Furniture Trends: Sizing Up 2006

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Sizing Up 2006 Furniture Trends

By Marilyn Zelinsky-Syarto
Published in the May 2006 issue of
 Today’s Facility Manager

Ask facility managers what their biggest problems are, and they’ll most likely say they need to do more with less—less time, less space, and less money. Add into that the fact that technology is a large factor driving the way spaces are reconfigured. With all that in mind, will furniture companies introduce products in 2006 that will help facility managers manage their smaller spaces? Or are manufacturers hoping to make a splash at NeoCon and beyond with breakthrough products that grab the spotlight?

 

The Practical Revolution

“I don’t think facility managers are looking for any radical breakthroughs or new furniture concepts,” says Sandy Horton, director of product line management of Kimball Office in Jasper, IN. “The furniture they have to buy in the future has to be compatible with the furniture they already own. Facility managers want manufacturers to develop products with higher levels of performance, are more sustainable, and are easier to install and operate. They also want manufacturers to follow-through on what we tell them. If we say their furniture will be there in four weeks, then it should be there in four weeks.”

Practicality, at multiple price points, is clearly the major furniture trend in lieu of anything more revolutionary on the drawing boards, at least for 2006. “In the last three to four years, across the board, the furniture industry has taken a more practical approach,” says Don Mead, vice president of HON products, marketing and development for Muscatine, IA-based HNI Corporation.

These words are comforting to a number of end users, including Charles Zelonis, facilities manager for Aavid Thermalloy in Concord, NH. “I wish furniture companies would come out with more conservative furniture designs, because some of the products look too futuristic.” HON’s Mead adds that facility managers of small- to medium-sized companies want anything but trendy. “Breakthrough introductions get attention and are used as statement pieces in a couple of core areas of a building, but in the end, facility managers buy practical furniture so it will last,” he explains.

Cubicle Central

Haworth will bring to market Patterns, a collection of workstation pieces—in the form of benches, tables, desks, work walls, and “wrapppers” that are meant to work with any interior architecture and also with the company’s Compose systems and Enclose movable walls.

Building on the practicality trend is Marta Wassenaar, product manager for Patterns and LEED AP at Haworth in Holland, MI. “Facility managers have codes they have to abide by and all markets have different regulations, so change can be slow,” she says. “However, the facility managers’ needs from an efficiency standpoint have not changed; right now, cubicles are the answer.”

Facility professionals won’t disagree there. “We can’t do away with cubicles—that’s not a reality,” says Christopher Fusco, facility manager with The Ford Company in Cranbury, NJ. “Cubicles are vital for our entire company, including our offices in Detroit. We need a level of privacy, since few people work in private offices anymore; cubicles offer that to us.”

For managers who need to outfit historic buildings, systems also remain important. “Cubicles are never going away; we need them for privacy since we can’t build walls,” says Carl Henke, facility manager for the Senate of Pennsylvania building in Harrisburg, PA, a historic, ornate structure that prohibits the building of interior walls.

In response to many facility managers’ needs, most furniture companies are streamlining their systems offerings to make them more flexible for end users’ needs.

Fitting Into Less Space

Furniture manufacturers say they make it a priority to talk with an exhaustive number of facility managers before tackling the design of a new product. “We frequently see that facility managers are trying to do more with less space as the size of workspaces continues to be reduced,” says Eric Jungbluth, president of Muscatine, IA-based Allsteel. “Although the economy remains robust, we also see that facility managers are consolidating space, or trying to utilize space more efficiently, while increasing worker effectiveness. Solutions that accomplish both goals are in demand.”

Jungbluth adds that Reach, Allsteel’s recently introduced storage solution, is a good example of how the company interacted with facility managers on the development of the product. “Although the size of individual workspaces continues to be reduced, at the same time, reduced workspace areas are given over to collaborative meeting spaces. We will come to NeoCon with two new product lines that meet these types of facility management needs,” he adds.

Although Jungbluth doesn’t believe cubicles are going away, he notes that more systems are moving to thinner, lower height and lighter weight panels that are easier to link and move, thus making them more efficient for end users and facility managers. But some facility professionals say they aren’t big fans of lower panel heights. “It’s very uncomfortable when you work in a cubicle and you can see your co-workers halfway down the hall because the panels are so low,” says Ford’s Fusco.

System design is also taking another direction this year. More manufacturers are bringing systems to market that work in conjunction with other product lines. For example, during NeoCon 2006, Kimball Office will launch Priority, a new casegoods series that is designed to maximize a minimal amount of space. “Priority works with our Traxx horizontal mounting system, so facility managers can work around existing architecture to create usable space almost anywhere,” says Horton.

“We’ve interviewed hundreds of facility managers about their needs to get hold of what’s happening and why the solutions on the market aren’t good enough,” says Haworth’s Wassenaar. “It turns out that parts don’t talk together and that frustrates the facility manager.” To try to end this problem, Haworth’s new Patterns collection is designed as a step away from cubicles but is meant to work with not only existing architectural elements, but other systems on the market as well. This collection comprises a variety of work walls that create workstations and modular interior architecture in addition to enhancing private offices.

Following a similar direction is Herman Miller with its two systems introductions, Vivo Interiors and My Studio Environments, both by Douglas Ball. Designed to work in tandem, “Vivo and My Studio support a broad variety of workers in a few simple footprints,” says Herman Miller’s Joel VanWyk, senior product manager of systems based in Zeeland, MI. “My Studio, for example, is designed for organizations that want more from an open-plan environment.”

There is some concern about mixing and matching systems parts, says Seth Deforest of Boomerang, a pre-owned furniture company in Hurffville, NJ. “Many big furniture companies are beginning to blend their systems,” says Deforest. “I see hybrids of older and newer models of workstations, which means the big furniture companies are competing on price. In the meantime, they are diluting the integrity of their systems by value engineering parts to fit with other parts that weren’t meant to fit together in the first place.”

However, in the newer systems versions, that issue is being addressed, at least at Herman Miller. “Our two new systems products are designed to work together in the same space with common design details, color palette, wall heights, and horizontal lines to help these products look like they belong together,” explains VanWyk.

Racing To Redesign

Kimball Office is introducing Priority, a casegoods series that offers a mix of pre-assembled and modular components to minimize asset management while giving end users an individual work style preference. Photo by Kimball Office Furniture.

The increasing popularity and plummeting prices of flat screen computer monitors is one emerging trend that could soon impact the design of systems. According to Steve Baker, president of Denver, CO-based consulting firm Merric Enterprises, 500 million fat CRTs are now being replaced with flat panel LCD monitors. Baker says that antiquated CRT monitors have cramped the desktop for over 30 years, and stations that are designed for thin panels can be produced 20% smaller, answering the facility professional’s need for diminishing workspace per end user.

“When systems usage ramped up in the 1980s and 1990s, they had wide, inefficient work surfaces to accommodate large CRTs,” says HON’s Mead. “Flat screen technology is now helping us get out of the way of technology rather than forcing us to accommodate it.”

Sure enough, Deforest of Boomerang notices the changes now. “Most companies are not buying flat panel screens because they want to, they are forced to when they upgrade equipment through Dell, for example,” he says. “We’re seeing fewer requests for bulky corner workstations and more requests for L-shaped stations.”

Not only are flat panels taking over fat CRTs, now the trend is to have more than one monitor per work surface. This could potentially clog the work surface even more than old computers. “Studies have shown that if you use multiple monitors on a desk, there’s on average 8% to 13% reduction in errors,” says Baker about the trend that he sees firsthand as a consultant to facilities and product developers. “I’ve seen facilities where there are six flat tops on top of six flat tops.” For these situations, the humble articulating monitor arm is making a strong comeback.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in flat panel monitor use,” says Jeff Charon, product manager for Grand Rapids, MI-based Details, a Steelcase Company. “Many of our clients continue to migrate this way even though four years ago, customer groups touring our facilities had only passing interest in a flat panel arm due to the then high cost of flat panel monitors.”

Charon, noting a recent Wall Street Journal article, indicated that in 2001, the average cost of a 17-inch LCD monitor was $889, and in 2005, it was $273. He adds that Details customers are happy about the migration to flat screens, because it allows them to design a smaller footprint by taking out the deep, unusable space from a corner workstation. To address the growing multi-screen issue, Details will introduce a dual-arm product called FYI-2, companion to its single monitor arm called FYI.

The Sit-Stand Market

Details will augment its AdjusTables line of tables with a new series.

Comfort is another priority for end users, says Charon. At NeoCon, Details will also extend its line of electric height adjustable work surfaces with AdjusTables Series 5.

“After seeing the ergonomic trend grow under the Clinton administration, and then its downturn under the Bush administration, we are only now in 2006 starting to see the return to the adjustable table market,” says Alan Morse, president of Sis USA, an adjustable table company based in Londonderry, NH. “The absolute return on investment of adjustable tables triggered Americans to start investigating them again. The adjustable market leads to less absenteeism and turnover, while creating more retention.”

In addition to this trend, Morse says that Northern California’s “sit-and-stand” markets are especially reconsidering the use of non-electric adjustable tables. “If a company wants to put in 1000 tables, it will increase the energy consumption,” explains Morse. “So many companies are revisiting the simpler mechanical cranks.”

However, Dave Kagan, also with Details, disagrees and says that it’s just pennies a day to use an electric table. “Any cost is offset by the fact that workers have an easier time making adjustments than they would with a crank model,” says Kagan. “This means workers are more likely to realize the ergonomic benefits of adjustability, since the table will actually be adjusted instead of remaining in a fixed position.”

Morse says there are certain occupations that drive the sit-and-stand market regardless of region. “Take, for example, the computer imaging readers in the healthcare market,” says Morse. “Those technicians make a lot of money and work on expensive pieces of equipment, so facility professionals better be ready to give them all the ease of adjustability they need.”

There’s another market—the aging worker—that’s fast becoming an issue for furniture manufacturers. “All of the ergonomic conferences are focusing on the aging workforce and what we will do as a society to help,” says Ann Hall with Louisville, KY-based Linak, manufacturers providing electric lift mechanisms for everything from flat panel monitors to desks. “Trends will increase in the need for more adjustability. In the last five years, our sales of adjustable products are up by 80%.” Hall says the industry will no doubt need to address “above the neck” issues related to aging including vision, hearing, and cognitive ability and “below the neck” problems of strength and musculoskeletal disorders that affect how employees work.

Encouraging Customization

One gripe that facility managers have with furniture manufacturers is the lack of willingness to customize systems when it comes to wire management.

Systems manufacturers have spent time and money creating perfect palettes and finishes, but there are a few IT issues that facility managers would like to see addressed in future designs. “There are never enough ports for wires in systems,” observes Ford’s Fusco. “We also would want to see more access ports on desks but have them concealed so they look professional. So, when IT comes to relocate someone, they won’t have difficulty accessing the track where the wires run.”

The same problem plagued Henke of Pennsylvania. “We had a hard time finding a company that would work with us to customize our cubicles,” he says. “All the manufacturers we approached were not keen on the idea of creating customized cubicles with an open bottom panel so we wouldn’t have to tear out the panels to fix wires. Most manufacturers said ‘that’s not in our line.’” Henke finally went with a local vendor that was happy to work with them on customized cubicles.

Horton of Kimball Office says that her company’s casegoods series, Priority, will address this common complaint. “The demand for easy access to technology is a must have,” she says. “Priority features a range of integrated technology solutions that make setting up, adding, and moving computers and other digital devices quick and convenient.” These include hinged access doors on approach side desk pedestals, and undersurface storage components with pullout shelves for peripherals.

Technology is a pesky reality for facility managers. “For example, since monitor arms are attached to worksurfaces, they are considered part of technology, and also facilities,” says Baker of Merric Enterprises. “Now for the first time ever, the IT and facilities departments are partnering to determine furniture purchases.”

The Seating Pendulum

Of all the product categories, seating seems to be holding at status quo. “Few of our staff complains about their seating,” says Henke at the Senate of Pennsylvania. “There’s such a good selection of chairs on the market, it’s never a problem.”

But other facility professionals want to see more high quality, low priced options. “The best chair we ever had was the Steelcase Leap chair. It took us two months to find those chairs, but we had to leave them behind when we recently moved offices. Now we have larger, less attractive chairs,” says Zelonis of Aavid Thermalloy. “It’s hard to find good ergonomic, affordable, attractive chairs like Leap.”

Seating solutions may be on the way, starting at NeoCon. Herman Miller will bring to market a new executive product by Geiger called Foray, for example. But the jury is out to see if there will be a product to top Herman Miller’s 2005 introduction, the Cella chair.

Trending Towards Residential

“End users demand much more comfort from seating than they did five or 10 years ago,” says Leonard Backer, vice president of marketing and product development for the Brown Jordan International Contract Division, which now owns seating manufacturer Loewenstein, Inc. “Now, workers even want more of a residential media room feeling to their conference rooms.”

That trend is affecting the way Loewenstein engineers its new products. Backer, who is based in Pompano Beach, FL, says the company is investigating the resiliency of its seating foam and is looking to use 1.8 pounds of foam for additional back and seating support. “That causes a different resiliency for a more residential feel, and that’s important for call centers, for example, that have 24/7 seating needs.”

To answer the demand for commercial interiors with a residential feel, Loewenstein will introduce at least 10 new collections at NeoCon that have exposed wood. “Whether it’s senior living, institutional, or corporate, the trend is toward a warmer environment,” he says.

An Influx of Imports

Backer has two words of advice about seating procurement, however. “Buyer beware,” he says. “More facilities professionals are keyed into the LEED and GreenGuard messages, but, at the same time there is more product coming in from Asia that has not been certified. There are beautiful things from Asia by American designers, and the buyer needs to understand that although beauty comes with a great price point, there is another price to pay.”

Boomerang’s Deforest sees that imports are starting to win some projects. “Though smaller importers look good and have attractive price points, the reality is that over the long run, managing inventory is a huge inconvenience when it takes eight weeks to get a part in order to reconfigure.”

Dennis Meyer from Denver, CO-based Planetofficefurniture.com, a division of Office Liquidators, says facility managers can save as much as 20% to 30% on price by buying no name imports, and that many of those companies will be showing at NeoCon. “We’ve seen chairs, desks, tables, but really there aren’t any finished goods in files or larger items like cubicles,” says Meyer. “Over 50% of the residential furniture market is imported, and now, about 15% of the office furniture market is imported; that number will rise.”

As does Deforest, Meyer says he’d have confidence buying finished imports from established companies, such as HON, Kimball Office, National, OFS, and Haworth since they know the business and strive to keep quality control and inventory needs in check.

Though HON has sourced components over in Asia for a while (and now offers its Basyx line of imported finished goods for small companies), it has made the decision to purchase its own plant in China to maintain quality control. “Everyone worries, but the threat of smaller imports is that they are new competitors,” says HON’s Mead. “The advice I’d give to facility managers would not be to look only at the design and competitive price point, but to look for an established partner with overall support that has the right price points and the right sourcing capabilities.”

LEED And Green

But, will the influx of Asian imports of contract furniture affect companies trying for LEED certification?

BIFMA’s Furniture Emissions Standard Subcommittee completed a draft of a Standard and Test Method for measuring emissions from office furniture (which will continue to be reviewed and approved by ANSI)—a tool that may help in ferreting out poorly made, non-sustainable imports that could damage the chances for an organization trying to achieve its LEED-CI certification. “We are about 90% finished with the process,” according to BIFMA’s Driscoll. One of the reasons BIFMA initiated this process was to provide an acceptable alternative within the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED-CI Credit 4.5 for low emitting product.

Since there are no LEED approved products, and Washington, DC-based USGBC certifies spaces under a LEED rating system that identifies products that have specific attributes, this could remain a gray area until the new 3.0 version is out in a couple of years, according to Taryn Holowka, communications manager for USGBC. LEED-CI (commercial interiors) is the arm of LEED that was released in 2004 that affects furniture procurements.

“We don’t require that products be made in the U.S., but LEED does favor products that are locally produced,” says Holowka. “We offer points to projects for specifying materials that have been manufactured within a 500 mile radius of the building site. I anticipate the next version of LEED will take into account life cycle analysis, and that will tackle the imports issue. Life cycle analysis will look to incorporate the life cycle of all building products, including origin, manufacturing process, life span of the product, and even what happens to the product after it has been used.”

Slowly, but surely, strides in furniture introductions are being made in the industry. Although most product introductions won’t cause any fireworks to go off at NeoCon 2006, the sparks that these products cause could brighten a facility manager’s day.

Zelinsky-Syarto is the author of Complete Lighting Design. She has also written several other books, includingThe Inspired Workspace and New Workplaces for New Workstyles.

 

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