Furniture company Herman Miller has been around for a long time — since 1905. Over its nearly 120 years in business, the Michigan-based furniture giant has established itself in multiple arenas, but the two where it commands the most authority are in the fields of mid-century modern design, where HM helped usher in the designer-led era thanks to its collaborations with Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi and others, and office furniture, where it’s been leading the charge in the ergonomic movement since the Aeron’s release in 1994.
And through all of its iconic releases over the decades, perhaps none is more emblematic of Herman Miller as a brand than the Zeph office chair.
Released in 2022, the Zeph is seen as a bridge between the two sides of Herman Miller. On the one hand, it is an object of beauty, evoking the same clean and organic mid-century modern design aesthetics as classics like the Eames Shell Chair. On the other, it’s an ergonomic office chair, designed to support your back through a day of work.
But does the Zeph actually function as a solid brand representative of all Herman Miller has to offer as a furniture brand — at a price point below most of the company’s other office chairs — or does it come up short? I spent a couple of months working with the Herman Miller Zeph to find out.
What We Like About the Herman Miller Zeph
It’s Got Style for Days
I, admittedly, put a lot of stock into the beauty of physical objects — perhaps too much. I am known to sacrifice some functionality and even comfort in my furniture if it has the look I want (sue me), and the Zeph definitely has the look I want.
I’m a sucker for mid-century modern design, and the Zeph — which was designed by German collective Studio 7.5 — looks like something one of the Eameses could’ve scribbled on a napkin and then stuck in a drawer to be uncovered by someone at Herman Miller 75 years later. The chair is graceful, stylish and playful, and will look great in all but the most traditional of spaces. I enjoy looking at it, and there are few (if any) office chairs on the market that look better.
The Flexible Back Offers Automatic Comfort
When Herman Miller released the Zeph, they made a big deal out of the fact that the chair required no adjustments. The only thing you’re even able to adjust is the height, which is done so via a simple metal lever on the base. There’s no tilt to get right, no lumbar adjustments, no complications at all.
So how does this simplicity work? Pretty great, actually. The first couple of times I leaned back in the Zeph, I definitely had a mini-heart attack thinking I was about to fall over. But after those initial scares, I came to really appreciate the way the chair coddled me and moved with me. HM calls it a kinematic mono-shell, and it works by pairing a flexible plastic back that feeds into the base as you lean back. It never totally gives way — it’s always pushing back with the gentlest pressure — so my back always feels supportive in the chair, regardless of how I’m seated.
It Has Great Proportions
While no chair works for everyone, most should feel pretty comfy in the Zeph. While it looks like a small chair online, it’s really quite generous with its proportions. These proportions not only make the chair look good, but they allow it to accommodate multiple body types. The seat is wide and deep, and the back is nicely curved without being obtrusive. Compared to many other office chairs, the Zeph doesn’t have any pressure points on the hips or elsewhere, making it suitable for longer hours in comfort.
What We Don’t Like About the Herman Miller Zeph
It’s Not Very Cushioned
If there is one area where the Zeph let me down in the comfort department, it’s the cushioning on the seat. The bare-bones version of the chair has no cushioning at all, just a hard plastic seat. That’s obviously a non-starter if you’re using it as a work chair, but even if you opt for the optional 3D Knit Cover, you’re still not getting a very plush seat.
The cover is 3D-knit for a perfect fit and no wasted material during production — which is great — but it’s paired with a foam cushion that’s just a few millimeters thick. It’s comfortable enough for maybe three or four hours (Herman Miller recommends the Zeph for four hours of work, for what it’s worth), but any longer and I found myself reaching for a seat cushion.
The 3D Knit Cover Traps Dirt and Hair
The previously-mentioned 3D-Knit cover looks the business. It feels nice to the touch, comes in a number of colors and really transforms the look of the chair for the better. But it is a pain to clean. The cover is covered with these little dimples, which look nice but do an excellent job of trapping dirt, lint and hair. I found myself constantly having to brush off the chair or pick out debris, which was a bit annoying. But hey, if Herman Miller ever wants to make a Swiffer-like cleaning device, I can suggest a great material for it.
The Arms Are Kind of Useless
I tested the Zeph with arms, which is the more expensive version of the chair (adding them tacks on $50 to the cost of the chair). But honestly, I wish I had opted for the armless version. The arms are simply too low to be useful, and my elbows float above them when using the chair. They aren’t adjustable at all, and changing the seat height does nothing either since they’re attached to the seat. Anyone taller than me (I’m only 5’7″) is likely to run into the same issue, and I’d guess that only those who are 5’5″ or shorter will be able to get any use out of these arms.
Alternatives to the Zeph Chair
The Zeph is unique in that it offers some level of legitimate ergonomic comfort in a stylish, MCM-inspired design, so you’ll likely have to compromise on one of those factors in choosing a replacement. Herman Miller’s own Sayl is more supportive than the Zeph, but it costs a couple hundred dollars more and has a design that’s a bit more out there. There’s also the Caper from Herman Miller, which is a task chair like the Zeph. It’s flexible and even has adjustable tilt, but the design is more pedestrian. Haworth’s Maari may be the best alternative, as it features sustainable construction, a flexible, adjustment-free back, and a thinly upholstered seat. It, like the Sayl, costs a couple hundred more than the Zeph, though. Finally, there’s Branch’s Verve. We’ve reviewed this chair, and it’s a striking design with some funky colors offering loads of ergonomic adjustments. It’s much more complicated than the Zeph, but checks a lot of the same boxes.
Herman Miller Zeph Office Chair: The Verdict
Is the Zeph office chair the product that culminates 117 years of innovation at Herman Miller? I wouldn’t say that, and to be fair, neither has Herman Miller. What it is, however, is a tremendous-looking office chair that offers ergonomic comfort in a simplified, adaptable form. It’s not going to keep you comfortable for a full eight hours, at least not without a seat cushion, but I think it’s the ideal chair for many WFH setups — mine included.