The word ‘ergonomic’ comes from the Greek ‘érgon’: ‘work’, and ‘nomós: ‘distribution’.
The term was first used by Polish scientist Wojciech Jastrzębowski (1799-1882), and in 1949, British psychologist K.F. Hywel Murrell introduced it at a meeting which led to the formation of The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors.
Ergonomic furniture design is big business and there's no doubt that some items of furniture are better suited to the human form than others. Step into most business spaces and you’ll see countless things designed on ergonomic principles including desks, screens, keyboards and most especially, chairs. You can pay up to several thousands of pounds for the ultimate in adjustable height, lumbar support, seat angle and ‘gluteal accommodation’.
In 1910, F. Matthias Alexander wrote about a similar apparent preoccupation with school furniture design.*
"I am continually being asked… for my opinion concerning the correct type of chair, stool, desk or table to be used in order to prevent the bad habits which these pieces of furniture are supposed to have caused… In my replies I have tried to demonstrate that the problem is being attacked from the wrong standpoint.
"… Suppose… that there is an ideal chair… that will almost magically rectify or prevent every fault in the child’s physical mechanism. Suppose further that the child finds great ease and repose when seated in this ideal chair. How, then, can he avoid suffering the tortures of all that is uncomfortable when he rides in the cars, or sits down in his own home, or visits a friend, or goes for a picnic on the river or in the woods? I see nothing else for it; when that ideal chair has been found, our child will have to carry it about with him wherever he goes.
"In the second place, how is it possible for this ideal chair to be miraculously adaptable to every age and type of child? Are we to treat children as plastic lumps of clay to be fitted to the model insisted upon by the lines of our ideal chair; or are we to study and measure each individual and have a chair built to his measure, once a year, say, until he is adult?
"No, what we need to do is not to educate our school furniture, but to educate our children. Give a child the ability to adapt himself within reasonable limits to his environment, and he will not discomfort, nor develop bad physical habits, whatever chair or form you give him to sit upon."
Quel hoot, imagine annually redesigning furniture for a growing child - years of business for someone, I guess... And imagine having to carry your own personal chair around with you. Some people actually do this.
A chair can’t move any more than the ground does, if you sit on it; but you can. In fact you're designed to move. and how you create the activity of sitting is crucial. That term ergonomic, ‘work distribution’, could just as easily refer to the particular distribution of muscular activity you employ in order to sit - or do anything else, for that matter. If you develop a propensity to unnecessarily tense up here and collapse and squash just there, it's no surprise if musculoskeletal troubles arise at some point. There are more efficient, economical ways of moving and less efficient, ‘unergonomic’ ways.
The Alexander Technique helps you educate yourself to develop greater ability to adapt to your environment without undue tensing and squishing; whatever chair or form you are given to sit on. You can learn to move your body in the ways for which it was beautifully designed. For many reasons, including for example sitting on our bums for many hours a day, Alexander argued that civilised man seems to have taken his eye off the ball with regard to moving well. Some people seem to get away with it and manage without suffering too much; but many end up wondering why they're not performing as well as they'd like, or even really suffering with self-generated problems.
‘Érgon’: ‘work’ and ‘nomós: ‘distribution’. Distributing your body’s energies in the most appropriate way to every single activity in daily life. I give you: the Alexander Technique.
*Man’s Supreme Inheritance, F.M. Alexander, Pt 1 Chap. 7 - Mouritz