Open-access content 7th July 2009
7 July 2009
by John Fogarty
But as it turned out the natural optimism of our cousins across the pond, combined with product development cycles that run into several years, transpired to produce an event which, although perhaps a little short of the usual gung-ho atmosphere, certainly featured no fewer major product launches than one might expect in a boom year.
As it turned out the natural optimism of our cousins across the pond, combined with product development cycles that run into several years, transpired to produce an event which, although perhaps a little short of the usual gung-ho atmosphere, certainly featured no fewer major product launches than one might expect in a boom year.
If the emphasis was on lower-cost programmes this was as much a factor of the general trend towards greatly simplified "European-type" systems - evident for the last two years at least - as it was a reflection of the economic climate.
Although an enormous installed base and old buying habits will see to it that the ubiquitous "cubicle" continues to dominate the mainstream US office landscape for some time to come, those organisations that buy into the concept of flexible working practices to suit the new knowledge-worker demographic will undoubtedly make the shift and invest heavily in these developments. In any event US tax write-off rules tend to favour the leasing rather than the purchase of furniture, ensuring a more rapid take-up of new ideas.
Although as stated above there is a marked convergence of furniture design trends between Europe and the US, key differences nevertheless remain between products, largely driven by differences in office building practice between the two countries. Whereas in the UK more than 80 per cent of new builds (commissioned or speculative) incorporate raised-access flooring throughout, in the US this figure is less than 10 per cent.
While this may historically be due to the "cube farm" mentality mentioned previously - with screen panels providing the over-floor conduit for cabling - it is also true to say that this reliance on the furniture for power, data and telecoms distribution remains very evident in the new generation of non-cube systems.
The most notable of these appearing for the first time in commercially available form (previewed in '08) was c:scape by Steelcase. Featuring a conduit "backbone" beam structure, off which worksurfaces and/or storage are hung separately or together; this building-block approach to construction had produced a surprisingly well integrated design aesthetic. Maintaining this kit of parts theme, a common visor screen and modesty panel simply clipped into the backbone to provide localised privacy above and below the waistline.
Single module storage bins featured sliding door closures with a unique pop-in mechanism to provide a wholly flush appearance when closed. Storage bin liners were available in colours different to that of the carcase - to provide contrast/coordination as required.
Probably as a reaction to all those years of being smothered by the vertical lines and soft corners of cube dwelling, the predominant visual theme everywhere was one of linear horizontality. This was evident in the sharp lines of the Intent casegoods programme, designed to be used in combination with their existing Vivo Environments panel programme by Herman Miller.
Allsteel's Stride was another example of the merging of the traditionally separate casegoods (private office) and systems (open-plan) furniture programmes into bundled packages, featuring strong, horizontal aesthetics. Very dark or very light, fine straight-grained timbers in conjunction with natural anodised aluminium was de rigueur in the finishes department.
By far the most spectacular area for major product launches was seating.
Herman Miller's Setu and Knoll's Generation were entirely new for the show, while Steelcase's i2i and Cobi plus Humanscale's Diffrient Work Chair were all commercially available for the first time, having been previewed at previous shows in prototype form.
Setu by Studio 7.5 Design, Berlin is the result of a 6 year development programme to produce a modern evocation of the classic Eames Aluminium Series, using the latest co-moulded polymers to produce a frame with sufficient controlled flex to eliminate altogether the need for a tilt mechanism. Simple, comfortable, beautiful and materially-efficient - destined without a doubt to be sure-fire winner for HM.
While Generation by Formway of New Zealand uses plastics in similarly innovative ways - the highly effective backrest comprising a multi-directional flexing "sock"- the quality of detailing, particularly around the arm-supporting yoke frame and the height/seat slide control paddles, is far less convincing.
i2i by IDEO and Cobi by Pearson Lloyd had both benefited from 12 months development work, having evolved into fully-tooled and resolved designs. Targeted at informal, collaborative applications, the former pretty much has the market to itself for the time being. It'll be interesting to see whether or not this becomes a growth area over the next couple of years. The latter is a simple multi-use chair aimed I imagine at the sector occupied by HM's Caper, Haworth's Very, KI's Strive - but achieving its goal in a far more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing manner.
The Diffrient Work Chair (previewed at last year's Orgatec) features a novel tilt mechanism, self-adjusted by user weight and operating forward and aft over the pivot centre to reduce the size of the five-star base. The seat frame front is rail-less - and seat and back are alternatively available in stitched pellicle or translucent thermoplastic rubber membrane material. The intention is to bulk-ship components (excluding gas springs and castors) world-wide for local assembly - thus reducing the carbon footprint while taking advantage of local value-added wage rates.
There was absolutely nothing new to be seen in the stand-alone storage sector - although there were plenty of workstation-integrated products from the likes of Steelcase with c:scape and Allsteel with Stride (see both above) and Inscape/Office Specialty with Storwall, Scala and Planna. Since this is an area that we at Bisley are actively pursuing, it was good to have confirmation that the breakdown in national furniture preferences is a two-way street.
John Fogarty is director of design at Bisley Office Furniture
More than 50,000 trade professionals attended NeoCon 2009, from 15-17 June 2009, including architects, interior designers, facilities managers and space planners. NeoCon 2010 takes place from 14-16 June. Visit www.neocon.com for details