Social responsibility and innovation rank high on the motivational chart for James Ludwig, design director for Steelcase Inc., the world's largest contract furniture manufacturer.
Ludwig is an architect who ran his own design studio in New York and Berlin for 11 years before joining Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Steelcase in 1999 as head of design for one of the firm's product categories. He assumed Steelcase's top design post in 2002. Now all designers and even Steelcase's chief engineer report to him.
``Design is as much about performance as it is about surface,'' he said in an interview before his presentation at a June 20-21 product design conference organized by the Hong Kong Design Centre. ``Materials play a big role in both of those qualities of product. ... Without performance, design is at its worst, and materials science plays a big role in that for us.
``We see the health and safety of our users as one of the prime design drivers. Materials in terms of their chemistry play a big, big role in that, and we're spending more and more time focused on what's inside the stuff we use.''
The 93-year-old Steelcase, which employs about 14,000 and has annual sales of $2.6 billion, ``owns [environmental] leadership in our industry,'' Ludwig said. ``It's not only market-driven. We see it as a responsibility. I profoundly believe as a designer and architect that I have a social contract to do whatever I can ... to make the things we do healthy and safe - and delightful, of course. That's why we're moving so quickly,'' ahead of regulatory pressures and even market demand.
As an example, he said that in a project that is launching soon, Steelcase expects to be able to eliminate about 8 pounds of material - mostly plastic and steel - from a specific chair model, simply by pushing the envelope, engineeringwise. At the projected 300,000-unit annual sales volumes for the product, the firm estimates it will save about 2.4 million pounds a year in materials that will not have to be landfilled.
Also, as previously reported, Steelcase in early June became the first furniture maker to pin a specific date, 2012, on its planned phaseout of all PVC resins from its products. In defending the decision, Ludwig said, ``We can only operate to the best of our conscience and the best of knowledge at that time, and we're convinced that removing vinyls and PVC out of our products is the best thing for the health and safety of our users. And we'll continue down that path until proven otherwise.''
Recently, a spokesman for the Arlington, Va.-based Vinyl Institute questioned whether Steelcase's decision takes into account recent studies favorable to PVC.
Ludwig, meanwhile, held up his firm's Think chair, introduced a year ago, as an example of the ``transparency'' that he and Steelcase advocate. He believes it is very important to share with the public detailed information about all the life-cycle environmental impacts involved in making not only the end product, but also its constituent materials. Steelcase worked with environmental consultant Niki Bey at the University of Denmark on the Think project.
Office-furniture competitor Herman Miller Inc. also has made a public case about its efforts to be green-minded and environmentally responsible. Both firms have partnered with McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry on life-cycle analyses and matters related to environmental sustainability.
Zeeland, Mich.-based Herman Miller has developed a ``design for the environment'' initiative, guidelines that engineers and designers must meet in using environmentally friendly products at every stage. For its Mirra chair, for example, that meant not just design for disassembly and recyclability, but also detailed life-cycle scrutiny of every type of resin used and of each chemical constituent in those resins.
Still, Ludwig could not resist taking a swip at his rival.
``Herman Miller is very good at talking about their accomplishments. I would say we've surpassed anyone else in the industry in terms of our actual accomplishments. There are some very respectable companies out there, doing some very good work. But,'' he added, ``there's also quite a bit of green-washing going on, with respect to how the actual accomplishments of the company weigh out, with respect to what they're saying about it.''
Steelcase is a stakeholder in IDEO of Palo Alto, Calif., which offers product development and innovation consulting services. The firms share a site in Shanghai, China. Ludwig said, ``IDEO has helped us to develop an innovation culture,'' which ``has made my job possible.'' He also praised Steelcase Chief Executive Officer Jim Hackett as ``a very innovative guy'' who has helped nurture such a culture at the company.