Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A revolution in seating, a Grand Rapids tradition

Many Grand Rapidians know that our city  has been known as the Furniture City since the late 19th century. Perhaps you've had a chance to browse the Furniture City exhibit at the Public Museum. Grand Rapids rose to a city of fame in furniture production due to its proximity to the large stands of hardwood that were logged between 1840 and 1900. Michigan was the largest lumber producer in the United States in the latter half of the 1800s. Grand Rapids, being situated on a river between the north woods and Chicago, grew exponentially as a result of this industry and spawned another industry: furniture. All over the city even today stand the old furniture factories that employed so many migrating Americans and Europeans.

But along with the mass-produced parlor and bedroom suites that were shipped to fill new housing going up around the developing country, Grand Rapids companies produced and are still producing innovative pieces that have changed the way we Americans have lived our lives.

In 1886 Grand Rapids School Furniture Company introduced the student-desk combination, which revolutionized school seating. Eventually this company would be known as American Seating and would locate on the Westside. In 1921 American Seating updated this desk to the “Universal” which featured adjustable height, swivel seats, and bases that didn’t need to be bolted to the floor and which was scientifically designed to promote good posture. This model was successfully sold and used for decades.

If you didn't sit in the "Universal" in school, there's a good chance that you sat in another American Seating desk iteration, or rode to school on a bus with American Seating benches, or cheered for the Detroit Tigers in an American Seating fold-up chair.  Grand Rapids chair design has affected our experience of studying and recreating for much of the 20th century. But it would also affect the way we worked.

In 1976 William Stumpf created the Ergon chair for Herman Miller - the first ergonomic chair designed to limit stress on a person working at a desk. By now ergonomics is a commonly used phrase and we have numerous products available to prevent neck and back strain as well as carpal tunnel syndrome and any number of conditions that result from long-term sitting and typing. But the Ergon, and later models, the Equa and Aeron, were breakthroughs for making "a beautiful chair comfortable."

More recently sustainable furniture design has become a focus of Grand Rapids furniture manufacturers. Steelcase designed the Think chair to be not only attractive and ergonomic, but environmentally sustainable. It is Cradle to Cradle certified and composed of only safe materials, 40% of which are recycled. There are no harmful toxins or dyes used in its manufacture which is deliberately designed to minimized energy use and emissions. When the chair is no longer usable, it is 98% recyclable itself.

Clearly, this type of manufacture is an order of magnitude away from clear cutting forests to mass produce furniture, although much of that original Furniture City furniture still occupies bedrooms and dining rooms around the country.

What direction will Grand Rapids furniture manufacturers go in next given that models of education and work are likely to change, possibly quite radically, in the next quarter century?