• History of Variable Movement: Peter Opsvik and the ‘Balans’ concept

    Peter Opsvik was born in 1939. From the age of 17 he worked as a carpenter in his family’s small furniture factory in Norway. His education in the field of ergonomic design first came in 1970 whilst studying Design at Essen, Germany, where he worked with a prominent ergonomist, Ulrich Burandt, founder member of the ergonomic movement. There, Opsvik learned how to “apply biological principles and engineering techniques to the design and living of work environments”

    It is clear that Burandt hit a harmonious chord with Opsvik’s own swiftly developing thoughts and attitudes. Burandt had previously completed studies utilising x-ray to investigate the effect slanted seating had on the curvature of the lumbar spine. In 1968 he had presented these results to the International Ergonomic Association at the Symposium on ‘sitting posture’ which had taken place in Zurich, Switzerland.

    Ulrich Burandt concluded that, for physiological reasons, a forward slanting seat was preferred.

    Throughout the 1970’s Peter Opsvik continued to develop his ideas, attempting to create a chair as dynamically elegant as it is functional. By 1978, although several ingredients were firmly in place, there seemed to be a final piece of the posture puzzle still missing. Opsvik’s theories and creativity were crying out for a more suitable application. The solution arrived in the guise of an aspiring entrepreneur who two years earlier, whilst being the victom of domestic refurbishment, had found himself kneeling at the only surface available, which was a low coffee table. Hans Christian Mengschoel had an idea – why not invent a completely new style of furniture – kneeling stools?

    Mengschoel had already applied for a patent for his concept under the name ‘Stoolette’ and had even started work on prototypes when Opsvik’s help was requested. Mengschoel never considered himself to be a furniture designer and, realising his limitations, concluded that professional assistance was imperative if progress was to be made. Opsvik instantly recognised Mengshoel’s ‘Stoolette’ as being the inspiration for the ideal solution he had been searching for. “I saw right away”, Opsvik recalled, “that knee supports allow a greater inclination of the seat angle without slipping than would otherwise be possible for posture and comfort” than those without.

    Within approximately six months Opsvik had produced no fewer than six prototypes, his favourite being a small model built on two curved rails, or runners, of laminated beechwood. In time the ‘Variable’ kneeling chair would become the most successful chair of its type and establish itself as a widely accepted modern day classic. It is still sold to this day: http://www.shape-seating.co.uk/chairs-by-brand/varier/variable-kneeling-chair/

    After perfecting designs and building prototypes, the collective name for the concept was chosen only a few months before it’s first exhibition at the 1979 Scandinavian Furniture Fair. It came about when Mengshoel was helping Opsvik to work out the best seat angle for the ‘Variable’ chair. The same question was repeatedly asked: “Do you have your body in balance now?” Therefore, ‘Balans’, the Norwegian word for balance, symbolised the desired result and became the group’s new title. Ironically, AC. Mandal, a designer who had already influenced Opsvik’s ideas, had used the same word in exactly the same context in his 1976 paper. Whilst describing sitting in a forward slanting seat he wrote, “the spinal column is thereby resting in a natural swaying position of balance that does not require considerable muscle work. In a balanced position the back support is quite unnecessary.”

    As a result of the fair ‘Balans’ was successful in attaining extensive media coverage and by 1980 a new form of seating had well and truly been launched. Shape Design Contracts Ltd were the first company to introduce this range of seating into the United Kingdom, and is the reason why, some 35 years later, Shape Posture Seating are a thriving business.

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