above> john hamilton design director coalesse
We met with new Coalesse Design Director John Hamilton in Milan. We talked about the impact of recent management changes at Coalesse and their relationship with parent, Steelcase. We also were introduced to a new and amazing carbon fiber chair created by Michael Young.
[DESIGNAPPLAUSE] John, what’s different at Coalesse after the new restructuring?
[JOHN HAMILTON] I think a lot has changed and not much has changed. What’s changed would not be apparent to most people unless you knew us from the inside. Management has changed but our strategy and philosophy has not. Our problem solving has not changed. When you think what we’re trying to focus on, maybe the ways we’re going to tell the story or ways that we market you would say feels a little different. But if you go back, if you knew the original intent of what we’re trying to do, it’s still the same. We still think there’s a huge opportunity for the direction that was previously set and in that mindset, not that much has changed.
[DA] What is the strategy?
[JH] The world of work is changed in the way we’re all working. For a while we were trying to talk about that change, but now it’s so commonplace that if we mention it, people just nod their head and say ‘I do that’. That also means because of new technologies we all have, we’re now able to choose where we want to work and how we want to work. And now we have a greater variety of where to choose to work than in the past. Because of all multiple devices to choose from we have even more freedom to decide whether to work at the office or somewhere else. Today we’re seeing people choosing not to go to the workplace. And we are probing the reasons for that decision, why are they choosing alternative places. If we can understand why and leverage those insights we might bring people back to the workplace.
What maybe different is our partnership with Steelcase. We’re (Coalesse) part of a very large eco system or organization that’s looking at work, and workers and the workplace and things that are affecting you the whole day, and not just at one location. And we complement them really well and we’re going to find ways to demonstrate that differently or better than we did in the past.
I’ve talked to some people and they say, ‘you’re about home office or about retail, right?’ But we’re are really about the office and trying to bring a different sensibility to that space. And there’s a desire to get people back into the office to restore group synergy, that synergy that fosters greater creativity and collaboration. The office will be more comfortable, healthier, all the wellness things that we as individuals are concerned with.
[DA] John, you mention Steelcase. How do you interface with them?
[[JH] I’m a part of James Ludwig’s Global Design Group. We’re directly connected with them on a daily basis. In short, we’re partners with them. And because of Steelcase, our facilities in Michigan is amazing. I’m in San Francisco now and I’m a little sorry I left Michigan because after I left they implemented an entirely new space. It’s world class. We know it’s world class because we’re global. I’m a good example, I’ve spent time in Asia and that experience is felt in our design.
One of the things we talk about is ‘unfair advantage’ at Steelcase. Which means we at Coalesse leverage Steelcase’s resources. I have a researcher in San Francisco and get to partner with other researchers across the globe. My issues in San Francisco are slightly different because of nuances that we’re working on, but they’re the same issues globally because it’s about people. We’re always globally comparing traditional workspaces against alternative workspaces that we’re working on. If you talk to my direct competitors and ask them if they would like to have 30 researchers situated around the world working for you everyday that you get to leverage and 150 engineers and a model shop and a test lab, anyone would say, absolutely.
[DA] What is the Global Design Group?
[JH] We have several disciplines (design and engineering) at Steelcase which we think about as global. We have a design studio headquartered in Grand Rapids Michigan. There’s one in Salzburg France and Rosenheim Germany, in Hong Kong and San Francisco. And we work together to get an international perspective. It’s not surprising the challenges that I have in San Francisco are slightly different than those in Hong Kong. And when you study all our network locations you begin to see a pattern, where people might be struggling. We have the advantage of using our global perspective to respond. Our reach and scale gives us an unfair advantage.
[DA] Are your products tailored to different parts of the world?
[JH] I think sometimes products get applied differently. Or scaled regionally. We’re starting to find there’s a more international consistency than inconsistency. The opportunity to do something that can be globally executed, we’re seeing greater and greater possibilities of doing that. The nuances are more regional. In Hong Kong, space is a greater concern. So things are tighter, closer together there. But globally we are seeing that people are responding to pillows and lounging chairs where there are more options to sit, stretch, and they are more comfortable and also more productive. And that’s what Coalesse is about, looking at alternative aspects of the workplace, adding new settings, new postures and possibilities.
[DA] I talked to Toan Nguyen and Jean-Marie Massaud last year at Neocon and would like to know how their solutions are being received.
[JH] I was going to ask you the same thing. We are just shipping them and we have a lot of orders to fulfill at this time.
[DA] The designers and experts that I’ve talked to, everyone loves the concepts, the design and execution. The solutions are both unique.
[JH] That’s another example of who we are, we’re striving to be unique. We have a new chair that is very unique, our carbon fibre chair. We partnered with designer Michael Young.
[DA] It’s light as a feather.
[JH] Michael’s office is in Hong Kong. We were talking to him about carbon fiber and our interest in exploring the material and how you could push it and come up with a product that when you looked at it you knew it could only be done in that material. We wanted to do it in a way that really optimized the reason why you would use that material which is about lightness and strength. And it’s expensive for what it is. You want to only use as much as you need. So the Steelcase seating engineers worked with our carbon fiber manufacturer and Michael and FEA modeling to optimize exactly how much you need as you go through the visualization and the testing. We wanted it to stack four-high and weigh less than five pounds. The chair is 4.8 pounds /2.2 kilos. A box of four is under 25 pounds so shipping is inexpensive but this chair, it’s not the most expensive chair in the marketplace.
What’s interesting and the way I look at it, this is about a new product. We’ve always talked about craft and materiality as being very important to Coalesse. When you think about the time when they were exploring wood for example, they were pushing wood technology. They were steam-bending it. They were taking paper and twisting it into a rope, taking materials at that moment and seeing what they could do with it in new ways that literally push the boundaries of manufacturing at that time. Look at Eames, working with plywood and fibreglass. I believe if the Eames’s were around today they’d be playing with carbon fiber.
And there’s a real craft to shape it, join parts together, polish, paint it and then finish coat. Our manufacturing partner is an expert at finishing. If you ask Michael what he thought when he saw the possibilities, he was all eyes and ears. (DesignApplause will be talking to Michael at NeoCon 2014.) Look at the finishing, look at the transition of color, from a 2% to 8% grey. There’s a metallic one over there. We sent them a copper wire and the manufacturer matched it exactly. Another unique by-product on this chair, we’re going to enable the designer to specify what areas they want and which way. Just send a PMS chip or a sample. We can duplicate it. You get to participate. The only limitation with the process is seemingly ‘real-time’.
[DA] Is this powder coated process?
[JH] No, it’s a handpainted process. It’s a craft. Everyone is going to be slightly different, unique. And yet there is the consistency that you expect. And don’t they make carbon fiber bikes and boats and those things are outdoors all day long. This chair is both indoor and outdoor. And they’re so light I can stack four of these and carry them out with one arm.