Swivel on This | icon 001 | April 2003

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words Corinna Dean

Ancient slam-top desks. Splintering plywood chairs. School furniture design has been neglected for years. Now three design teams have addressed the needs of the 21st-century classroom.

Our early school memories are of heavy desks still inset with a rusty inkwell, and steel legs which scraped across the classroom floor. School furniture undoubtedly has a huge influence on children's perception of their environment - yet it is an area of design that has been shamefully ignored. The fragmented schools furniture market suffers from an antiquated procurement process, where there is little communication between consumers and suppliers and distributors and manufacturers.

This could all change if the Kit for Purpose initiative launched by the Design Council together with the Department for Education & Skills (DfES) is taken up. Under the initiative, the Furniture for the Future competition was launched in June last year, calling for teams composed of designers and manufacturers. More than 60 teams entered, and six were interviewed including Future Systems and Ideo. The final teams selected were Carl Clerkin and William Warren, Matthew Hilton with Jorge Quarta, and Shin & Tomoko Azumi. Each team was awarded a bursary of £20,000 to develop prototypes.

With such a neglected sector - it was almost 40 years ago that Robin Day designed the famous stacking polypropylene chair that has graced classrooms for years - the Design Council's aim is to inject the talent of Britain's best designers into the mediocre, institutionalised and uninspiring British market. One only has to look to Scandinavia - where ergonomic standards in the schools market are in place - to find a thriving school furniture sector. Scandinavia's tradition can be traced back to Arne Jacobsen's designs for schools; for example, The Munkegard School in Soborg, Denmark (1957), has a range of seating and desks that is lightweight and ergonomic.

With a substantial amount of funding allocated to schools, Hilary Cottam, the director of learning & public services at the Design Council, is keen that it is well spent: "With £1 billion per year allocated to resources and tools for learning in schools, we want to ensure that this money is spent more effectively, with the stress on better designed products that emphasise long-term value over short-term expediency."

Retailers and producers from other sectors, such as home furnishings, have been slow to capitalise on a potentially huge market. By bringing in designers more used to designing for the luxury or niche furniture markets, expectations were high as to what could be achieved.

A tough monitoring process comprising members of various committees and individuals - from the DfES to the Design Council, and from educational psychologists to teachers - assessed the progress of the project. In addition, each designer had to work closely within the constraints set by their respective manufacturer.

All three design teams talk about their misconceptions about the classroom structure and their shared unfamiliarity with current teaching methods, which are moving towards more project-based work and teamwork. In order to create their own briefs, all of the teams visited schools and education centres around the country in order to familiarise themselves with what went on in the classroom and asked: where is teaching heading?

The Azumis, the husband-and-wife team from Tokyo, came back with an enlightened idea of what a teacher was. Shin Azumi smiles as he recounts their experiences on visiting the classroom: "After frequent visits we realised that the teachers were like performers, bringing entertainment into the classroom to try to maintain pupils' attention." The Azumis teamed up with the furniture manufacturer Keen, which specialises in office furniture. Keen, now in partnership with Ercol, has a history of working with established senior British designers such as Robin Day, Jane Dillon and Frederick Scott.

The ongoing challenge for the company's director, Charles Keen, is to try to break into the schools market: "Our initial impression of the schools furniture market is that it is fragmented and difficult to penetrate. It is very hard to see where you can bring in flair and innovation." The Azumis' design is sure to create a stir with their response to the rigid classroom, the Orbital Workstation. Two versions have been produced. Both combine a circular table with a plywood chair that is linked to the base of the table with a tubular steel connection. The chair spins round the table, allowing children the freedom to re-orient themselves in any direction, depending on the focus of the class. The table can be easily picked up and wheeled around on its two castors. Schoolchildren can happily spin round on the workstations, and to safeguard against overactive kids, the wheels lock while someone is seated on the chair. The workstation meets the flexible demands of the classroom, where pupils can work individually or in clusters. A neat hook doubles up as a handle and hanging device for the pupils' coats and bags. Ingemar Jonsson, Keen's director of product development, talks about the product's immediate success signalled by orders already being placed by schools in Sweden.

One of the many challenges faced by the design team of Matthew Hilton (the head of furniture design at Habitat) with Jorge Quarta, was working with the manufacturer Remploy, the UK's largest supplier of school furniture, selling to more than 13,000 schools. Hilton and Quarta's task was not an easy one, given that Remploy had no track record of working with designers and needed persuading as to the merits of good design. The result is an elegant cast-aluminium lightweight table, which is adjustable as well as demountable. The legs can be swivelled to enable grouping when positioned at 45°; colour coding denotes the different heights. A polyurethane injection-moulded edging prevents pupils from prising off the edge with a pair of compasses.

Combining practical considerations with design innovation, the desk can accommodate a range of ages, from a five-year-old right up to an adult - and the fact that it can be flat-packed means that it can meet Remploy's tight supply and demand requirements. The majority of schools place orders in May and June for the start of the next term in September, putting an impossible load on the work force; the flat-packed desk can be produced and easily stored months in advance and then delivered and assembled on site.

The final team are the upbeat design duo William Warren and Carl Clerkin, working with Emmerich (Berlon) Ltd. Initial thoughts that began to emerge when creating their brief centred on designing child-friendly furniture; but on greater examination of the classroom atmosphere, Warren and Clerkin decided that their aim would be to empower the teacher through design. "We didn't want to make cool-looking furniture, but instead wanted to concentrate on the classroom layout and comfort issues," said Clerkin.

Emmerich (Berlon) Ltd, founded in 1852, gained its reputation as a manufacturer of block planes. In 1932 it started to produce craft benches for the education sector. The original EMIR bench design has been refined and a range of multi-functional hardwood benches developed, establishing the company as the UK's leading bench manufacturer. The square bench was introduced as the educational emphasis switched from craft to design & technology. Clerkin and Warren have taken the original design premise and evolved the worktable, adding a touch of humour with a considered response to issues such as future technology.

"Furniture can't second guess what future technology will be," said Warren. "Working with Emmerich and their reputation for working in steamed beech, there is a call for furniture of substance." The result is a robust design & technology bench, which is multi-purpose and durable. The square table can be adjusted to three heights.

Spread out on the table top is a Monopoly board-sized display of what could be the contents of a schoolboy's pocket, screen-printed on to the red lino bench top. Each item is intended to be read as a learning reference, such as the Oxo cube with its dimensions, or the circumference of a Polo mint, allowing children to relate geometric concepts to the real world. A condom packet comprises the array of screen-printed objects making for lively discussion at break. And when the objects become superseded by the next wave of references, a new template can be economically produced.

The furniture prototypes will be displayed at a touring Design Council exhibition, which began at the Education Show at the NEC, Birmingham in March. The fast pace of the project is fuelled by the hope that these products will be in Britain's schools by the start of the next academic year in 2003. So if the timetable is successful, and the manufacturers can meet the production demands, the next generation of school pupils will be orbiting around the classroom, merrily discussing the dimensions of Oxo cubes and experiencing the luxury of shiny metallic desks that can be packed away in a jiffy. And as the school standards minister David Miliband stated on welcoming the launch: "There is a clear link between well-equipped schools and pupil attainment. Good furniture design is vital to ensure that classrooms are inspiring places in which to work and learn." The results of Furniture for the Future should see Miliband's testimony put to the test.

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