Personal Furniture

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Monday, July 6, 2015 9:27 pm EDT


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In a set-up that would satisfy even Goldilocks, a group of Sunrise Senior Living residents in Massachusetts heads to a cozy common room each day knowing they'll be able to pick the chair most comfortable to them.

There's a traditional wingback with high sides supportive enough for an afternoon snooze, a second version of the same chair that offers an easy-tilt back, and a third that allows for gentle rocking.

There are no clumsy handle mechanisms and no traditional rocker legs to trip over, and yet the chairs don't look — or act — like boring, old overstuffed recliners.

“We have a lot of different needs,” says Andrea Owensby, senior director of interior design for Sunrise. “Some people in our aging population like harder or softer surfaces, some like a snugger space or the ability to spread out if they want to.”

Sunrise spent six months perfecting the modified chairs with one of its preferred manufacturers; the hope is that they will be popular enough with residents to roll out to other communities across the country.

It's one example of how customization is providing options to long-term care communities.

No longer satisfied to buy pieces designed for the hospitality industry, larger providers are pushing companies to design with seniors in mind. That requires a careful balance of form, function and fashion.

It also requires smaller providers to keep pace if they expect to compete for residents. A growing number of manufacturers and designers is working with long-term care clients to improve ergonomics and aesthetics, lengthen the lifeline of key pieces, and ultimately, make residents feel good.

A few years ago, architect Dean Maddalena couldn't furnish senior living spaces the way he designed them because most flooring and furniture selections that worked visually didn't satisfy the day-to-day needs of his clients.

He designed his own line, studioSIX5, now being produced by Kwalu. The pieces feature a transitional style that he describes as “traditional yet sophisticated with just enough edge to be cool.”

Each piece is designed with specific seat depths, arm heights and wetness barriers, but that doesn't mean a visitor would know it to look at it.

“Our clients want those baby boomers, a resident's 57-year-old daughter, to come in and say, ‘Wow, I could live here.'” Maddalena says. “They do not want to go to a skilled nursing home. They want to go to a care environment that reminds them of staying at a W Hotel.”

Tech transformation

There will be more pressure to make products more tech-friendly.

Jack Armstrong, a former executive vice president for Cooltree and a furniture industry consultant, expects there will be a shift away from reducing costs and a return to features that add value.

“Over the last 10 years the economy has suppressed innovation,” Armstrong says. “The focus was on reducing manufacturing cost to lower the sale price. Over the next 10 years the economy will improve and innovation will increase.”

Jon Lucas, president of CIT Commercial Services, a financial holding company, said much the same in his 2014 “Viewpoint” on the furniture industry. Though color and arrangement are evolving, so too is the use of technology.

“Furniture is being tied into some of the hot and newer electronics, whether it's the televisions or smartphones or the flexible and moveable stereo equipment that you can get today and run off of an iPad,” Lucas says.

The number of casegoods that incorporate charging stations will likely increase, as will the use of task lighting that features plugs for residents' devices.

Furniture made to house cords likely will play a bigger role in the healthcare segments as aging patients bring in more of their own mobile devices. Technology that makes life easier for residents is also a plus, says Owensby. 

Sunrise uses touch lamps throughout many of its communities, while some rooms have on/off switches triggered by movement.

“All of this innovation is under the umbrella that the price/value equation is still king,” says Lucas. “The consumer is still looking for value.”

Material differences

FlexSteel has provided furnishings to the long-term care sector through its healthcare unit since 1983. Although his company has a reputation for durability, Vice President Mike Santillo says FlexSteel continues to investigate options that might open up new price points. 

Within two to three seasons, Santillo expects to have three lines that offer customers a choice between all-wood, all-steel and mixed-material products. FlexSteel is also working to reduce the weight of some its products because many end-users want to be able to move them without much labor.

Although he recognizes the financial crunch many long-term care operators face, he says his company hasn't found cheaper extrusions or plastics to work nearly as well.

“There is a lot of movement in materials right now,” Santillo says. “But plastics are not the answer in this senior living environment. It's not warm, and it tends not to be as durable.”

For the last 25 years, Sunrise has leaned heavily on the formal dining chairs — delicate arms, turned legs — once thought to be admired most by seniors. But the company is trying out steel-framed chairs in about 30 of its memory care units, where Owensby says the traditional chairs were taking the biggest hits.

The wood-look chairs come at a higher price point, but save the effort of constant re-staining. They are also holding up longer, a point Owensby says was critical to operators of healthcare facilities.

Maddalena also is concerned about durability. His line features a wood-look finish, sometimes with metal ferrules that cover the bottom three to six inches of legs to ward off vacuum cleaner and walker damage.

Armstrong predicts chairs with easy-to-replace upholstery will become a common feature, allowing providers to get longer lifespans and save money over 10 to 20 years. In casegood manufacturing, he says 3DL surfaces (or thermoplastic film overlays) will become more prominent because they provide seamless, rounded corners and look like wood without the cost of wood.

“It is also easier to clean and disinfect,” he says. “Because of the increased design capabilities it can incorporate features like spill retention barriers.”  

Though removable cushions, stain-resistant sprays and durable surfaces are protecting seating areas, there's still little out there to save doorjambs and hallways. They take a beating and can make even a recently remodeled facility age quickly, Maddalena says.

Corner guards give off an institutional vibe, while heavy-duty wallpaper or shields that protect below a chair rail can be cost-prohibitive. Maddalena is working on creating a covering that withstands constant bumps and protects the sheet rock beneath.

Wider options

Other trends that are bigger than healthcare or furniture also will dictate the shape and style of new products.

Though the hospitality industry has seized on sustainable materials (it plays well in marketing efforts), they're still limited in the healthcare furniture industry. Owensby says she and other designers within the industry are specifying non-toxic foams and other materials wherever they exist, and she expects options will eventually increase.

In some states, they've moved away from treating surfaces with antimicrobial or other sprays that may now be considered unwise. Vinyl wall coverings and cheaper paints that give off VOCs will likely become harder to find.

But some materials that have become popular in homes — such as bamboo flooring — simply won't hold up in a nursing home. Designers instead are keeping their eyes toward new alternatives that might enter the marketplace.

Unit size also will require companies to rethink design.

Maddalena points to the shrinking square footage of a typical apartment, which has forced furniture designers to create pieces on a different scale. He expects that will trickle down to the healthcare segment.

Santillo says the aging-in-place movement is putting added pressure on manufacturers. In creating a recliner on casters that offers therapeutic solutions, FlexSteel will need to consider the needs of individual consumers as well as those of communities. 

Universal design, too, should become more prominent, says Owensby. Communities will increasingly build or retrofit wings to accommodate residents through various stages of health, and they'll need furnishings that evolve with them, resulting in more customization.

“I have seen a lot more customer-driven choice in the industry,” says Owensby, who regularly attends trade shows for new ideas. 

Given enough time, it's likely the future will deliver furniture buyers their “just right” Goldilocks moment, too.

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