Here's at least one thing to blame on the Y2K bug: A slow year in the office-furniture industry. "We're scratching our heads about the year now," said Tom Reardon, executive director of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association. "The only thing we can speculate about is that companies have been diverting capital to Y2K fixes instead of buying furniture."
By some measures, the year in office furniture was not a disaster, even if companies were distracted by millennial concerns. The value of shipments for 1999 was estimated at $12.2 billion to $12.4 billion, according to the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based association.
That range fits with the lofty levels seen for office-furniture shipments since 1992, when the industry started eight years of solid growth. Between 1992 and 1998, the market grew at an average rate of 7.9 percent annually, Reardon said.
But compared with 1998, numbers are starting to show a downturn. For the first nine months of 1999, shipments lagged 1.3 percent behind 1998 numbers. The industry shipped almost $12.4 billion in office furniture in 1998, its second-largest year ever.
BIFMA estimates that those numbers should rise again next year. The association projects shipments of $12.7 billion to $13.1 billion for 2000, up as much as 6 percent from 1999.
"The economy is still chugging along and corporate profitability is improving," Reardon said. "It's a matter of time before that is converted to orders."
Those orders could translate into greater use of plastic. During the second half of the 1990s, office work systems gradually have embraced new styles.
Furniture manufacturer Haworth Inc. of Holland, Mich., for instance, now offers its One Touch curved-plastic overhead door and Jump Stuff translucent ABS work surfaces.
The Jump Stuff plastic line includes display shelves, pile dividers, multimedia boxes and letter trays, all made from the see-through ABS.
"As an industry, plastic is coming into its own in office furniture," said Chuck Saylor, outside design leader for Haworth. "Plastic lets us mold more organic shapes and products that we can't do out of steel or wood. We'll continue to see growth in that technology."
The outlook for office furniture will be bright as the world continues its drive toward the information age, said Haworth brand manager Kurt Vanderschuur. In the past decade, the emphasis has shifted to furniture that assists those working with new office technology, he said.
That has led Haworth and others to design products offering greater access for both power outlets and office communications, Vanderschuur said.
Furniture has more functionality and flexibility than ever before, he said. Future products will be more controlled by the user than by the office environment.
"We're creating workplaces that are fluid," Vanderschuur said. "We're changing the way furniture acts and behaves. Whether a worker needs to collaborate and work jointly on projects or go away and concentrate in private, furniture can do both."