Thursday, 17 March 2011

Creating a New Seat of Learning - Professor Richard Snell

Hille - newly launched SE school chair
Designed by Professor Richard Snell
and David Rowe
 The chair, mundane in its functionality, is something most of us simply take for granted.

Yet this practical everyday object is capable, through good design, of becoming art. More than that, when form and function are well combined, it can create wealth and sustain jobs.

"Throughout the 20th century the chair has been regarded as the definitive design test, encouraging artists, designers, architects and engineers to create chairs that captured their design philosophy."

These words, spoken by Professor Richard Snell at a recent design lecture, "The Seat of Learning", at the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design, highlighted a collaborative design project to create a new school chair, known as the SE Chair, with fellow designer, David Rowe and Birmingham City University - funding elements of the two year research and development programme - together with reputable seating manufacturer, Hille.

"Designers of the 21st century are building on this approach, extending it to include issues such as sustainability and impact on quality of life," added Professor Snell.

Professor Richard Snell,
Co-designer, Hille new school seating
 Richard Snell's designs have been created largely for the contract furniture sector working mainly with architects and specifiers. Design work has focused on seating for schools and universities, restaurants and cafes, hotels and halls of residence, airports and transport hubs around the world.

He has an impressive list of clients and partners including Conran, British Airport Authority, Commonwealth Games, Trust House Forte, Littlewoods, Debenhams, Fitch & Co, Hostess Furniture and most recently, Hille.

David Rowe, Co-designer,
Hille new school seating
 David Rowe has considerable experience working with renowned Midlands furniture brands, such as Gordon Russell, especially on products where consideration of posture has been important, meeting a real market need for this specialisation.

The Opus Seating Range, designed specifically for orchestral musicians, was one of Snell and Rowe's early collaborations. Initially focussing on the CBSO during the research, development and design stages of the project, they produced a niche product which subsequently sold in volume worldwide.

They've been designing chairs for over 30 years and in recent years have noticed key changes in chair design and production.

"We've been taking another look at materials in light of the need for a more sustainable approach.

"Polypropylene can be recycled easily, it's low cost, has great strength, it's suitable for injection moulding and due to its natural integrity it does not need any fillers to gain strength, making it much easier to recycle.

"In addition, theories around seating posture have developed significantly.

"When we sit down there is a natural tendency for the pelvis to rotate backwards dragging the bottom half of the spine with it. When we support the spine in the lumber region then the vertebrae tend to get pushed sideways and downwards. However if we support the pelvis and stop it rotating backwards we can prevent the conflict of vertebrae in the lower spine and maintain balance.

"In Europe a new standard in school seating was developed following research showing an increase in the dimension and variety of shapes and sizes of children, resulting in an increase in the sizemarks being used from 6 to 8.

"In starting to think about designing a new school chair we had to be aware of the new European standards, the well-being of the user - school children, both here and overseas.

"As a result the SE Chair exceeds the postural requirements of then new BS EN 1729 standard and is available in 6 sizes and in 3 frame colours. Skid base and swivel versions are among the variations in development.

"A lot of people had ranges of products in the market already. We needed points of differentiation, but we also needed to be competitive on price. Polypropylene is a cost effective material. We looked to produce a chair that would sell for under £21.

"However we wanted to see if we could mix polypropylene with other materials by designing a chair with separate back and base, providing the opportunity for separate material options within one chair."

Plastics have been used in chair design since the 1960's by designers such as Charles Eames and Robin Day.

The 'Polychair', Robin Day's first polypropylene chair (also the world's very first polypropylene chair), was produced by Hille and became such a design icon it was subsequently commemorated on a postage stamp.

Developed in 1962 it was, in the words of Hugh Pearman, Sunday Times, "an immediate success" and is still, "one of the most affordable design classics going." Since its launch about 14 million have been sold worldwide and the school seating versions are still being made by Hille at the rate of 500,000 a year.

Fred Scott, a graduate of the Royal College of Art, also worked for Hille. "In 1979 he produced 'the Supporto' office chair system which in turn formed a source of inspiration for 'the Meridio' created in 1990 by Michael Dye - designed in the Anglepoise and rather anglophile tradition of engineered knobs and junctures, rather than the more international approach where joints are hidden away," said Professor Snell.

"Tooling can be an expensive element and taking a systems approach to product design can considerably reduce both the cost of tooling up and production.

"In creating our new SE Chair, our intention was to minimize tooling costs, which came in at around £200k in total, by producing 3 backs and 3 seats providing flexibility for up to 8 sizes and meeting EU standards.

"We looked at gas filling properties during the injection moulding process to develop a bone-like structure around the seat back to provide additional structural integrity ensuring lightness and longevity. The tube frame was adjusted at the fixing points enabling the required flexibility in sizing.

"The tubular steel frame is made in Burnley and required tube forming and CNC investment. We were conscious of working in a distinguished design tradition in tubular furniture.

Design Classic - West Midlands
PEL manufactured SP9
"Companies like PEL (Practical Equipment Limited), renowned for the SP9 chair, or Spring Pattern 9, which was manufactured in Oldbury in 1932, became a design classic that has endured to this day.

"The designer of this particular chair is not known, but it's thought to have been influenced by architect Oliver Bernard. PEL was an important design business in that it took on board influences from Europe translating these into mass production, working successfully with well-known architects such as Wells Coates and Serge Charmayeff," said Professor Snell.

Hille Managing Director, Brian Foster thanked those present for attending the lecture saying, "Separate seated chairs have not been in vogue so Richard Snell and David Rowe's design approach with the SE Chair has been brave and commendable in the precision of its conception, facilitated through Birmingham City University-funded research and testing.

"It's been an amazing project. There have been a few years of discussions and meetings to get to this stage.

"However, whilst we've not yet had any official launch the price is right and the design is flexible and attractive.

"We've had 20,000 orders to-date without any launch or promotion, yet we sense a buoyancy to the market. We're not looking to be a volume player but to offer sufficient flexibility and quality at the right price to appeal to the specifier and architect markets with our new design, colour and materials by offering a fresh approach in the context of poly propagation."

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