There’s a problem with recliners, one that starts with their rec room aesthetics and ends with the reclining mechanism itself. But as designers David Ritch and Mark Saffell of multidisciplinary 5d studio discovered when Herman Miller and Nemschoff asked them to design a brand-new healthcare recliner, making something that both the ailing and their caregivers could not only use but also enjoy was going to require truly putting the “multi” into “multidisciplinary.” Working with engineers and designers, they’ve produced Ava, a recliner that looks narrow but feels roomy, is inviting but also antibacterial, and that’s just as appealing to the people pushing the chair as the people sitting in it.
WHY spoke with Ritch and Saffell to understand some of the challenges of producing a chair that needed to address multiple practical and emotional needs, the design process involved in making something that can be comforting without being cartoon cute, and how to break away from the recliner style that’s haunted loungers for decades.
You say “recliner” and the mind goes immediately to a grandmother’s living room.
David Ritch: Well, there’s a reason why all those recliners look the same—it’s because they’re using the same reclining mechanism! The only way to get a visually and structurally different chair is to change the mechanism.
Why is that so hard?
DR: There’s basically only one mechanism available.
Mark Saffell: Literally the leftovers of the La-Z-Boy residential recliner. The designs of those loungers have not changed since their inception. Designers have put casters underneath them [to make them hospital-specific] but that was pretty much it.
So what did you do?
DR: In most recliners, the mechanism attaches to the arms, so the big ah-ha moment was to get rid of the arms and make the mechanism attach to an ottoman or a center cushion. And that led to another crucial part of Ava’s design, too.
One of the biggies with a healthcare recliner is side transfer. People don’t necessarily get up and out of the chair, and so you have to get the arm out of the way so that you can lift the person up and into a bed. And when you detach the reclining mechanism from the arms, you can make an arm flip up. That also gave Ava its signature look.
How did you deemphasize the arms and still keep the chair balanced?
DR: There’s a large, pneumatic cylinder that weights the back.
MS: It’s like when you have a big car, and you put the engine in your big car and there’s lots of room, but as you keep making those cars smaller and smaller, it gets tight. In Ava, things are really condensed.
Ava is quite spare and clean. It had to be a marriage of design and engineering.
MS: David was an engineer in another life…let me tell you! It was a mix of working between drawings and prototypes and pushing the engineers. We are tinkerers and we try to wear the engineering hat sometimes. A project like this is always a bit of push and pull between engineers and designers and we had a really great group of engineers. Herman Miller knows what it takes to develop something that pushes those boundaries a little bit.
How do you design a piece of “furniture” for a setting that is so dominated by “medical equipment?”
MS: Despite the engineering, we didn’t want Ava to feel like a machine, which is very difficult because these chairs have to have knobs and levers. The upholstery aspect of it is important because we wanted to try to keep a level of residential craft in the chair. It was important to us for Ava to feel like your favorite chair or sofa at home.
But obviously in the healthcare environment, because of infection control and those sort of things, they frown on [a truly residential feel]. We were able to get some sewing in the headrest so that it felt like it was an upholstered piece of furniture along with the molded handles and some of the more mechanical things. Paying equal heed to a craft feel and hospital demands led us to a process called RF welding, where fabric pieces are pushed together and then electronically fused.
DR: We also paid attention to research from Herman Miller and Nemschoff that said that people respond to softer, rounder forms more positively than hard, angular ones.
How did you create something that would work for people at different levels of health, panic, sleepiness?
MS: With hospitals, the most infirm people are either waif-like, 70 pounds and frail and elderly…or maybe obese, and so you’re looking at the ends of the spectrum. This chair has to accommodate the very large end, and then you turn around and you’ve got a small person in the chair. How do providers deal? Well, they stuff pillows. So our headrest helps hold the pillows in there. We looked at the big things, but then we were constantly taking notes, little cues.
You’ve talked a lot about how Ava functions for people, but how does it work for the settings in which people will find it?
MS: We thought a lot about Ava’s scale. As new hospital construction is on the decline, renovations are on the uptake, so patient rooms are much smaller than what a lot of healthcare recliners had been previously designed for.
DR: From a caregiver’s standpoint, Ava spins on a dime and is very easy to control. That becomes really apparent when you start to push it around.
MS: We talked to healthcare providers at Cedars Sinai Oncology Center, an area where patients are in these infusion centers for quite a long time. They’ll bring a book, bring a movie to watch, and then they fall asleep. Plus these are settings that are not bright and cheery. So you can see how important it is that the chair be comfortable.