Top Five: Systems Furniture

by Matthew Bushey, July 15, 2010

posted by Matthew Bushey, AIA

We’re halfway through the summer series of “Top Five” articles on the blog.  My goal is to post 10 of these reviews of our favorite products and places.  For this, the fifth installment, you’ll have to bear with me while I describe my top five picks for office System Furniture.   If I sound overly apologetic, it’s because I realize that not too many people get excited about systems furniture.  I’m in the strange minority of those who do.

We have so many bad associations with open office workspaces.  We deplore the Dilbert-style cube farm.  But the dismal nature of these spaces is usually not the fault of the furniture used, but in the way it was implemented.

A good systems furniture line consists of a well-defined kit of parts, typically including a range of panels, structural members, and worksurfaces.  These components can be assembled in a multitude of ways to create both concentrative and collaborative environments – what I like to call micro-architecture.  This kit-of-parts approach is not unlike architecture itself – we build houses with sticks and panels, after all.  But at the scale of an open office interior, the furniture system becomes one focused solely around the human needs: enabling individual tasks, supporting the anthropometrics of sitting in a relatively small space, and encouraging interaction and connections between neighbors.

Here’s my list of top five office furniture systems, and they’re all very different:

1.  VIVO INTERIORS  by Herman Miller

One of the best new furniture systems I’ve seen is Vivo Interiors by Herman Miller.  Vivo is a traditional frame-and-tile system, but with a classic modern aesthetic.  Many of the other systems in this list are desking systems that step away from panels altogether, but sometimes you need to have that space division.  And the flexibility of Vivo lets you raise or lower your perimeter as needed.

Vivo was designed by industrial designer Douglas Ball and was introduced in 2006.  The system has a modern look, but it’s not too austere or abstract.  It has more of a classic modern feel, right in line with the Eames-era furniture Herman Miller is known for.  The edges are clean and straight, and not overly “swoopy”.  At the same time, the system has some notable details that take the edge off.

I like the panels that don’t go to the ground but are instead supported on raised feet, making it seem less systems-like.  Look closely and you’ll notice a thin bead between the panels that is subtly reflective, making the whole wall seem lighter and less monolithic.  The system also supports what is termed “About Face”: sitting to the side, instead of facing into a corner or with your back to the hall or to your neighbor.  When assembled in this fashion, the worksurfaces take advantage of overlapping and corner spaces, and with some uniquely shaped edges, everything is within easy reach.

I must say, there are some furniture systems by Herman Miller that are finicky, overly complicated, or look like they’ve just come off of an alien spacecraft.  But with Vivo, Herman Miller got it right.

2.  PATTERNS  by Haworth

The same year that Herman Miller introduced Vivo, Haworth came out with a new system of its own, but one taking a decidedly different direction.  The Patterns line is very much a desking system that eschews conventional panel dividers.  The system blurs the line between furniture and architecture, introducing new forms and volumes that have a substantial presence in the office landscape.

The Patterns system is made up of a collection of workstation pieces – benches, tables, desks, work walls, and “wrapppers” – that are meant to work with any interior architecture and smooth the transition between private offices and open plan.  The system has a respectable heft to it.  There are no thin panels here.  Thick planes wrap around storage units and turn corners to become desk surfaces.  There is a strong, rectilinear aesthetic that is very architectural and unlike what you’ve ever thought of as an open office workspace.

3.  TOUR  by Turnstone

Turnstone is a small, innovative group under the larger Steelcase umbrella, with a group of talented designers who tend to do their own thing.  The TOUR line was introduced at NeoCon a couple years ago, and around that same time, I had the opportunity to review the product at the Steelcase headquarters in Michigan.

Tour is specifically designed for small companies – it is extremely user-friendly and effortlessly reconfigurable by the user.  There is no need to call a facilities manager to reconfigure these workstations. The Tour literature never mentions who I imagine would be their obvious competitor – IKEA – but the comparison is apt.   The IKEA desking system is fine for a home office, but I wouldn’t specify it for a commercial space.  TOUR is a good IKEA-alternative: a simple, robust, and flexible furniture system for the creative entrepreneur.

When I say the system is simple, I mean it.  Whereas other furniture systems come with an 80-page Statement of Line catalog, documenting the hundreds of pieceparts, TOUR is comprised of a grand total of 18 components: 2 counters; 2 “Pile files”; 2 cabinets; 4 worksurfaces; 4 modesty panels; and 4 supports.  Boxes can be stacked and flipped on-the-fly, with clever pass-thrus and cabletrays to handle those pesky cords.  But its greatest asset is probably what most customers are looking for most of all in this economy:  its low price.

4.  C:SCAPE  by Steelcase

Steelcase has probably the largest breadth of product of all the major office furnishings manufacturers, and their braintrust is second to none, with major commitments in workplace research and new product development.  They don’t usually have to reinvent the wheel.  There’s already so much to work with in their family that their products tend to evolve or combine in different ways to create something new.  This is what I see in this new system by Steelcase. I can recognize individual pieces from earlier beginnings, but it’s the way these things come together that fulfills the primary goal of c:scape:  making a small space seem larger.

We’re all getting squeezed these days, and the walls around us are coming down.  C:scape is a desk and storage system that is light and airy, but one that provides targeted privacy.  It’s also very high-tech, both in how it addresses you visually and in how it handles power and data in our increasingly digital and device-centric world.

5.  CURRENTS
  by Knoll

I have a special affinity towards Knoll.  It’s one of those companies that designers tend to love, even if our clients always don’t.  It’s not trendy or cutting-edge, and I mean that in a good way.  Their products are an American interpretation of the rationalist design theories of the international style.  Florence Knoll, who founded the company with her husband in the 1940s, designed many of the chairs, tables and casegoods that are still in the Knoll line today.

I think Currents is their most successful office furniture system, as it takes a unique approach to workspace planning.  The heart of the Currents system is in the powered spine wall off of which everything is based.  One intelligent, powered spine runs laterally through the space, with secondary worksurfaces, panels and components pulling up to it.  One advantage of the spine-wall approach is that desks and dividing panels can be attached to any point along the spine wall.  This off-module planning means that you’re not restricted to post locations or modular dimensions.  It can also be laid out as a more open benching application, and power outlets can be plugged in at any point as well.

With Currents, the basic building block of the open office is no longer a static cube.  Here, sizes and locations are infinitely flexible.  And as a sign of true adaptability, you can also attach panels from other companies using universal panel starters and brackets.

Florence Knoll is now retired and living in Vermont.  The company she founded is developing new products for the market, but some, like Currents, that have been around awhile are proving their timeless appeal and continual relevance.

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