By Alan Cohen

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Whoever designed my Ikea office chair is a mystery, but I'm willing to bet they did not get us to the moon. Indeed, I'm not sure if they could get me from Manhattan to the Ikea store in New Jersey without a 10-page manual with no text and lots of confusing pictures. But I deserve my chair. I spent eight minutes picking it, a weekend assembling it, and the next two years sitting in it--hunched over at a 75-degree angle.

Little did I know: Some of the top minds in the furniture business have been hitting the physics books, building a better office chair. And chairs are only the beginning. You can find souped-up versions of just about every office staple, from pens with voice recorders to staplers that--well, for the moment, let's just say that they'll make you ashamed to admit you ever relied on that uncommunicative hunk of metal on your desk. Sure, laptops and personal digital assistants get all the glory, but you might be surprised just how far man has taken the hole punch. What are the most high-tech low-tech products you can buy? I decided to find out.

Of course, this meant leaving the home office, a frightful proposition given my frightful posture. So for moral support, I sought out my friend Marian. Over lunch I told her about my first quest, to find the best office chair. "Oh, you mean the Aeron!" Marian said. "We have them at work. You've got to try it!" I hadn't seen Marian this excited since HBO re-ran the entire second season of Sex and the City, so I thought she might be on to something.

At first glance, Herman Miller's Aeron chair ( is a bit perplexing. Its high-tech look makes it seem like something the cast of Star Trek might sit in. But the actual seat, which lacks upholstery and is made out of a flimsy-looking mesh, makes you wonder if it can support anyone bigger than, say, Mr. Chekov. Skeptical, I went to sit down, but Marian blocked the way. "No, this one is mine. Try that one," she said, pointing to an empty cubicle.

The chair was amazingly comfortable. And that mesh--some sort of super-fabric called Pellicle--was deceptively strong. But for all its comfort, the Aeron can be intimidating, with a half-dozen knobs and levers. Marian handed me a manual that showed how to work the controls. After 20 minutes of tinkering, I was convinced: This was the finest chair I had ever sat in.

My friend Marian isn't alone in her devotion. A search on the Web turned up all sorts of loving, sometimes worrisome, messages about the chair. One Aeron groupie admitted that he spends more time touching his chair than his significant other. The only complaint anyone raised was the price, typically between $750 and $800. But one Aeronophile had a plan: "The dot-coms bought thousands of these things," he wrote. "There should be lots of barely used Aerons on the used furniture market." That's when I learned about the Aeron Axiom of '99--any business that outfits its employees with Aeron chairs will burn through its cash reserves in less than 18 months.

It seemed I had found my chair. It was slick, it was comfortable, it had its own axiom. Then again, that axiom was two years old. Who knew what a couple of years meant in seating technology. Sure, the Aeron is popular, but is it still the state of the art?

That brought me to the folks at Levenger (, a Florida-based merchant whose catalog offers up all sorts of elaborate takes on usually mundane items like chairs and letter openers. Levenger first attracted my attention with the amazing MagneTacks ($14.95 for 12), which look like pushpins but are really "shockingly strong" magnets--or so reads the catalog blurb. Levenger claims that each tiny MagneTack can hold up to 10 sheets of 60-pound paper. In my own informal tests I got it to hold 11 sheets, though I have no idea how much the paper weighed. The only downside to the MagneTacks is that they come in a box that looks like a tin of Altoids, so every now and then I would look over and think, "Cool, mints," only to be sorely disappointed.

I called Peggy Montgomery, Levenger's senior vice president of marketing, to congratulate her on the shocking strength of the MagneTacks. "We're the leading edge of low tech," Peggy said proudly. That's great, I said, but what about the Aeron?

"It's our top seller," she said. Tracy Lamb, Levenger's marketing manager, piped in that she uses one as her own office chair. There: suspicions confirmed. The Aeron was the chair. Then Peggy dropped the bombshell. "I have a Freedom Chair," she said. "It's the most fabulous chair I've ever sat in."

"No, no," I protested. "It's the Aeron that's fabulous. Tracy has an Aeron."

"I want a Freedom!" Tracy called out.

"It's the most intuitive chair," Peggy boasted. "You don't have to adjust the tilt; it senses a person's weight and knows to go back just enough.... Everyone here is fighting over them."

Tracy was suspiciously quiet. Fearing that they would soon come to blows over the chair, I took my leave and called Tom Revelle, vice president of marketing at Humanscale (, which makes the Freedom. In Humanscale's New York City show room, Tom handed me some literature about the Freedom Chair's creator, Niels Diffrient. According to the brochure, Niels has spent 50 years in an upstate New York barn, thinking about chairs. Needless to say, I approached the Freedom cautiously. But the chair--a futuristic-looking purple model ($1,155 with headrest; $985 without)--was sensational. The Freedom's "exoskeleton" automatically balances your weight as you recline, so you never tilt back more than you want to. Tom was quick to note that the seat's cushion was made of the same gel that goes into fancy Italian bicycle saddles. As you sit, the gel moves to distribute your weight better. Leaving the showroom, I realized that I had both a lousy chair and a lousy bike.

But was the Freedom really better than the Aeron? It was too close to call. Indeed, with either of these chairs, I'd sit in a barn for 50 years too.

That, however, was wishful thinking. To support my chair habit, I'd have to do something, for which I'd undoubtedly need a high-tech pen.

At the Sharper Image (, I quickly found a contender in the Fisher Space Pen ($34.95), which allegedly can write upside down, in zero gravity, underwater, and over grease. I was a bit hesitant. For one thing, my office is in Earth's gravity field. For another, the Space Pen was in the same display case as the "million-dollar bill," so I wondered how seriously to take it as a business tool. Not satisfied, I dropped into Brookstone ( a block away to check out their gadgety wares. That's when I spotted the Voice Recording Pen ($25)--an ordinary pen that stores up to 20 seconds of audio reminders, things like "Buy paper" and "Get a life." Impressive, yes, but I wanted more.

I'll get it--but not for a while. Later this year, Anoto ( will unveil a system that uses a $100 pen-cum-camera, a wireless transceiver, and specially coded paper to capture your writing and transmit it to such devices as a mobile phone or a PC. That means my pen will be able to call and tell me to get a life.

That news about specially coded paper got me wondering whether I'd need a more advanced shredder than what I have now (my bare hands). A Usenet newsgroup search turned up the German Intimus 0077 model, which ripped paper into pieces the size of a single character. But at $8,500, that shredder was more suited for those starting a new embassy than those opening a new office. At $59.99, the GBC Shredmaster Cyclone ( won me over. A compact unit that sits under or on top of your desk, the Cyclone offers features you'd normally find only on bigger, more expensive units, such as reverse mode (for clearing jams), cross-cut shredding (which makes it harder to reconstruct a page), and steel cutters that can devour staples.

GBC also makes the cleverly named Heavy Duty Electric Punch ($599). They may lack marketing savvy, but if you're cutting paper, these are your people. This baby shook, hummed, and made some rather scary crunching noises. Still, in 20 seconds it bored through a 150-sheet stack of paper, drilling perfect holes. When the HDEP is done, it automatically shuts off so you feel safe approaching it again.

Coming off that high, I was a bit bummed to be out scoping tape dispensers, but thankfully the Scotch Tape people ( haven't merely been sticking to tradition. At Staples, I found the new Pop-Up Tape Strip Dispenser ($8.99), which takes tape--and human laziness--to new heights. The desktop dispenser uses precut strips that spare you the trouble of cutting the tape yourself. Over 40 years, this may save you as much as four minutes.

Perhaps the strips are a bit gimmicky, but the dispenser also boasts a nifty built-in portable unit. Just pop it out and take it on the road. Thanks to an elastic strap, you can even wear the mobile dispenser on your palm for taping "on the go." I have yet to see anyone actually wearing their Pop-Up Tape Strip Dispenser, and I'm worried I may, but there's no denying this is one handy tape dispenser.

Since I was already at Staples, I thought it would be only appropriate to do my stapler research there. To be fair, I'll hit Office Depot for my next story on depots. The Swingline Millennium Electric Stapler (, $154.45 list), a behemoth with an eye-catching low-staple indicator light, immediately grabbed me. But was this really the most advanced stapler out there? Hitting the Web again, I found a site called the Stapler Database (, which bills itself as the "biggest serious Website totally about stapler information." I dashed off an e-mail to the site's owner, who turned out to be a high school senior named Mike. He was the proud owner of 26 different staplers, but, sadly, was trapped in the stapler's past, not its future, so I filed Mike's name away for a future story on popular high school seniors and called David Kalberer, the vice president for marketing at Hunt Corp. (, the folks who build Boston staplers.

Dave conceded that the Grip stapler ($21.95 list) of 1997, an upright stapler that his company introduced, was the "last big innovation." Ninety percent of people pick up their stapler to use it, and the Grip saves that extra step of turning the stapler upright. Chalk up another four minutes saved in your lifetime. But, Dave said, if I could hold out five years, the excitement would be back. "It's the Holy Grail of stapling: a stapler that doesn't require staples," he declared. The idea is to use pressure or some sort of high-tech bonding agent to hold pages together. "Lots of people are working on it," he noted. I wonder if anyone has warned the folks at Staples.

While I had Dave on the phone, I asked him for advice on pencil sharpeners. At the office-supply stores I had come upon Boston's No. 1606 High-Volume Commercial Electric Sharpener ($175 list), which featured an internal cooling mechanism to prevent the motor from overheating. Nifty, but what else was out there? Here, the news was not good. "Pencil usage is going down," Dave said sadly. And that meant less interest in flashy models. Hunt had built a combination pencil sharpener and Lava lamp that "didn't get a whole lot of reaction." The company also experimented with using lasers to vaporize pencil shavings, but it was too expensive.

Hunt hasn't given up the pursuit of new advances; it has a research group in North Carolina and a staff that, according to Dave, does things like "figure out what angle you should insert a pencil to get the sharpest point without breakage." But the emphasis now is on fashion. Every six to nine months the company reintroduces its products in all-new hues. The color of the moment, Dave confided, is celadon, an offshoot of celery. "When I got into the business, I never thought I'd be looking at women's pants colors and thinking how to work that into an office product," he confessed.

Dave doesn't know it, but the pencil may be poised for a comeback. For this you can thank the design team at Levenger, which spent two years pushing the envelope of eraser technology. Concluding that the ideal eraser shape should resemble a spoon, they built Ergorasers ($18.95 for three). These are the Aerons of erasers. And the case doesn't remotely resemble a box of Altoids. If you're reading this, Dave, tell the guys in the lab to get cracking: We may be needing that laser-powered pencil sharpener, after all. In celadon.