Active Desking (Turnstone Buoy Chair Review)
November 20, 2013
by Geoffrey Parsons, Research Consultant, Sachs Insights
It’s hard to work in the UX research industry and not pick up on the latest health or technology fad coming out of the San Francisco/Silicon Valley tech hub. The characteristics that define many of the most famous tech entrepreneurs – their young success, penchant for manipulating code, their proclivity towards building lean, flexible cultures that appeal to and inspire young talent – often come with it a very serious passion for healthy living. Steve Jobs is somewhat ignominious in health circles for his forays into fruitarianism, Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s venture, Calico, is aimed at increasing the human lifespan, and Tim Feriss is probably one of the best examples of a Silicon Valley based entrepreneur promoting “Lifestyle Design.”
Perhaps it’s the influence of the Bay Area health culture, boosted by fresh veggies and easy access to the beautiful outdoors, juxtaposed with the unnatural requirements of a job that demands one’s shell-backed attention to a fluorescent screen 10 hours a day. Regardless, for many years the San Fran tech start-up culture has not been satisfied with “hacking” computer code, they have been equally as passionate about hacking workplace environments and the human body. With a plethora of studies declaiming the ill effects of a sedentary lifestyle, it is not surprising that Bay Area interest in the standing desk has been on somewhat of an upswing since it first came to my attention in a Frontline episode (circa 2004) as the preferred escritoire of storied scrooge Donald Rumsfeld. New Yorkers tend to be a healthy population so it was not long before the trend came cross-continent to land here in New York and indeed at Sachs Insights, where Tammy Sachs has been known to pace the halls proclaiming “Sitting is the new smoking!”
There is some debate as to the benefits of a standing desk, but enthusiasts will point out that sitting still exercises no muscles, while standing and shifting from foot to foot exercises muscles in your legs, back and shoulders, burning calories, lowering blood glucose levels and improving posture. The standing desk has been around for a long time, and its use entertained by a number of A-list historical figures including Ben Franklin, Ernest Hemmingway and Winston Churchill (the fact that each was known to imbibe freely is puzzling – in our experience the standing desk is notoriously unforgiving to those with hangovers).
In the present day, Sachs Insights is home to two researchers (me included) that flirt with a standing desk, having scavenged and repurposed, Swiss Robinson-style, a cardboard box and end tables to stack upon our respective sitting desks. The long hours writing reports and poring over spreadsheets, notes and video are more pleasantly spent in an upright position, as I experience less back pain, better digestion and more sustained energy and focus. I do take my fair share of confused looks around the office. And as evidenced in this amusing Atlantic article, the wider blogosphere is not above parodying the latest health trend. So it was not without some excitement that I heard about Turnstone’s Buoy seat. Could this be the remedy for the interoffice aspersions, I wondered; the perfect chair that enables active sitting while eschewing unfortunate yoga ball associations? Would this be the throne that takes care of both body and image? Could I be cool again?
Endeavoring to find out, we purchased a Buoy seat in Picasso Blue. We aimed for the stars and shelled out an extra 99 dollars for the Paul Smith Maharam Exaggerated Plaid seat cover. Why not? Then I waited.
I was pretty excited when it first arrived.
First of all, the chair looks great. The Picasso blue is vibrant and works well with the matte black base. The chair is clearly well made (backed up by a five year limited warranty) and has that polished, sleek look normally associated with Apple products. The Paul Smith seat cover gives it that nice splash of design detail that elevates the Buoy above what might otherwise be easy “cubo de basura” comparisons. Everyone in the office that saw the Buoy wanted to sit on it. Aesthetically it has that “new toy” quality you only find in well-envisioned exteriors: once you see it you want to touch it.
As an active chair it certainly does a good job. In the first few days I found myself spinning around tapping my feet. Listening to Afrobeat blog OkayAfrica in noise-cancelling headphones while spinning around on the Buoy was just about as enjoyable a desk experience as one would think possible. The Buoy’s curved bottom allows you to pitch forward and back up to 12 degrees and balancing upright does take some effort (not quite as difficult as trying to balance on a swim area buoy but anyone that’s ever swam out to one and tried to will certainly be familiar with the chair experience). A cleverly inset lever allows you to adjust the height upwards to 22¾ inches and downwards to 17¼ inches. The lever serves as a handle as well, allowing you to lift the surprisingly light 20lbs of Buoy and carry it around with you. It would be nice if Turnstone had built a handle on both sides of the chair, however, because while light, the Buoy is somewhat bulky with a diameter of 18’’and 20lbs can be awkward from one anchor point, especially for smaller users. Additionally, the Buoy is not on wheels, so one is inclined to grab the handle and shuffle while still sitting to move about, and this would be much easier to accomplish with a second handle, as currently one’s hand scrabbles about fruitlessly on the non-handle side like a fast-moving puppy trying to find purchase on hardwood floors.
The first few days playing with the Turnstone Buoy were great. After about 3 days I started to notice some back pain. By 4 days I noticed that I was spending a lot of time away from my desk, taking refuge on the comfy couches in my jetsetting colleague’s deserted office. By day five I realized that whenever I was sitting on the Buoy I was pitched forward, tortoise-backed, with elbows on the table. Full disclosure: I’m a gangly 6’3’’ with a longer torso and legs than is statistically normal. I’m not quite Kevin Durant, but I’m definitely a standard deviation away from the norm. What this meant for me is that my legs were too long to sit comfortably on the buoy and still accommodate the height of my desk. I could easily adjust the height of the chair up to enable me to balance more easily and so my legs were at a more comfortable 90 degree angle, but this would mean that I couldn’t comfortably reach my keyboard, as I was too high for my desk. I would have to raise the level of my desk to accommodate the Buoy. Without the proper tools on hand to adjust my desk, I had instead lowered the Buoy and was pitching forward, balancing on my elbows, armadillo-backed. This had caused me some mild lower and middle back pain and had slowly driven me from my office.
Needless to say I was somewhat disappointed with my stylish Buoy. It was hard for me to determine if the fault was my own, peculiar to my length, or if it was some flaw in the design of Turnstone’s chair itself. In the meantime, I’ve passed the chair along to my fellow standing-desker, who is of a more regular body type, to see what her experience will be. What the Buoy really has going for it is quality craftsmanship, an intriguing aesthetic, and an active chair experience similar to an exercise ball, but taking up about 50% less space. One caution: if you’re in the market for an active desk experience, be sure not to throw away your old chair, because there are going to be times when you just want to sit down, and rather than squatting in your colleagues’ offices, it’s probably best if you have a backup of your own.
It seems like a good solution would be able to seamlessly switch periodically from standing to sitting which a company called Veridesk is offering a solution for:
And if you've got $4,000 to burn you can take it to the next level with The Stir Kinetic Desk: