I love talking to designers. They’re such problem-solvers. For example, the other day, I had a really interesting conversation with Martin Linder, designer of the Florabella Lounge Collection by Brandrud (a Herman Miller company), which recently won a Nightingale Award at the Healthcare Design 09 conference. Our discussion ranged from worry beads to hugs to pathogens to machines for detecting explosives in airports (which he also designs, but that’s a whole other story.)
Linder, a tenured professor at San Francisco State University and partner in MSL Design, believes good design starts with good research, so he spent many hours in hospital waiting rooms observing how people interact with the furniture there. Some, he discovered, found comfort using armrest seams as “worry beads;” others took the concept of “lounge” to new heights – or depths, actually. These and other factors (did we mention those pesky pathogens?) were all taken into consideration before he ever picked up a drawing tool.
In addition to his observations, Linder also talked with hospital personnel, including nurses and maintenance crews.
KP: So what did your hospital waiting room research tell you?
ML: Our goal was to really understand how the furniture was used to find real problems we might be able to solve. We first observed a lot of dirt build-up in cracks, crevices, and seams in chairs, where pathogens develop. So that was our number one challenge.
Another one was where people touched the chair with their hands; they’d nervously pick at the material at the end of the armrests, almost using the seams as worry beads. And as we’re all aware, viruses are distributed through hand contact, so it wasn’t just a wear and tear problem, it was also a zone where viruses could be exchanged by one person after another.
The third problem was just the emotional/physical comfort people were seeking. They might be there for hours at a time; maybe they’ve got a loved one in intensive care, and they’re often upset. But many of the chairs are designed for very formal, upright seating. So people were slouching and looking for comfortable ways to sit or even sleep, while kids might be jumping up and down on them like they’re trampolines.
So those were our three priority problems we were trying to solve.
KP: And what did you do to solve them?
ML: First, we designed the chair so the seat floats separately from the arms, creating a gap, where all this dirt and liquid can drop to the ground and be swept away, greatly reducing the pathogens.
The second thing we did was use urethane for the armcaps/handcaps, which allows them to be cleaned to fight bacteria. It wears very well, even with the constant cleaning and touching when people move their hands around. In fact, we designed the handcaps to encourage people to caress them because of what we had observed before. I wanted it to be enticing and satisfying to rub as they’re sitting there, to provide a psychological and emotional comfort.
We also designed the chair to be somewhat like a body “vessel;” it almost wraps around you and hugs you to some degree, again, to give another level of psychological comfort.
KP: Interesting! So what other problems did you solve?
ML: Florabella’s chair back is sculpted in a way that allows people to move around in the seat and still have great comfort whether they’re putting their head on the back and slouching or sitting up in the traditional way. It was really all the behaviors we observed that led to physical characteristics of the chair.
KP: So it was more about function than beauty?
ML: I’d say it was really about performance. We wanted to provide functional performance as well as psychological performance, which is where these sort of “organic” characteristics came out. Of course, that led to all kinds of manufacturing challenges: How do you engineer a chair so that the seat and arms are separate but still keep it strong and flexible?
There was a lot of ideation with engineers and vendors to make it all work right. In fact, it led to using a whole new foam mold manufacturing process. But it all turned out great and the chair is performing very well, thanks to a lot of people who helped develop it, from my partner Chris Morlock to all the folks at Herman Miller and Brandrud who believed in and supported this project. It was truly a collaborative effort.
KP: Well, congratulations on the win; I’m sure you were happy about the award, which I understand is the “Oscar” in the healthcare world.
ML: I’m absolutely delighted with it. It makes me proud to be part of an elite group of designers and manufacturers who are trying hard to design really good products that solve problems. And I’m happy that it also meets Herman Miller’s environmental standards. To me, Herman Miller is the pinnacle of furniture design and having an association with them is as satisfying as winning the award.