It feels like the perfect timing to bring you news of a new product innovation. You’ll have seen from our Big Question at the start of this month’s Dealer Report that we asked a number of leading furniture providers whether manufacturers are doing enough to support dealer networks – with extremely interesting responses.
As a magazine that, on a daily basis, receives press releases from furniture manufacturers who (more times than not) use phrases such as ‘new product innovation’ for something that often simply isn’t, our heads will be turned by anything that is genuinely new or innovative.
So, when Steelcase first talked to us about a new product that would ‘transform seating design’ we were a little skeptical – but a whole lot intrigued. It turns out that this latest development is completely and absolutely new and innovative – and we were fortunate enough to get a preview from James Ludwig, Vice President, Global Design and Engineering at Steelcase.
James has been in this prestigious role since 2008, with global responsibility for the product design direction of Steelcase, Turnstone, Nurture and Details, overseeing teams in Europe, Asia and the United States. Additionally, he is responsible for the design direction of all Steelcase showrooms and WorkLife facilities. In November 2013, James added global project management to his responsibilities.
The product in question is SILQ – an all-new chair design that intuitively responds to human movement without the use of mechanisms.
Through an innovation in materials science and a patent-pending process, Steelcase’s designers and engineers have created a new high-performance polymer material that emulates the qualities of carbon fibre at a mass market price. This material, combined with the sensuous curves of the design, allows SILQ to respond to natural movements of the human body without the mechanisms typically required in high-performance seating designed for the workplace. The result is a chair that behaves more like an organism than a machine – a new archetype in office seating.
Just think about that for a second. We’re talking about a workplace chair – an operator chair, if you like – that does not have a ‘unique synchro mechanism’. It doesn’t have a mechanism at all!
We begin by asking James about the origins of the concept itself. ‘It started back in 2008. I had done this sketch for a task chair project – which eventually became Gesture. The original sketch was something very different. It was based around the idea of these four ‘tendrils’, made from some material that we hadn’t invented yet! We worked on it for a couple of months and realised that it just wasn’t time – we didn’t have the material knowledge to do this.
‘So we went about doing what we do really well, which is inventing exquisite machines. I still call Gesture the ultimate sitting machine. A couple of years later, the CEO challenged me to start understanding carbon fibre. Boeing was doing the Dreamliner, which had elements of carbon fibre, aerospace was using the material and car manufacturers were talking about moving away from steel and gas towards carbon fibre and electric. There was definitely something of a zeitgeist happening. In our industry we’d seen a couple of individual attempts at using carbon fibre. We did this experiment – which eventually became the LessThanFive chair. While we were working on that with Michael Young, we were sitting on the roof of a carbon fibre supplier in Shenzhen – and they do BMW, Lamborghini and more bike frames than I could list – and I started thinking that this chair is all about lightness and stiffness, a lot like aerospace. But there are other aspects to carbon fibre – such as the prosthetic legs that Paralympic athletes use.
‘I went back to the US and asked my chief engineer, ‘Do you think we could go back to that idea we shelved about eight years ago?’ So, for about 18 months, with a very small team, we worked on this.
‘I commandeered a space in the Innovation Center, we put paper on the windows, a lock on the door and didn’t tell anybody about what we were working on. We didn’t tell the CEO, we didn’t tell the head of marketing – because we didn’t know if there was really anything there!
‘The result of that is SILQ – which I really believe is a technological tour de force; to be able to replace all that machinery with something so complex yet so simple. A typical task chair has upwards of 200 parts – this has 30. The notion of this material-based solution replacing all those parts seems so simple.’
What we already know from James is that this has actually been a far from simple project, spanning a decade in total and throwing the 50-something-year old rulebook on office seating out of the window. Although James and the team now realised they had created something special, they also knew their job was far from done. ‘We’d solved it – but the problem is that there is a certain premium to carbon fibre, as you know,’ James continues. ‘So I asked, ‘Can we do this in a way that we can reach more people and allow more people to have an intuitive sit?’ They were pretty pissed off for about a week – and then they came back and we worked on a non-carbon version. We essentially created a proprietary material to replicate the entire experience.’
A proprietary material? We’re intrigued. However, James is giving little away about the team’s brilliant materials research and development, which has led to what is now a commercially viable product. ‘We can’t really talk about the material right now,’ he grins, before expertly changing the subject by inviting us to take a sit on the new chair. ’There’s only one adjustment – height adjustment – and everything else is you. People don’t want to spend time adjusting their chair. This is based upon your stature and posture. The energy you’re driving into this is what’s activating the system – rather than sitting on a chair, you are part of this.
‘The visual language, performance language and material composition should come together to create something that’s truly unique. As I said, we took inspiration from aerospace, the motion of a high-performance prosthetic leg and sculpture, among other things, to understand how the combination of advanced materials and shape could create a simple system that is incredibly thin, extremely strong and highly responsive
‘There are three principles here; the first is about material innovation, the second is about performance – this is more organism than machine in many ways – and the third is about artistry. You can have the Tom Ford version or the Scandinavian styling – there are unlimited and unprecedented possibilities and personalities here. I really believe that the world’s ready for something more intuitive – we already have enough complexity in our lives. Our CEO asked us to produce something more simple for the user – and I believe we’ve done that.
‘I think there’s something magical – and this is a personal design philosophy – when you have the visual language, the performance language and the material science – and they become inseparable. I’ve only ever really seen that in really simple systems, like the contact lens or the heart stent. The challenge was whether we could translate that into a more complex system – and that’s what really drove the engineering team. How simple could we make this with the materials-based solution? While we love the sculptural qualities of the product, the curves are necessary because they create resistance in the energy system. There was all this push/pull – and it was really great fun. I kept telling the guys to go home!’