A tale of work-from-home back pain, remedied

Created in 1979 by Norwegian industrial designer Peter Opsvik, the Variable Balans kneeling chair is a real back-saver.
Created in 1979 by Norwegian industrial designer Peter Opsvik, the Variable Balans kneeling chair is a real back-saver.Varier

On a tour once of Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, I learned the excellent detail that the author of “The Age of Innocence” did all of her writing in bed. She wrote longhand, letting the pages fall to the floor, to be gathered up by a maid.

I longed to try this immediately. My only impediment: a day job. Unlike Wharton, I needed one. Still do. I also did not have a maid. Still don’t, although if I am to glean anything from the way my 9-year old flings off his clothes like they are on fire and leaves them wherever they land, I must very closely resemble one.


In March, when working from home became the order of the day, I thought: No home office? No problem. I’ll work in bed! Really, I couldn’t wait to get started.

What a terrible idea. Turns out, working all propped up on pillows is back-suicide by softness. Who knew? If the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize in literature ever recorded her reflections on the matter, they have been lost to history. Perhaps Wharton had a sensible horsehair mattress, or just an altogether better back. She certainly had enviable home help.

My default work-from-home setup became an old sewing table with an awkward opening for my legs, and a wooden chair that would not look out of place on the set of “The Crucible.” It is the sturdy, straight-backed embodiment of Puritanism. I stacked a couple of thin cushions on its woven rush seat and made do.

Wharton would have ordered her maid to make kindling of that spiteful apparatus. But I shifted miserably on it for hours at a time, weeks on end. Knots screamed up and down my spine. To ease them, I soaked in hot baths with Epsom salts. I stole tennis balls from our puppy and rolled on them. And when stretching and twisting and complaining aloud about how very awfully my back hurt no longer brought even a little relief, I disappeared down an Internet rabbit hole in search of a better chair.


Apparently, everyone else suffering at home with lousy ergonomics had beaten me to it. There were waitlists for all manner of back-saving seating, including the model I snapped up at a steep, open-box discount: the Variable Balans kneeling chair, created in 1979 by Norwegian industrial designer Peter Opsvik. His name translates, roughly, as “vanquisher of the gods of lumbar mischief.”

OK, I made that up. I have no idea what his name means. But I love the chair Opsvik invented with my whole, pain-free back. Its bent ash frame rocks, promoting spine-saving movement. It is pleasingly weird to look at, quaintly futuristic — like Princess Leia’s side buns hairdo, which, given my other pandemic-era vexation — wild, neglected tresses — I just might try next. And in the unlikely event that some tour group ever peers into the room where I once wrote, I can’t wait for them to take in the seat of my inspiration.