Stuff and Sense

So many trade shows, so many products–but what do designers really want?

Like juvenile delinquents, product designers are always looking for trouble. In their very quest to right the errors of objects or ride roughshod over traditional materials and forms, they sometimes remind me of a posse of rowdy cowboys. This was certainly the case at the international furniture fair in Milan last month, an annual tribute to design hooliganism (see next month’s issue for a full report). There you could find Fabio Novembre’s table prototype for Cappellini, with more than a hundred lengths of bright red rope dangling below a glass top. You could find Dutch textile designer Claudy Jongstra’s swaths of purple felt overlaid with huge, feathery floral patterns that looked like tie-dye, and a wickedly funny lamp for Flos that Jongstra’s countryman, Marcel Wanders, set in an old-fashioned candle holder and wired to turn on and off when you blow on the bulb. There were also a number of misconceived projects by junior cowpokes ripping off the homely-artifact-turned-sculptural approach of lighting maver ick Ingo Maurer (the worst was a chandelier of water-filled condoms), or putting out so much curvy, chartreuse-colored plastic that Interiors’s contributing photographer, Jimmy Cohrssen, noted, “It looks like Wallpaper threw up in here.”

There was great fun, and some genuine moments of brilliance. But at Milan and for that matter every other trade show, how well are interior designers being served? For every pavilion or convention hall filled with products, there seem to be an equal volume of unfulfilled desires–wish lists for items that vary with the nuances of every project or lie dormant waiting for technology to catch up with our needs. To test this hunch, and bring other viewpoints to our annual issue devoted to office design, we invited a couple dozen leading designers to tell us what workplace products they would like to see that have never appeared before on the market.

Space constraints prevent me from reporting all the suggestions, but they overwhelmingly concerned problems of flexibility. Robert Hills, a principal at Einhorn Yaffee Prescott in New York, proposed systems panels with easily adjustable public-to-private screening so that individual workstations can be quickly converted to work groups while the occupants are seated. Hills also suggested connectors that would allow any system to be altered from go degree to 45- or 30-degree formats, and four-to-eight-person plug-and-play conference tables “for those ubiquitous ‘huddle’ spaces where transformers and connectors usually end up on the floor and the wires over the edge.” Meanwhile, Joan Blumenfeld, of Swanke Hayden Connell Architects in Manhattan, longs for an “extension cord” for power feeds that would be legal in New York City, so she can specify compatible desking systems, such as Knoll’s Propeller, for local clients. Jaime Velez of SOM in Chicago is looking for a collapsible movable workstation to accommodate part-time help in perimeter overflow space. Rand Elliott of Elliott + Associates Architects in Oklahoma City suggests integral cordless lighting “in the desk and not on it” powered by cellular waves. Todd DeGarmo, of Studios Architecture in New York, pleads for “something to truly deal with acoustics in an open plan,” which would make the scheme more acceptable to private-office diehards, such as lawyers. And Randy Brown, head of an eponymous firm in Omaha, Nebraska, volunteered the idea of an “‘everything desk’ on hydraulics that c hanges size, shape, angle, and material surface depending on my needs. A desk to sit at, stand at, to draw on, with a tilt-top to draft on, meet with clients, hold my computer printer and scanner, light table, model-building area–even sleep on!”

Only one designer–Jurgen Riehm of 1100 Architect in New York–took a sustainability tack, suggesting “any new green product, like a photovoltaic day-light fixture.” Two designers mentioned items that would be compatible with new technology: Arthur B. Johnson, of Johnson + Hill in Dallas, wants a device that will allow him to plug his PDA into his computer and work on it from the keyboard, while David Meckley, of RMW Architecture and Interiors in San Francisco, seeks workstations “that are truly designed for flat-screen monitors and laptop docking stations.” Meckley’s other idea, “an ergonomic task chair that can sense mood and adjust automatically,” speaks to a desire for products that bear a more personal relationship to users. It was echoed by Shashi Caan, of SOM in New York, who proposed “a holistic work environment that senses my approach when I enter the building and positions itself to conform with my particular fit and preferences–temperature, lighting, a comfortable chair ready at my personal seat height. The space would waft freesia freshness with soft occasional background sounds of nature.”

Product people, are you listening? I know you keep tabs on interior designers’ needs and may have already made great strides in fulfilling the ones mentioned here, but there’s never too much dialogue and no end of trouble. So saddle up, cowboys.

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