NeoCon: Freestanding Furniture Flexibility

June 18, 2007
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CHICAGO — The new Tour workspace from Turnstone, Steelcase Inc.’s small business brand, seems to capture a growing trend toward furniture flexibility.

In its current configuration in Turnstone’s 10th floor showroom at the Merchandise Mart, the workstation is topped with an overhead compartment on the right side. Remove a panel, disconnect a power cable, and with a push the compartment is on the left side. Turn the unit on its side and it’s a wardrobe.

“We were looking at what a small business person thinks when they move their office around,” said Jeff Schutte, Turnstone sales leader. “We knew they needed to be able to make it match whatever their need is at the time.”

Comprised of seven basic components, Tour can be configured into over 80 combinations to fit nearly any office design or specification. A similar benefit is seen in Turnstone’s new Alight lounge seating. The ottoman collection is available in three shapes that work together or independently, and in virtually any conceivable shape: straight benches, circles, snake and U-shape configurations, and so on.

“Flexibility, as in flexible space, is a term that we’re going to hear a lot more about,” said Brian Bascom, principal of Velocity Partners, a market research firm specializing in the furniture, health care and technology sectors. “The architecture and design community, as well as the end users, have really embraced flexibility — the ability to easily, efficiently and inexpensively reconfigure a space.”

Facilities managers are seeking ways to eliminate the significant costs associated with reconfiguring offices, and office furnishings manufacturers have responded. Movable wall systems have become popular offerings for Steelcase and Haworth Inc. Raised floor systems address the same concerns from an HVAC standpoint. Late last year Herman Miller Inc. introduced the Convia Programmable Infrastructure, an electrical and data system that can be reconfigured with the touch of a button.

“When you have to start putting up and taking down sheetrock walls, get materials and electrical contractors involved — these are $75-an-hour guys,” Bascom said. “To have something that is reconfigurable by employees themselves or a small facilities crew, now you’re taking thousands — maybe tens or hundreds of thousands — of dollars out of the budget.”

Sustainability, the ability to make things last versus things that have to be thrown away, is becoming a core philosophy of facilities and furniture designers alike. At the furniture level, this will be freestanding, flexible product that can be easily moved throughout a facility and adapted to meet different needs and spaces.

This was the intention of Chuck Saylor, izzydesign’s founder and president, when he designed his new Audrey furniture collection, introduced last week at NeoCon. Literally building blocks of modular furniture, Audrey shares a common 24-inch deep aluminum frame, available in lengths of up to seven feet, on top of which a wide variety of casegoods, benches and other pieces can be built.

“If you want to change it at a later date, all you have to do is pop out the box,” Saylor said. “There is an unbelievable amount of configurability.”

Saylor sees Audrey as an alternative to the architectural millwork common in educational installations and some commercial buildings. It could also be izzydesign’s entry into the residential furniture market.

In Holland, Haworth lists adaptability as a principal feature in its new generation of freestanding products. A year ago, Patterns was introduced as a complete collection of freestanding office furniture built entirely around a single architectural element: “the bridge.” This year, Haworth repeats that with the Planes collection of tables, carts, credenzas and podiums.

“What we’ve found is that a lot of our legacy products didn’t meet the complete need,” said Dan West, Haworth’s principal designer of freestanding furniture. “We needed something that could be integrated into any environment.”

Haworth’s goal was two-fold: It needed products that could be used to influence change in a workplace, as well as a product that could be used in all of Haworth’s global footprint.

After comparing notes with its German partners and finding the needs to be virtually identical, Haworth contracted Daniel Figueroa of Bad Munder, Germany, to design Planes. The result is a set of tables that, with the turn of a screw, can be reconfigured for a multitude of uses. The tables, especially, can be disassembled and then reassembled into an entirely different shape, provided the user has the necessary legs.

“This is a product line that we developed to fit these space-based cultural differences,” West said.

The European influence is a constant when it comes to flexible furniture systems. It has been the North American market, almost exclusively, that has held on to semi-enclosed, semi-private “bullpen” areas.

“It really goes back to how the office has evolved over the past 100 years,” said Michael Dunlap, principal of furniture consulting firm Michael A. Dunlap & Associates. “There have been very few truly open systems. A lot have been referred to as open plans, but it’s really a misnomer.”

Dunlap sees open plans as environments that foster collaboration and may or may not even have assigned workplaces. Bascom cited one of his Chicago consulting clients, cell phone maker Motorola, as a strong example of one type of open office. Motorola practices a form of “hoteling,” where many of its 2,000 Chicago-area workers don’t even have an assigned space. They order workspaces online as the need arises, allowing them to easily maneuver between the Chicago office, the company’s Schaumburg corporate headquarters, and other locations across the globe.

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