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Design aligns between US and Europe

July 2010

by John Fogarty

Your 21st is a rite of passage. A time to reflect on the past while look forward to the future. And visiting NeoCon, Chicago’s annual workplace furniture fest, for the last 21 years has certainly given me a fascinating perspective on the differences between US and European furniture design, plus an insight into where trends have emerged from, and where they are heading.
Two decades ago the contrast between these two great continents was stark and dramatic. But as the years have rolled past, there has been a rapidly accelerating coming together of ideas and practice. The result was that this year’s show superficially revealed an almost complete convergence.

I say superficially because it is always hard to judge whether or not the product which manufacturers choose to display represents mainstream demand or simply the very latest attention-grabbing PR-friendly ideas. In the past my superstition would have been that the manufacturers were still all shifting acres of cubicles while promulgating new concepts. But with the recession having pretty much put paid to demand altogether, I suspect that the dramatic convergence of ideas is genuine and will prove to be long-lasting.
It’s fair to say that the globalisation in office seating design has been with us for more that a decade. The Americans have led the way in technological advances, with the likes of Herman Miller’s ground-breaking Aeron, launched in 1994, with its pellicle suspension. Yet it has also been in the sector of workstation design where the greatest divergence has traditionally existed.

Followers of the Dilbert cartoon series will be familiar with the term “cube”, and the fun that creator Scott Adams has had at the expense of the poor benighted cube farm dwellers (they are the occupiers of the small panelled enclosures so beloved of American planners and employers).

As with all enduring fashions, sometimes the rationale behind them becomes so buried in myth and time that untangling any logic for their continued preference becomes all but impossible. However, we do know that while US office buildings feature large unbroken floor plates, unlike their UK counterparts they do not feature raised-access floors to anything like the same degree. Panels therefore fulfil the dual function of demarcating individual cubes and providing a conduit for power, data and telecoms. And although mainland European offices also lack raised-access flooring, they tend to be smaller in area, which means that the subject of cabling doesn’t carry anything like the same degree of significance.

When something like the “cube” becomes the overwhelming norm, the sheer size of the installed base tends to militate against wholesale change. If anything the US emphasis, up to less than five years ago, centred on the non-dedicated nature of the then latest generation of panel systems and their ability to suit anyone else’s desking and cabinets. Companies such as Canada’s Smed seemed to be built almost entirely on this single premise.

So what has changed? Thanks to the veritable explosion in communications technology, the world has become a much smaller place from the perspective of the “virtual” exchange of ideas. Moreover, while the larger US players had hitherto operated their European subsidiaries at arms length, the elevation of Franco Bianchi from Castelli in Italy to CEO at US parent company Haworth meant that European ideas were being represented at the most senior level on the other side of the pond.

Last, but certainly not least, the tanked economy meant that very little was selling and what was selling was doing so largely on price. Since European benching is price-driven both in terms of flexible occupancy and in terms of hardware bangs per buck, the logic behind its rapid US adoption is entirely logical.

Whereas in 2009 only a handful of manufacturers were showing fully developed systems (most notably Teknion with their Cark Magnusson-designed Marketplace product), this year every major had a bench.
However the newer generation of products on show this year were of a much (perhaps too much?) lighter and simpler construction and appearance, perhaps best exemplified by Knoll’s Antenna, with its spindly legs:

Elsewhere Steelcase was showing its European-sourced FrameOne programme, but with the addition of top-clamped storage/power elements and narrow mobile trolleys. The latter appeared to be made from CNC-machined and fabricated heavy gauge aluminium sheet, which to me didn’t feel like a viable cost-effective, mass production methodology.

Herman Miller was floating some – as yet unnamed – ideas for benching based on integrating existing programme elements with new, such as a new beam-based table. What seemed quite rightly to be exercising their creativity was making the transition from old to new ways of working as seamless and as cost-effective for their customers as possible. This of course makes good economic as well as environmental sense.

Elsewhere Knoll was combining metal storage elements with timber surfaces to create integrated carrel-type workstations of great simplicity with very little aesthetic compromise:
Although superficially there was very little new in Haworth’s showroom, by studying the detail it was possible to discern that a whole host of design tweaks had been introduced to better integrate existing systems both with one another and with newer elements. Thus their Compose system, which includes a bench, can be specified with its own timber storage or with X-Series storage.

Herman Miller reported sales massively in excess of forecasts for their Setu programme, which includes a lounge chair and ottoman as well as a multi-purpose (conference and visitors) variant, all now available with an over-fabric layer.

Under its Geiger brand the company also launched three new timber and upholstered seating programmes: Saya by 5D Studio (David Rich and Mark Saffell), an interesting visual and tactile juxtaposition of rectilinear wooden bases and stretched “sock” tubs; Plus Deft and A-Line by Khodi Fetz. The latter features a common wooden base with alternative plug-in side and armchair uppers. It looked particularly good in smooth, creamy white leather.
Haworth launched a task chair variant of its existing Very seating series. A simple and (I imagine) keenly-priced chair with an asymmetrically adjustable lumbar support.

Steelcase managed to launch a category-defining product in their Node chair. Aimed at the education market this combines a flexible, swivel bucket seat with a cruciform, tub base on castors, which provides space for storing items such as rucksacks, as well as a tablet surface. In effect it provides a self-contained mini workstation for contemplative or collaborative working.

It was good to see Allermuir (Senator) flying the flag in its showroom, with new chair releases Agitus and Lip. The former is a task chair with an expressed structural spine supporting adjustable support elements within a pellicle back and headrest, while the latter comprises a range of legged chairs and stools, with and without arms, with plastic or timber seats and backs, all optionally upholstered. Pretty, compact, comprehensive and comfortable.
Accessories and Lighting

Always a big topic; this year even more so with the pre-show news of Colebrook Bosson Saunders’ acquisition by Herman Miller. All the majors were making a splash, including HM under their own Strive brand for the US. My understanding is that the CBS brand will be retained in other markets.
Haworth was showing its LIM – Light in Motion – ultra-slender and compact, LED source lighting programme (a previous best-of-show winner) with its Compose benching (see earlier). LIM has good variable output combined with a beautifully integrated and subtle appearance. It almost disappears into the furniture.

This brings me on to my specialist subject: Storage. I’m always encouraged how storage in the US remains a wholly integrated part of the individual workstation, whereas in Europe – and the UK in particular – it has been largely stripped away in the drive for non-allocated workstations. However, with the US adopting European benching - but with its own particular storage-incorporating twist - I am confident that there will be an adverse reaction here in the to the whole workspace depersonalisation movement. Individual storage will make a welcome return.

Over the past two NeoCons the US products that for me have pointed to what the European office landscape of the future might look like are: Knoll Template, Haworth Compose, Steelcase c:scape, and Allsteel Stride.

John Fogarty is design director at Bisley