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Show Me: Three Contract Furniture Showrooms

Toronto’s contract furniture displays are designed for designers – and their clients

Call them “client engagement centres” — it’s much more to the point than mere  “showrooms.” The three major contract furniture display spaces we toured in downtown Toronto are in accord about this, and just about every other office design direction today. All three agree that the primary purpose of their centres is experiential, visually demonstrating concepts to the clients of their clients, the designers. Think of it like a retailer who, rather than simply hanging items on a rack, dresses forms in suits with coordinating furnishings to give the viewer the full effect.

At Haworth’s recently reno’d 13,000-sq.-ft. client engagement studio, Canadian regional director Yoel Berznoger says this is another reason why such studios dot their “showrooms” with real live employees. Clients can get an up-close-and-personal idea of how people interact in various office settings. It works so well that customers occasionally decide they want to buy an entire grouping, just as presented.

Haworth has renovated its Toronto showroom at 55 University Avenue. The refreshed space reflects the needs of a unique economic sector – the financial capital of Canada, a diverse and growing technology industry, and a home to a foundation of educational institutions.

Like the other firms we visited, Haworth prides itself on its workplace studies, which involve constantly assessing future work trends and adjusting their product accordingly. More than simple trend-watching though, says Berznoger, his 60-year-old, U.S.-based company sees what they do as a continual refinement centred on the universal principles that underlie great design. Their winning trifecta is “human performance, organizational performance and facility.”

Haworth’s new show space walks that talk. Reformatted for greater collection visibility and improved navigation sightlines, it features a stunning open staircase connecting its  main ground floor to a second storey. Full glass walls bring the city’s bustling ebb and flow to eye level while eschewing the attendant noise and fumes. The brain takes this all in upon entry. What it doesn’t see right away is the reception desk, because that has been shifted back to make room up front for a residential-style lounge and café complete with an extended “kitchen” island. Only when a client has absorbed this relaxed atmosphere is the reception area noticeable beyond. A high ceiling at the entrance way shifts to a lowered ceiling at reception and in several of the show spaces. This gradually pulls clients inwards, at the same time as reducing tension and instilling a sense of  human dimension and tranquility. Though the area is not all that quiet at times, when necessary, it can be rejigged into a large seminar space or an event party room.

That versatility extends to many of Haworth’s office furnishings and settings. But prevailing over these individualized things is the family-owned company’s brand image of warmth and comfort that happens to mesh perfectly with the modern idea of the office as a home away from home. “Finishes for sure help support that experience,”  Berznoger comments, pointing to accessories such as throw pillows, plants, a scattering of books and objets d’art which help create that sensibility.

Even subtler semaphore is employed to speak to the user’s subconscious in various display settings. A “restorative zone,” for instance, has been carefully crafted using affordance, or small sensual cues, to create the twin effect of relaxation and concentration. Comfy armchairs and a coffee table flank a high-backed couch that  forms its own barrier to the rest of the engagement centre. This silences ambient noise and focuses attention forwards, towards a wall with side whiteboards and a TV set at standing height: a signal that, while this all looks and feels like home, there’s still work-related things to be done, whether a casual creative think session or a refresh break away from the computer screen.

It’s all part of the WELL movement that is essentially LEED for human beings, offering employee surroundings designed to reduce stress and welcome restorative air, light and healthy lifestyle choices, adding in biophilic elements — hints of wood,  vegetation and organic shapes — that reflect the nourishing power of nature.

 

Not far from the Haworth site sits the Inscape engagement centre, a 6,000-sq.-ft. showcase designed by Figure3 situated high above the chattering crowd in the tower of a Bay Street office building. Although founded way back in 1888, this Canadian firm has certainly kept up with the times, to judge from its new display area that opened last February.

There is a definite wow factor on entering the space. Completely column-free, proffering spectacular vistas of the city core, it nonetheless gives off an intimate and inviting vibe. Figure3’s lead designer, Nicole Hoppe, says the threshold experience is one of “immediate decompression” meant to welcome visitors rather than overwhelm them. A dropped ceiling, acoustical dampening and pebbled carpet tiling give the small seating area that faces the entryway a human scale and sense of quiet reflection. Behind this grouping, a warm gray reception wall subtly angles right to usher customers towards the centre’s café. Here, relaxed preliminary discussions can take place over a beverage while the client’s eye wanders over various office concepts.

Hoppe says it was important that the show space employ the same workmanship, elegant simplicity and versatility the company builds into their contract furniture, allowing the attention to detail to speak for itself. Ergonomic seating, adjustable desks that don’t tip when fully raised, and flexible “real estate on demand” workstations that can be wheeled about and reconfigured in a matter of seconds, the thoughtful list goes on.

Arguably, the best part of the showroom are its veranda window-seats, where the humaneness behind biophilic design really shines through. Cushioned, wood-veneer storage cabinets run in a low line along the south-facing curtain wall. Sandwiched between wood-veneer pillars, spiced at intervals with throw pillows, original artwork and potted plants, the benches beckon viewers to rest a bit and enjoy the view. Those in need of more personal space – another trend in open offices these days – can always move on to the studio’s “Jewel Box,” a private, glassed-in room coated in colour-shifting dichroic wrapping.

Another new direction in office settings is what Sandy Stephens, Inscape’s architecture and design market manager, calls the “un-boardroom.” Born from both workplace casualization and the need to optimize shrinking corporate footprints, today’s boardroom is not only getting a homey makeover with residential touches, it too is expected to be several things to several different user groups. Inscape’s version features a long table comprising 14 smaller tables that can be separated and rearranged according to requirement, whether as a seminar classroom, team break-out space or additional employee hotelling.

Here and elsewhere throughout the engagement centre, displayed art was commissioned from Art Lifting, a creative consortium for the homeless and disabled. By way of thanks, the organization donated the black-and-white street-grid mural that spans Inscape’s elevator entrance wall. These pieces, along with the centre’s NetEffects carpeting derived from plastic fishing nets discarded in our oceans, are symbolic reminders of ways companies can strive for the greater good.

A commitment to sustainability is also a driving force for Teknion, the Canadian family firm that started less than 40 years ago and is now positioned as a global leader in office furnishings. The company leads the way too in promoting the WELL doctrine. Cristina Harnden, regional VP of central sales, says Teknion’s newly expanded 19,000-sq.-ft. Collaboration Hub, which takes up the entire 20th floor of a downtown tower (likely the largest client engagement centre in Canada), is not only LEED Gold certified but “the first showroom to be WELL certified, with a Silver.” Wellness, she continues, is a creative approach “that we can share with designers.” In addition to a library of privately published books on this and other aspects of design, Teknion also hosts informational seminars on everything from problem-solving to employee engagement, and holds an eight-week prep course for WELL certification, all at no charge to the design community.

“The Hub is a window into the future of the workplace,” David Patterson, president of Canadian sales, commented in a recent press release. “Teknion has created a destination that embraces current and still-evolving work strategies, one that allows guests to feel comfortable and inspired as they experience various workstyles firsthand − focused, collaborative or social. The Hub also speaks to well-being and productivity through biophilic elements woven throughout the showroom.”

Teknion’s expanded and redesigned Collaboration Hub, with Vanderbyl Design, PearsonLloyd and SGH Design Partners acting as design consultants and the former serving as lead designer, occupies the entire 20th floor of the Bremner Tower in downtown Toronto.

The engagement centre entryway boasts no formal reception desk. Instead, a modern harvest table intersects two distinct lounge areas beyond which lie the office show spaces. A&D market manager Danealla Khoshabeh says the company makes “multiple furniture change-overs in a year” to the company’s three main office settings predicated on distinct work cultures. Each has its own unique look and feel, courtesy of the colour palette, materials and furnishings used, yet all mesh well under Teknion’s umbrella of contemporary versatility.

The Astute area is designed for calmness and quiet, supporting focused, heads-down tasks through permanent desking, slightly higher privacy barriers, fabrics and furnishings rendered in a muted tonal range, subdued lighting, and established private offices and boardrooms. The Aligned area features a fresh, energetic palette with benching and low-to-no-panelled hotelling workstations mixed with soft seating and casual tables to

create a multi-purpose space perfect for individual and team-based work, impromptu meetings or relaxed social gatherings. Finally, Agile offers an open-plan setting with a fluid flow. Colours are bright and stimulating, tables and other furnishings are capable of being repositioned at will, meeting places consist of casual couch-and-armchair groupings or a small series of diner booths that speak to the “Starbucks effect” of coffeeshop laptopping.

That “plug in and go” sensibility is now the new norm for our workforces, a trend that will only increase with further advances in technology. Not surprisingly, the Big Five tech companies — Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft — have also been trend-setters when it comes to design for employee engagement and retention. The casual, homey feel of today’s office spaces, their dynamic energy and multi-functionality, their promotion of wellness and biophilia, even the occasional games-filled playroom have all influenced even the stodgiest of corporations. It seems everybody wants that start-up vibe, complete with co-working collaboration and social interaction.

This is no passing fancy. No one wants to return to the bad old days of bland lobbies, window-hogging private offices and soul-sucking cubicles. All of us want a workspace that makes us happy and inspired. So be it. As Teknion’s Cristina Harnden says: “Our overarching phrase is ‘The true measure of a space is the way it makes you feel.’” Our tour of Toronto’s client engagement centres demonstrates that not only are we “feeling” all these new office spaces, but that the future of contract furniture appears to be resting in highly capable hands.

Photography by: Eric Laignel (Haworth); Steve Tsai (Inscape/Teknion)

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