Our Bodies, Our Desks

Our Bodies, Our Desks

The Stir Kinetic Desk may be the world’s first smart desk, designed to get working folk up on their feet.

By Kathleen Kelleher 09/01/2014

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By now you are probably aware of the alarming pronouncement: Sitting is the new smoking. Or, your chair is out to kill you. Mounting scientific evidence bolsters those claims. Anchored to our chairs at desks for long stretches of time — eight to 10 hours a day — is slowing our metabolism, lowering our good cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and early death. Even being ultra-fit does not inoculate you against the toxic effects of sitting. But standing up while working is linked not only to better health but to higher productivity, weight loss and a sunnier state of mind.    


To the rescue comes the standing desk, the answer to chronic workplace sitting. While there are many standing desks on the market, nothing compares to the Stir Kinetic Desk, the Tesla of the pack. The Pasadena-based company Stir created the  Kinetic Desk — what might be described as a disruptive model amid the majority of standing desks. Stir just may revolutionize ordinary standing desks the way the iPhone did archaic flip mobile phones. 


Created by a team of alums from Apple, Disney and the design firm Ideo, the Stir Kinetic Desk is a smart standing desk. It is automated to help you seamlessly transition between sitting and standing positions with a double tap on an embedded desktop flat screen. The small iPad-like screen also delivers quantitative information about the desk user’s health, activity and movement, including how many minutes are spent standing and sitting, and how many calories are burned. These analytic reports that track movement, integrating the information with mobile devices, can be referenced by swiping the screen. Equipped with WiFi and Bluetooth, the kinetic desk incorporates such movement information as a two-mile run performed before work, by integrating and syncing the data from a smartphone, Fitbit or other fitness device.


“We found that 70 percent of people who had [non-automated] stand-up desks used them mostly in the sitting position,” says desk designer and Stir CEO J.P. Labrosse, whose career history includes working on Apple’s iPod Shuffle and iPad. “We thought that a height-adjustable desk was a lot like a treadmill that sits in the garage collecting dust.”


Persuading people to change habitual behavior can be challenging even when that behavior hurts them. Labrosse and his co-creators are trying to get people out of their chairs with something called Whisperbreath, selected by pressing the active mode button on the front of the desk. Whisperbreath is what Labrosse describes as the desk’s “tactile reminder” to change positions during the day by moving up (or down, if you need to sit) about an inch. Labrosse describes this as an “invitation,” adding, “It solves the problem of reminding a person to change positions without interruption.” Whisperbreath only asks once, and if it gets a “no” then the internal computer device learns from that interaction, absorbing the desk user’s habits and routines and adjusting to the feedback. Whisperbreath can also be switched off. The idea is not to obstruct the rhythmic flow of work. 


“We really set out to create products that people will feel connected with,” says Labrosse, a mechanical engineer who says that he stands at his desk about half the time. “We figure we have tripled the amount of time people use the height adjustment compared to other height-adjustable desks.”


Labrosse was inspired by his own experiences with standing desks early in his career. He noticed how much better he felt when he worked alternating between standing and sitting. That advantage was later confirmed and explained in numerous studies. So LaBrosse and a team of like-minded innovators seized the opportunity to create a standing desk that connected all the pieces they felt were missing from existing models — an interconnected workspace that would leverage today’s connectivity to prompt you to change positions when you otherwise would not, and allow you to see the quantifiable results on a touch screen. They also wanted to create all this in a beautiful piece of furniture that would complement a modernist, urban office space. 


The Stir team chose to set up shop in Pasadena in 2012 because it is Labrosse’s hometown and a fantastic market for a health-focused and technology-driven start-up. What’s more, good design is a hallmark of Pasadena culture, attracting people who value its stunning Craftsman houses or want to join the next generation of designers themselves with an education from Art Center College of Design.


The Stir Kinetic Desk’s industrial design is clean and minimalist, maximizing the surface space by placing eight AC ports and four powered USB ports in two built-in recessed compartments. All cables and wires disappear from view, creating a clean, open desk space. The underside of the desk is visible when it rises, offering a surprising peekaboo glimpse of  a bright splash of green, crimson or ultramarine — or charcoal for those with more subdued taste. Desk finish options include white polymer laminate or a maple laminate that comes in espresso. 


Of course, the sleek design doesn’t appeal to everyone. “Personally, I find it a little blocky,” says David Mocarski, chair of Art Center’s Environmental Design Department and lead developer of the new graduate program “Designing Experience.”


“I don’t find a straight line on a human being or a flat surface on a human being,” he says. “It is very much a modernist machine aesthetic. I would like to see more sympathetic [conforming to human curves] lines. It is a sort of bold controlled piece and then the color on the underside can be really sort of interesting and fun.”


Solutions to the sitting problem were much discussed at NeoCon, a massive Chicago convention dedicated to hotel and office furniture, held in June, says Mocarski, who attended.  And at a time when everyone seems to have a smartphone, a stationary desk seems like a dinosaur of design. “People need the right tools to work 24/7 in this global economy where there are no time zones, no weekends and there are tremendous opportunities for business — but at the end of the day, our bodies take a beating,”  Mocarski says. The Stir Kinetic Desk is an attempt to help us work better and longer.


Wired magazine, which has been reviewing standing desks for two years, proclaimed “Get a Standing Desk” as one of its “18 Data-Driven Ways to Be Happier, Healthier and Even a Little Smarter.” A Wired writer reviewed the Stir Kinetic Desk in September 2013, around the time it launched. She noted that with a price tag of $3,890 and measurements of 58.5–by–29.5 inches, it would be too pricey and too large for her smallish Brooklyn apartment. 


That will also be true for some Pasadenans and Angelenos. But one can dream.   

Kinetic Desks are on display at Stir’s office, 1976 Lincoln Ave., Pasadena. For an appointment, email info@stirworks.com. To order a desk online, visit stirworks.com

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