Today I was checking the proximity sensors based on optical reflection, specially the VCNL4020 which can do 20cm and which I have in my parts box. Or the SI1146. It turns out that even though these would allow for a smaller sensor, they have more limited range than the ultrasonic distance sensor. Then, it hit me: capacitive! A simple wire placed under the chair can measure capacitance which should change depending on whether somebody is sitting or not.
Note: i am not looking at making a chair with built in sensor, rather a sensor as a simple to use add-on.