All systems are go in the U.S. office furniture market.
The current business climate — favoring flexible workstations over a traditional, closed-door office — could have stood in the way of the industry's growth, said Thomas Reardon, acting executive director of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The days of decorating a dignified office with tony products have passed, Reardon said. Instead, furniture makers are thriving on a new emphasis on systems, he said. Those modular, chameleonlike work areas can be shifted from a private office environment to a team meeting room.
``It's furniture that someone fits together to accommodate multiple workers or [that] holds one worker in a cubicle-style office,'' Reardon said. ``As opposed to a freestanding office or one with a row of desks, it's a much more versatile product that can be reconfigured and added to as needs change.''
Such systems have several elements: panel systems that form the wall and the structural unit of a workstation, and desk systems that embrace both panels and other work accoutrements to create a sometimes-private, sometimes-group setting.
Each system includes acoustic barriers to muffle noise and nonload-bearing panels that can be moved easily, Reardon said.
Systems are especially popular in high-tech, information-driven industries in the Silicon Valley and midsize companies entering a growth phase, which are ``flush with capital and are starting to invest in larger offices,'' he added.
The systems approach has helped spearhead an estimated 14.5 percent increase in office furniture shipments for the first 10 months of 1997, compared with the previous year, Reardon said. The association forecasts that the office furniture industry will ship $11.25 billion in goods and services in 1997, a 12 percent increase over last year.
Those rosy numbers are especially gratifying for BIFMA, which had projected only 6 percent growth for 1997 and 1998, Reardon said. Now, the association has tweaked its estimates to expect 8 percent growth in office furniture shipments next year and 6 percent growth in 1999.
U.S. office furniture shipments recorded a 6.4 percent increase in 1996. Shipments last year were valued at $10 billion, an increase from $9.4 billion the previous year.
Of that total, the largest chunk, or 34.6 percent, was spent on systems furniture, with seating and files making up other areas of large capital investment. About 25 percent of furniture is made from wood, with the rest coming from nonwood products including plastic.
Several other industry trends continued. One was the growth in discount furniture shops and refurbished and ready-to-assemble furniture, Reardon said. Those areas put pressure on manufacturers to hold down costs to fend off price competition, he said.
The future also must accommodate computers, Reardon said. That includes training tables used in office conference rooms built to hold a laptop computer for interactive learning, he said. Those tables, many of which use plastic materials, must accommodate wires and other sophisticated cabling.
The change to systems furniture is also a change in mindset. Haworth Inc. of Holland, Mich., a leading office furniture maker, recently put out a study on the move to cognitive ergonomics, or creating work environments that help people think.
The company says a person's thoughts are consciously and unconsciously formed by surroundings, making the work space an extension of the mind. That changes the approach to office furniture by focusing on ways to help spark the creative process, the company wrote in a December report on the study.
``Your mind is like a bucket of water,'' Haworth organizational behaviorist Jay Brand said in a news release. ``The goal of your office should be to help preserve that water for important, intellectual tasks and avoid wasting it on energy-sapping distraction.''