June 1, 2007
Less is More
A new furniture system aimed at the small-office market seeks to simplify the often daunting process of setting up shop.
If you grew up in the 1970s, then you probably remember Garanimals, the children’s clothing line with animal icons that help kids build their own coordinating outfits. The system is basically foolproof: pick a Panda skirt, and it’s bound to match any Panda top in the store. Say good-bye to floppy-haired, color-blind moppets running around in flared corduroys and clashing turtlenecks.
Kirt Martin, the 37-year-old head of design at Turnstone, part of the $3 billion-a-year Steelcase family, recently found himself nostalgic for that exaggerated simplicity. He was trying to create a streamlined series of modular furniture tailored to fit small offices, and the brand’s ease of use became the gold standard. “The Garanimals metaphor actually helped us design to the lower common denominator as far as pieces and parts,” he says. The new line, Tour Workspace, addresses the flaws Turnstone found in the dozens of companies it had been researching—poorly planned spaces straitjacketed by overcomplicated office-furniture systems. “Over and over again when you’d walk into a small company, you’d see everyone facing the wall because that’s where the power outlets are,” Martin says.
The problem stems from what Barry Schwartz, an author and social scientist at Swarthmore, has termed “the paradox of choice”: faced with infinite options, people end up making bad decisions. A typical panel system has more than 1,200 possible parts, and parsing the components can be a maddening experience, especially for small business owners, who are often in the dark when it comes to good workplace design. “Let’s say you use ten elements from that product line,” says Jim Abraham, Turnstone’s marketing manager, pointing to an exploded drawing of file cabinets, work surfaces, legs, and divider screens. “Just to figure out what ten you need takes an enormous amount of your time.”
To keep offices from being wedded to configurations that don’t fit, Tour was designed to be adjusted easily. “The goal was to keep it as simple as possible, with as few parts as possible—and it should all work together,” Martin says. The system has five primary elements: an aluminum-frame countertop that holds the power; work surfaces of different heights; a steel bin; a “pile” cabinet; and privacy screens. Within the limited palette there is a great deal of flexibility because each element has multiple functions. The countertops, which can be daisy-chained together to bring the entire office away from the walls, become the basic building blocks for 35 or so configurations: stack up a couple of bins vertically onto the countertops, click in a screen, and you have a semiprivate office; run a coffee-table-height surface from the back, move the bins to the pile cabinet, attach a minidesk, and you have a reception area. New employees need nothing more than a screwdriver and a few minutes to reconfigure their workstations. “We think the assembly is going to be far above what you experience at Ikea,” Abraham says.
Using fewer parts, Turnstone was also able to make Tour greener. Since it comprises a relatively narrow range of shapes, the equipment and tooling used in manufacturing are reduced by 90 percent, according to Abraham. Very little is bonded together, and none of the adhesives and paints are solvent-based. The steel and aluminum have high percentages of recycled material, and both can be returned to Steelcase through its take-back program and reused. “Even the coating on the wires is PVC-free,” Abraham says. The laminate work surfaces—made of chipped wood, glue, and plastic—are a sour note, but Martin says using a more sustainable material like bamboo would have been prohibitively expensive. The laminate can, however, be bumped up to environmentally friendly Sierra pine at an extra cost. “We’re not as far as we need to be,” he admits. “We focus on the midmarket, which is not really an innovative place.”
Tour’s crisp modularity and relatively green design are appealing features, but Turnstone may have a hard time getting the ear of its intended market. Michael Wolf of Monday Morning Quarterback, a weekly newsletter for the contract-furniture industry, says that small businesses—which often rely on repurposed hand-me-downs or provisional solutions—are particularly difficult to reach. “It’s a huge challenge,” Wolf says, “because they don’t have the distribution where people mainly go and buy that kind of furniture—the Office Depots, the Stapleses, the OfficeMaxes.” Instead, Turnstone products are sold at Steelcase showrooms to customers who are for the most part already design savvy and perhaps have facilities managers to make sense of complex product lines.
Martin, for his part, believes that Tour’s price—about $1,200 per workstation, significantly cheaper than comparable systems—will be enough to lure offices away from what he calls “the stereotype of two sawhorses and a board on top.” And just as Garanimals is still plugging away with the slightly mushy goal of helping children “develop early feelings of self-confidence,” Turnstone hopes to build the egos of small businesses through a system that gives them control over their own spaces. As Abraham explains, “It was actually designed so that little kids could do it.”