NeoCon: Steelcase Thinks Groups

June 18, 2007
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CHICAGO — Much as it focused on incarnations of the cubicle a year ago, Steelcase Inc. structured its 2007 NeoCon showroom around new uses and configurations rather than new products.

The world’s leading manufacturer of office furniture entered only one product into the Best of NeoCon competition under its flagship brand: the Amia task chair, the latest addition to the Alive Seating portfolio and the most value-priced to date, with an estimated list price between $400 and $650. It won a Gold award in the ergonomic seating category.

Mostly, Steelcase was trying to figure out how to make its product work better in a global marketplace.

“We’re talking about how we’re going to work in a flat world,” said Kyle Williams, Steelcase general manager of architecture, furniture and technology, referring to the bestselling book by Thomas Friedman. “How do you create an office that’s functional for someone in Grand Rapids, Beijing or France?”

Taking cues from Steelcase Europe, Steelcase is predicting that as open-office plans further supplant the cubicle in the American workplace, as it did many years ago in Europe, different work environments for personal and collaborative work will become increasingly important. As people spend 80 percent of the workday working alone or with one other person, Steelcase determined that work spaces should be designed to seamlessly accommodate one or two people.

Perhaps more significant for Steelcase this year are its operational and sustainability initiatives. It is wrapping up the consolidation of the last of its product lines — storage products — into a single platform, cutting half its parts inventory and variances. The company is also slowly re-engineering all of its products for McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry Cradle to Cradle Product Certification.

“I think that’s something unique we’re doing,” said Williams. “I think most of our competitors are focusing on making their new products green. We’re taking it a step further.”

Steelcase is also launching a widely expanded portfolio of surface materials, including Flux, a new fabric previewed at NeoCon. This material allows the pattern to transform or morph depending on the position from which it is viewed.

Back in West Michigan, Steelcase has plans to convert 60,000 square feet of former manufacturing space at its Grand Rapids headquarters into an expanded showroom and customer “experience center.” The project, estimated at $12 million to $18 million, will convert the remaining two buildings not sold to Ashley Capital on the 44th street campus into a setting akin to its adjacent Steelcase University complex.

According to Steelcase spokesman Jeanine Holquist, plans are to remove a service road between the two buildings and unite the structures with landscaping and pathways. The new space will be similar in function to Steelcase University, but focused on customers and products rather than training and development.

Construction could begin later this month.

The furniture maker has plans to ask the city of Grand Rapids for a tax abatement for the project. A year ago, the company was ordered to reimburse the city for tax breaks on the manufacturing facility now owned by Ashley Capital. The new project will not result in any new jobs, although 20 to 30 workers will move into the new space from other offices.

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