A post-Y2K crush and expanding economy helped push office furniture sales to new heights throughout 2000, with companies recording an overall 9 percent boost in the market.
Just because the business climate is cooling off, though, industry experts do not anticipate a major decrease in the demand for new office furniture.
Instead, growth will continue in 2001 but at a slightly slower pace, said Tom Reardon, president of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer's Association.
"Our [forecasting] model is telling us we're going to experience growth this year and into 2002," Reardon said.
In all, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based BIFMA anticipates a 5 percent growth in sales for office furniture for 2001, pushing it to an estimated $14 billion.
Sales are expected to climb another 3 percent in 2002, he said.
The industry expected a hike for 2000, as many businesses that invested heavily in technology to upgrade computer systems for the expected Y2K bug turned away from furniture purchases.
Those predictions carried through for the year, said Kris Manos, vice president of marketing for Holland, Mich.-based Haworth Inc. But along with those sales is a continued conversion from metal and wood to plastics.
Haworth introduced its Jump Stuff line of office products last year — with translucent ABS used in everything from display shelves to dividers and letter trays — replacing components made from metal in the past.
"The content of plastic is up," Manos said. "The attitude of the customer to plastics has changed. It can actually be the preferred look."
Zeeland, Mich.-based Herman Miller Inc.'s injection molded Aeron office chair is a case in point, Reardon said. It is in demand from executives who previously sought out wood and leather products.
But the biggest driver for growth this year comes from corporate face lifts aiming to replace aging cubicles with a newer, open style of office systems, he said.
The high-walled "systems furniture" that first hit the market in the late 1960s was innovative for its time, he said, providing a sense of privacy for office workers who once toiled in an open sea of desks.
But the new watchword for office environments is "collaboration," he said. That means the walls drop enough so workers can actually see and talk to each other a little easier.
"We want to communicate more, so the workplace is becoming more open again," Reardon said.
Haworth's new "if" furniture line takes advantage of the open office structure, making it possible to set up a workstation in nearly any location, Manos said.
The system uses plastics extensively, she said, including an ABS flexible "utility chain" containing cables, wires and plugs.
The push to overhaul aging systems is deeper than a mere surface treatment, Manos said.
"[Companies] want to create spaces that attract and retain employees," Manos said. "Those work spaces are a way they can make a statement about the culture of their company."
At the same time, businesses can address issues involving ergonomics that were not at the forefront two decades ago, Reardon noted.
"It's not just about getting shiny new furniture," he said. "It's about worker productivity, health and safety issues and fashion."