Having been led along an almost dark corridor in the basement of Milan's Bulgari Hotel I was reminded of my promise of confidentiality before being ushered into an unmarked boardroom. My first encounter with the SAYL chair was more like a sequence from a spy thriller than a design preview. It was the week of the Salone del Mobile in April but, clearly, this was no ordinary chair project.
Strewn across the polished wood table were sketches, photos and a lot of oddly shaped pieces of plastic; seated around it were several senior executives from Herman Miller, arguably the world's leading producer of high quality office furnishings, and the industrial designer Yves Béhar (last seen in the glittery environs of a Swarovski lighting installation, for which he had designed a stunning chandelier) along with his colleague Bret Recor.
Forward two months, to the rural setting of Zeeland, West Michigan and, in much less secretive surroundings (albeit still under strict non-disclosure orders), we are ushered into the Project Room at Herman Miller's Design Yard building. Here, amid seemingly chaotic stacks of half-made chairs and some decidedly odd contraptions of wood and string that were early design prototypes, Béhar and Recor give us a first glimpse of what had become of those strange pieces of plastic seen in Milan.
This coming week it will be the world's turn to see, as the new chair - named SAYL after its sail-like back and Y-shaped support column - is unveiled at Orgatec, the world's most important office furnishings trade fair, in Cologne, two-and-a-half years after the project began.
The chair is beautiful in its originality, lightness and uncompromising modernity. There's something of the Centre Pompidou or Richard Rogers's Lloyds of London building in the way that its workings are all visible, rather than hidden on the inside - and more than a touch of Norman Foster's Millau Viaduct, the stunningly beautiful bridge in central France.
In fact, Béhar's starting point was San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, which is close to the office of his design firm, Fuseproject. He explains that the chair had to be light and pared-down, as well as being highly innovative - in keeping with Herman Miller's legacy of ground-breaking designs, such as the Aeron, Embody and Eames (no pressure, then): "Our basic principle was de-materialisation and I had an intuition that the principle of a suspension bridge would work, rather than the normal idea of a frame." That, he says, enabled him to reduce the chair's visible structure to its distinctive Y-shaped tower.
Paring things down would seem to come naturally to Béhar, whose credentials include the US$100 XO laptop (designed for Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child organisation). A key part of the brief for the chair was that it could be retailed for less than $400 in the US - a real departure for high-quality work chairs. "To make something lower in price doesn't mean including less technology but finding the most efficient method of creating the comfort and ergonomic calibrations that we needed."
Béhar found the answer in a surprising place: a proprietary form of plastic that Herman Miller had been using inside some of its other chairs. Because it is manufactured by injection process, rather then moulding, he could get a lot more from it. "We have been able to incorporate 3-D Intelligence into it, wherever we wanted extra support or softness. I think it has become the ultimate ergonomist's tool."
It seems bafflingly high-tech - and in complete contrast to the engagingly old-fashioned process of developing the design itself (cue those wood and string models). Béhar laughs at the assumption that design these days is all computer-generated. With Recor leading the technical design team, they made more than 70 prototypes "proving with each step that we could create a shape using a bridge-like construction, then adapt it to Herman Miller's ergonomic standards, and eventually develop the material so that it would stretch or remain firm as needed." Only then, after a year and a half of trial and error, did he put anything onto a computer.
As well as being a work of ergonomic brilliance, and looking beautiful, the chair had to be extremely tough. Next to the Project Room at the Design Yard is what Herman Miller's people jokingly call The Torture Chamber. Here, amid an array of medieval-goes-high-tech machines, the company's chairs are - to put it mildly - brutalised: thumped repeatedly with weights, pushed, pulled and stretched in every conceivable direction and, simply, squashed - with a huge weight pushing down on the seat pad for days on end. That is designed to replicate having a 158kg human sit in the chair 24/7 for 12 years (the duration of Herman Miller's product guarantee). The SAYL chair-back was subjected to 1,000,000 mechanical pulls before being deemed fit for manufacture.
But, you have to ask, does the world really need another chair? "There are clearly a lot of great chairs on the market," says Jack Schreur, the head of Herman Miller's seating division. "But where was the elegant, ergonomic, sustainable, beautiful and [most importantly] attainable chair? That was the gap: lower-cost chairs too often made trade-offs with comfort, health and design to hit a price point and the result too often was a chair that really wasn't healthy, or durable, or environmentally friendly."
Béhar's design looks as right for working at home as it will in offices. That's intentional, given the increasingly blurred line between office and home and today's different ways of working.
"Products need to permeate different parts of our lives today," says the designer. "Our intention from the beginning was that this chair would have a light visual impact, so it can happily integrate into a domestic or office setting, rather than jumping out at you."
Domesticating the chair has extended to Herman Miller's plan to sell directly to consumers via the internet, first within the US only then later, world wide - a radical departure from its traditional distribution model. "The world has changed - people are less willing to follow older business models and to 'wait their turn'," says Schreur. "We thought attainability should be about more than just price [the chair starts at below Dh2,000] - it also should be easier to buy and have delivered into your home, no matter where you live and work."
Had I not had the privilege of seeing the chair as a work-in-progress, in the US, as well as earlier, in Milan, I would not have imagined how complex it was to bring SAYL into the world. "I always thought a great work chair was the hardest thing to design," says Béhar with a smile. "It has been a fascinating and difficult project - at least as hard as I originally imagined."