computers: my legendary Herman-Miller Levity standing desk

I’m trying to give my old adjustable desk to a museum, or at least to someone who has a use for it. It’s the Levity by Herman-Miller, an impressive piece of late 90s office design. It goes from

knowledge athlete at work

to

Herman-Miller Levity in standing mode

The backstory

I’ve stood to work at a computer for decades, long before it was trendy. I set up computers on lab racks, I put file cabinets on my desk to lift up monitors, I raised cubicle desk surfaces as high as they could be mounted.

Then in 1999 the great furniture company Herman Miller announced the Levity desk, designed by Richard Holbrook. Finally a computer desk that could be adjusted to different positions! This was a hard problem back then because computer monitors were all CRT (cathode ray tube) designs, and big ones (over 20 inches) could weigh hundreds of pounds. To address this the Levity desk incorporated hundreds of pounds of counterweights:

Herman-Miller Levity desk with the weight stack visible

I assume these first three photos are copyright 1999 HermanMiller.

You can see the stack of weights below the desk behind the smoke-gray plastic cover. This is a weightlifting apparatus linked by pulleys to a work surface.

The desk got a lot of attention and won a Gold Award at NeoCon for Innova-
tion, and was included in the Workspheres exhibition at theMuseum of Modern Art in New York. But then the desk took two years to ship, I think due to OSHA workplace safety concerns. If you put a heavy monitor on the desk without counterbalancing it, it might slam down on you while adjusting the height; conversely if you took heavy stuff off the desk without changing the weight stack, it might shoot upwards to punch you in the jaw. Herman-Miller added a balance indicator to warn if the desk is out of balance, earthquake straps to secure the computer monitor, and lots of safety warnings:

Herman-Miller Levity desk level adjust

is it safe to adjust the height?

So I finally took delivery in 2001, paying $3,600 for the desk. (!!) A lot of money, but I spent more hours at this desk than I did sleeping, so money well spent. The thing worked really well.

my Levity desk, 20 years later

Herman-Miller’s concept for the desk involved moving it around in space as well as up-and-down. The brochure talks of “knowledge athletes” (arggh!) moving their desks around to form ad hoc workgroups, and the Levity line included two kinds of carts for trucking your computer workstation around along with the desk to work on projects with other knowledge athletes. In the real world, the office furniture supplier rolled the desk into my cubicle at work, where it stayed put until each time I changed location in corporate reorgs. The Levity is a quarter circle with a 4 foot radius, so it fit perfectly into a 8×8 foot cubicle built of 48″ panels: just remove one desk surface. Then my company downsized to 42″ panels and the symmetry was gone, but I made it work.

I eventually brought the desk home where it saw use as a sit-to-stand desk for a laptop plugged into an external Sony FDM-400 monitor. You can see the collision of the designer’s Platonic form with the real world: all the cables that a desktop computer requires, for power, microphone, computer speakers, Ethernet, in addition to the transformers for the two lit workholders. My Levity came with a black zippered sock for cable management but it’s impossible to organize all the cables in one place.

A beautiful white elephant

In retrospect it’s obvious this 600 pound behemoth was a dead end. Flat lightweight LCD monitors were already available and dominated boxy CRTs by the early 2000s. Meanwhile so-called “knowledge athletes” were carrying lightweight laptops around, and the need to support hundreds of pounds of weight vanished. Desks no longer needed to be several feet deep to permit a big CRT. If you know anyone who wants or needs a beautiful adjustable desk that can support so much weight, please get in touch.

Some day I’ll write about all my other adjustable desks: the Biomorph Exo home desk (as advertised in the back pages of WIRED magazine), a custom desk powered by a Conset wall-bracket motor, the lightweight Ergotron desk I last used at work that weighs a sixth of the Levity.

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