April 1, 2012
Permission to Move
Konstantin Grcic’s Pro chair takes a radical approach to classroom furniture, insisting that students can’t—and maybe shouldn’t—sit still for hours at a time.
Can a piece of furniture help a child learn better? Can it keep her more focused during her lessons, or make him feel less aggressive in the classroom? Konstantin Grcic thinks so. To prove it, the Munich-based designer has created the Pro chair, a new archetype of seating for educational settings. “The major flaw of school chairs is they’re school chairs,” Grcic says. “Regulations have forced them into something heavy, cold, and surprisingly uncomfortable. They’re made to be indestructible.” He pauses, laughing a little nervously. “I feel a chair that tells me it’s indestructible—well, that makes me want to destroy it!”
Gleefully heaving furniture against the walls seems a bit out of character for Grcic, whose unfailing politeness and tortoiseshell glasses make him more resemble a just-tenured professor than a budding truant. Three years ago, when Flötotto approached him to create a new chair for the education market, his interest was piqued. Sure, it was an unexpected move for Grcic, a superstar on the international circuit who counts Vitra, Magis, and Flos among his long-term clients. But the prospective client was Elmar Flötotto, the grandson of Flötotto’s founder and the owner of Authentics, a household-goods concern for which Grcic has designed a host of products.
In 2007, Elmar’s eponymous holding company acquired the Flötotto trademark and production rights. In its heyday, the 106-year-old German manufacturer sold more than 21 million of its iconic chairs—seats that nearly every German student, including Grcic, sat in. In the 1990s, when the company was not owned by Elmar and his family, Flötotto fell into bankruptcy; it hadn’t engaged in educational-furniture product development for over a decade. Elmar admits that his original goal was simply to regain control of his family’s name. Once the deal went through, though, he realized there was something in the company worth reviving. Not a legacy per se, but an opportunity to shake up the lethargic educational-furniture market, known neither for its innovation nor its aesthetics. Grcic saw the possibilities, too, and was seduced by the chance to design pieces that could be used so universally.
Adding urgency to the project were the results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, a triennial measure of 15-year-olds’ educational performance. In 2006 and 2009, Germany had come in below expectations, so all dimensions of the educational experience—from testing to bullying to the classroom environment—were being vigorously debated nationwide. Grcic and Flötotto saw this as an opportunity, and set out to look at the problem from the perspective of furniture. They focused on seating in particular, not only because it was the most critical furnishing, but also because educational institutions had budgets allotted for it.
The pair learned that through appearance, smell, and feel, school chairs were more punishing than welcoming. No wonder students would act out, as they would feel disciplined before lessons even began. “I wanted kids to feel like they were sitting on a cool, nice chair,” Grcic says, explaining his aim for Pro, “and not necessarily that they were forced to sit on a school chair because now they were at school.”
The first issue was ergonomics. The average school chair offers comfort, but in one prescribed position: sitting still, perfectly erect, toward the back of the seat. The difficulty being that students don’t sit like that for minutes on end, let alone for several hours a day. They start to fidget, their muscles ache, and they get distracted.
Grcic realized this, and his understanding was backed by the findings of several behavioral studies. “These studies concluded that kids—especially the small ones—should move around during classes, because they need the physical release so they can concentrate again,” he says. “Their bodies are growing and developing. And this was a great key to our project, to create a chair that actually encourages movement.”
To that end, Pro supports a range of ergonomic positions. The seat is round, like a stool’s, so you’re not forced into a forward or backward lean. The narrow backrest has a bit of flex, and features a pronounced curve that fits snugly into your lumbar region. The backrest also fits between your legs, if you’d like to sit on the chair backward, or doubles as an armrest if you are perched sideways. The lip can even serve as a headrest, if you have slid to the far front edge of the seat and are leaning back.
The shell is a thing of beauty. The structural geometry echoes Flötotto’s earlier shapes, with a pronounced S-curve where the seat meets the backrest. Grcic sees it as an evolution of the company’s earlier efforts from the mid-1950s, but says the similarity was completely unintentional. “The company didn’t want me to make any direct reference to its history,” he says of the design. In fact, since he felt school furniture was so out-of-date, he skipped Flötotto’s archives and looked to Arne Jacobsen’s Series 7 plywood chair and Arper’s Catifa chair for aesthetic inspiration.
Out of habit, the first prototypes were made of durable beech veneer, the industry standard for school furniture. Six months into the process, Grcic switched to working with polypropylene. The beech, it turned out, was forcing him into a two-dimensional design for the seat shell, as well as upping the chair’s price. And the material, by nature, was “soaked in a lot of chemicals, which wasn’t so attractive,” he says. Polypropylene offered the same durability and hygienic qualities as the wood, but allowed Pro to be lighter in weight and profile, making the chair easier for younger students to maneuver. The choice also permitted Grcic to use less material, which reduced manufacturing and shipping costs. And, because polypropylene is strong enough not to require fiberglass reinforcement for structural integrity, Pro is fully recyclable.
Currently, the chair comes in three sizes: one each for primary, middle, and high school students, with additional sizes planned for the future. All prototypes were of the adult version, so Grcic and his team could test their geometry and comfort. They then scaled the other models down in accordance with official guidelines, which required the proportions to follow theoretical norms.
Grcic laughs when he talks about the trials with students, as the kids acted like, well, kids. “It wasn’t that we didn’t trust them,” he says of the subjects. “But if they thought the chair was cool, they’d say it was great and comfortable. And if they thought it wasn’t cool, they’d say nah, it wasn’t comfortable. So we knew this, and we had to filter out what feedback we got.”
Available in three neutral colors and three bright pastels, the chair will start to find its way into German schools this month. But in a twist, Flötotto is also marketing it for contract and residential applications, offering it in the United States starting at about 200 dollars before taxes, at select retail partners. This crossover doesn’t seem so far-fetched when you think about it. Many of the classroom-environment issues that Grcic addressed—ergonomics, lengthy periods of use, and dynamic movement—are the same as those faced by people sitting in a cafeteria or a concert hall, or around a kitchen table. For these audiences, Flötotto has replaced the tubular steel C-frame of the school model with four-legged frames in tubular steel or wood, sled bases in tubular steel, and height-adjustable, five-leg swivel bases with casters. These versions can also be customized with a fixed, upholstered cushion, or accessorized with row connectors, trays, and a range of glides.
For someone who studies ergonomics so closely, Grcic has an interesting take on why Pro can’t—and shouldn’t—be made to measure: “Our body is so intelligent and flexible. It adapts to an object, and an object should not necessarily adapt to it.” Instead, with Pro, Grcic consciously created a seat that encourages movement. He also tried to create an object that empowers kids: something that they will like and value, and which doesn’t act as another prescription. “School is a place you may feel forced to be in, but you don’t want to be in,” he says. “But if that environment is nice and respectful, then, I think, it will be provide a better experience.”