Holding up the rear

Where did all that start-up money go? Clue No. 1: Today's dot-com auctions are flooded with opulent Aeron chairs.

Published August 7, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

By the time the dot-com economy had begun its quick and dirty descent, Jack Lewis was working as director of development for a large game company in the southern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. Lewis, an experienced programmer born and raised in San Francisco, could probably have made more money at a start-up, but the game geek and former punk rocker was unmoved by the new industry springing to life around him. "I kinda looked down my nose at it," he says.

Lewis doesn't want his real name used. He worries that describing his investigation into the plush world of high-end office furniture, conducted during working hours, might give the impression that he and his friends were slacking on the job. Now that he's a freelancer he has his reputation to consider. It's only after having detailed the grueling days and the nights spent curled up in a cubicle at his old workplace that Lewis is willing to admit that he and his co-workers needed a break. "When you're working 12- to 14-hour days, you're trying to break the flow. You'll build weird little abstract hobbies."

Lewis' particular weird little abstract hobby involved an expensive piece of office furniture called the Aeron chair. Renowned throughout the office universe for their ergonomically correct luxury, Aerons represent a cubicle worker's most cherished fantasy. When Lewis and a co-worker saw that some Aerons were being auctioned off by a failed dot-com, they swooped in for a cheap score. And then discovered, to their dismay, that even at auctions, Aerons were still retailing for absurdly high prices.

Denied a chance to indulge himself in what Lewis calls "butt pedestals," he decided to investigate just how prevalent Aeron addiction had been in the dot-com world. "It became this casual thing that we could do in our spare moments, you know," he says. We would "check into the auction sites and see what was available, and sometimes we could track down a phone number and ask a few innocent questions."

"How long you guys been in business," Lewis and his friends politely inquired. "What happened? And do you have any Aeron chairs?"

In the process, Lewis discovered that Aerons could be seen as a potent symbol for the entire dot-com boom and bust. Lewis' desire soon morphed into derision. The chairs, he and his co-workers decided, were like "stupidity barometers."

"Any place with more than 10 of these things," he says, "automatically went into the 'stupid' stack."

The investigation found a B2B company that bought 83 Aerons just before closing shop in early 2001, and an open-source start-up whose 110 Aerons were auctioned for $350 apiece after the company shut down in March. Though not exactly scientific, it pointed an accusatory finger at dot-com excess. At a time when venture capitalists were sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into Net start-ups, promising tenfold and 20-fold returns to their investors, a lot of those companies were blowing that money right back out the door on Aeron chairs. Out of overconfidence or hubris or just sheer excitement at so much money so easily acquired, many dot-coms were redirecting significant portions of their first rounds of funding to Herman Miller, the 77-year-old Michigan design firm.

An Aeron chair is the kind of extravagance that most office dwellers, perched in their $100 Office Max specials, will probably never catch a glimpse of. The chairs, which retail for about $700 each, are as deluxe a rendition of an ordinary object as one can imagine. Aeron chairs belong to that small class of instruments for people who eschew the regular stuff for the expensive and exemplary -- Uni-ball pens for Mont Blancs, Hoover vacuums for Miele and Safeway beef for Niman Ranch. Aeron chair devotees, who recognize a Kinemat tilt mechanism when they see one, are evangelists on the subject. "I do believe it actually helped my bad posture, and made me look cool. I love you, Aeron chair!" wrote one former dot-com worker, who requested anonymity "to protect the chair" that he had stealthily wheeled out of his office the day his company laid off its staff.

Unlike Miele vacuums or Niman Ranch steaks, however, Aeron chairs enjoyed a special relationship with the Internet boom, riding the dot-com wave to near ubiquity. Aerons were the new economy and success rolled into a single object; they gave start-ups a tangible way to flaunt their investors' high hopes and reporters a shorthand to describe success.

"To get an indication of how well Salesforce.com is doing these days," wrote a Business Week reporter in a recent article, "stroll through its newly renovated offices -- [where] a young staff sits in ergonomic Aeron chairs and takes breaks at the circular coffee bar in the corner of the main floor."

As the dot-coms got richer, so did Herman Miller, the maker of Aeron chairs and inventor of that mainstay of the new-economy workplace: modular panels with integrated work systems, aka the cubicle. As the dot-com boom hit its peak in the last quarter of 2000, Herman Miller's net sales increased 27.7 percent. Among its bestselling products: the Aeron chair.

But just as the dot-coms had collected Aerons when they grew, so they shed them as they died, unleashing legions of briefly occupied luxury chairs into the world. When sports company Quokka shut its doors, it left behind hundreds of hastily abandoned Aeron chairs, clustered in the corners of the lifeless offices like refugees.

The auction circuit is now rife with Aerons. Stefanie Schwaderer, who runs auctions for Cowan Alexander, sold "50 or so" Aeron chairs from Hayward, Calif., company Cohera in late July. A week earlier, she sold another bunch for a company called Agillion in Austin, Texas, and before that, over 150 for Living.com, which folded in August 2000. Schwaderer says she sells Aerons at dead dot-com auctions about twice a month, but one Aeron-endowed company stands out in her memory. "They had [over 100] Herman Miller chairs, but no desks in the place. They had folding tables, set up end to end, and they made office cubes out of them. And this is where their money went ... their chairs."

How many Aerons ultimately were gobbled up by dot-coms is difficult to determine. Herman Miller spokesman Mark Sherman is unwilling to be specific about the numbers of chairs sold, other than to note that "we have multiplied production volume, doubled and doubled and doubled the production volume."

Herman Miller, says Sherman, is "astounded" by the success of its creation.

One wonders how the venture capitalists who provided the wherewithal for Aeron acquisition feel. Seeing the Quokka photos is like being let in on a dirty secret; for a company that blew through $200 million in four years, what else is a roomful of $700 chairs other than incriminating evidence?

If the '80s sent new millionaires scrambling to buy the latest leather mechanical massage table at Sharper Image, the new rich of the dot-com boom sought a more self-conscious reward. Basically, Lewis' theory goes, Aeron chairs weren't just sleek and ergonomic, they were a way for companies to put a dollar value on an industry that, so far, couldn't reliably claim one.

"What's the value of a human being sitting at a desk, working on a Web page?" asks Lewis. "What's the value of the Web page? In the past people were coming to me saying, 'The value is in click-throughs [on a banner ad]!' This invisible nonmoney was being justified by people sitting in really expensive chairs and claiming certain technological advances."

Notions of value grew ever screwier as the dot-com boom crested. V.C.s pumped tens of millions of dollars into companies that had yet to actually demonstrate an ability to attract customers; the NASDAQ passed 5,000; and it was often declared, without a trace of sarcasm, that "a new millionaire is born every [minute/day/hour] in Silicon Valley." And while those indicators looked suspiciously symptomatic of an outbreak of mass hysteria, the Aeron chairs plainly connoted value.

And not just dollar value, but cultural worth too. For an industry both bold and young, built out of the strip malls and office parks of Silicon Valley, Aeron chairs implied cultural heft. Expensive, produced by an established furniture company with indisputably classy roots -- a company sanctified by none other than New York's Museum of Modern Art, whose permanent collection includes a number of Herman Miller designs, including the Aeron -- the chairs left no question about their price and heritage. Thanks to the money coming in from investors, a start-up with little hope of honoring its five-year lease could fill cubicles with chairs that had been ordained "the design of the decade."

The chairs were also a concrete way for companies to show off the kind of egalitarian workplace that the new economy had ushered in. It's a strain of idealism that Lewis has no patience for: "The whole notion of, like, having your baseline workers sitting in these chairs was just beyond insanity to us." But read it differently and the scent of a more optimistic era comes through. Take, for example, the way one tech worker remembers her first Aeron.

"At XOOM.com we had the worst chairs, the worst desks," says Janine Popick, who now runs her own start-up, VerticalResponse, which is furnished entirely with furniture culled from dot-com auctions. "So when we went public, the cool thing they did for us was buy us new chairs."

According to the new-economy ethos, work would be fun; it would be comfortable and ergonomic and its corporate beneficence would exclude no one. And if a company was lucky enough to hit the jackpot with its IPO, then it would spread the wealth. With qualified workers harder and harder to find, the Aeron chair was a symbol of the company's eagerness to please.

"When March First San Francisco was USWeb/CKS and had only 80 people," recalls former March First employee Jennifer Deming, "we ordered a shipment of about 100 Aeron chairs, custom-fitted to each employee. Each employee got to pick the size, whether or not it had lumbar support, and the elevator lift to adjust height. Quite a perk in boom time 1998. They ran about $800 apiece. The old padded black chairs were moved to the storage room and basement."

Today, Aeron chairs are unwanted proof of excess. Even Herman Miller is doing its best to shed the dot-com connotation. The Aeron chair, says company spokesman Sherman, will outlast its dot-com fad reputation. "Because the chair was so enormously popular with technology companies," says Sherman, "we understand the sort of connection that some people have made in their minds." But dot-coms are just a tiny fraction of Herman Miller's target audience: "If we look at the 100 largest companies, actually the dot-coms comprise less than 5 percent."

Herman Miller's attempt to distance itself from dot-com Aeron-mania may, however, be hazardous to one of its newest product lines. In November 2000, the company launched Red, a line of relatively low-cost office furniture designed for "fast young companies." Red, the Web site predicts with boom-era glee, "expects to be the first stop fast, feisty businesses make when they need places to park more young geniuses."

Asked whether launching a dot-com-oriented venture at precisely the same time that such companies were collapsing made good business sense, Red brand manager Greg Parson said that many core elements behind Red furniture -- risk taking, egalitarianism, individualism -- are here to stay.

"Actually, our timing was kind of good. I mean it would have been great if we'd started this two years ago, but we kind of saw this early on. We developed Red for businesses that were still around, [incorporating] a lot of [what] came out of the dot-coms: business culture and attitude."

Meanwhile, just as the Aerons once symbolized success, they now have a different meaning. "They'll forever remember the stretch limos, the Herman Miller Aeron chairs, the long lunches, the open bar, the matching Beemers in the garage," mourned Tom McNichol in the Montreal Gazette. And in San Francisco, a group of artists used Aeron chairs, business cards from defunct companies and Ikea desks in an exhibit called "Dot-Gone."

Lewis, despite his investigation, has sat in an Aeron chair only once, at a friend's music studio. But Lewis is still thinking about the dot-com boom and bust in terms of butt pedestal popularity.

"It was just this thing," says Lewis. "It could have been anything, but it happened to be the most stupid, ridiculous thing we could think of." On the other hand, Lewis says, in reference to his investigation, "maybe it was more about us being a bit jealous, you know?"

By Amy Standen

Amy Standen is a writer living in Oakland, Calif.

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