The Collaborative Design of Collaborative Furniture

One Saturday morning, Louis Schump picked up The New York Times and couldn’t believe his eyes. Featured on the front page of the business section was a photo of Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, leaning on a piece of Allsteel Gather furniture that HOK Product Design had helped bring to market. Behind the CEO, additional groupings of the tiered, modular seating further showcased the collaboration between Allsteel and a team of HOK designers.

“I’m not used to being personally associated with something that’s so public,” said Schump.

A diverse HOK team designed the new Gather furniture collection, which supports workplace collaboration.

“Allsteel not only appreciated HOK’s knowledge-based approach to design, but also our ability to put together a comprehensive team of talented designers from offices throughout North America,” said HOK Director of Interior Design Tom Polucci.

The assignment represented Allsteel’s first product design collaboration with an architecture and design firm, adding a new dimension to HOK’s ongoing relationship with the furniture manufacturer. HOK had previously designed award-winning, highly sustainable Allsteel resource centers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Boston.

The team worked closely with IDa Design, an industrial design firm with a deep understanding of product engineering.

“Though we each brought different skills and experience to the table there was a lot of consensus,” said Annie Bergeron, an interior design leader. “We’re used to the creative process.”

The group’s collaborative spirit emerged during lively offsite brainstorming sessions in which the team generated ideas for individual furniture pieces.

“It was very organic when we got together to brainstorm and create,” said Bergeron, who has designed space for Google, AOL, Alliance Films and Cisco. “The whole process was fun and engaging.”

The team structured the process so that no single individual owned a specific idea. When someone had the initial nugget of an idea, another team member was assigned to sketch additional ideas. The next day, new concepts would be presented and re-brainstormed for further development.

“Everyone owned all of the ideas and products,” Bergeron said. “This was one reason for the product’s success.”

Combining HOK’s workplace design expertise with IDa’s knowledge of product engineering led to insights into the most fertile product ideas and a more immediate feedback loop than is possible through traditional focus groups. Designing for human needs and behavior rather than market-specific preconceptions helped the collection cross business lines and locations.

Another goal was to create pieces that could integrate seamlessly within an existing environment – including other styles of furniture – without dominating the space.

Since its 2011 introduction, Gather has earned several awards, including a Best of NeoCon Editors’ Choice Award, People’s Choice Award, and Seating Award; the Buildings Magazine Product Innovation Award; and Interiors & Sources Reader’s Choice Best Seating Award.

“People love the collection,” Bergeron said. “And they’re reinterpreting it in ways I would never have imagined.”

Bergeron enjoyed the camaraderie she experienced while working with HOK colleagues from across North America during the product design process.

“Though I hadn’t worked with any of these people before, it felt just like being at home, except with a different, fresh team,” she said. “There’s a real consistency and vibe across HOK.”