miller in 1980, but found management less rewarding than hands-on design. In 1983 he set up Studio 222 in Grand Haven Michigan and, as an independent designer, continued working for the office furniture manufacturer.
The Herman Miller web site credits Kelley with a pivotal role in 16 of their most successful systems and products.
Together, over the years, Propst invented and Kelley designed a host of products unrelated to furniture. The diverse assignments had one thing in common – simplifying people’s lives and work. “It wasn’t just furniture,” Kelley said. “We worked on things like timber harvesters, a machine that would march through cultivated forests and chop down trees without even stopping. We got into laser systems and irrigation equipment.”
He explained that many designers change studios for the challenge of working in different areas of design. He didn’t have to leave Herman Miller, he said, because Propst had so many design interests and the company encouraged diversification to help the flow of ideas.
Kelley was pressed during the interview to identify the product that gave him the most satisfaction as a designer. “Every product that solved a problem gave me satisfaction,” he replied.
Then he changed his mind about his favorite. He named the Scooter, and described it as a “grown up version of the mouse pad tray” he designed for Englebart. When the computers first came out, Kelley explained, “monitors were all cathode ray tubes that were very big, so there was no place to put keyboards.” The Scooter was basically a height-adjustable keyboard support, and you could angle it if you liked, he said, solving the problem of where to put a keyboard and allowing users to place their keyboard in whatever position worked best.
“The Scooter is world’s least expensive ergonomic desk,” Kelley said. “I’ve used it for years.  celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Scooter.”
After more than four decades of design, Kelley holds more than 60 design and utility patents in the United States and foreign countries.
Now far enough into retirement to have time left over from a day’s work for serious sailing, Kelley races a 40-foot boat on Lake Michigan. He has taken a first place in all the major sailboat races that he has competed in except the 330-mile Chicago-to-Mackinac race, the longest freshwater race in the world. He recently placed third, and said he is out to win that race this year. His boat is designed for that exact purpose, so the win will be a triumph for ergonomics as well as for the Michigan designer-turned-sailor. [Editor's note: we don't know if Jack won that race in 2005, but we do know that he was recently inducted into the Lake Michigan Sailing Hall Of Fame -- congratulations, Jack!]
Sources: Jack Kelley; HermanMiller.com
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