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Conferencing in Comfort

By Janet Wiens

The SW_1 collection by Coalesse with designer Scott Wilson provides a new direction for conferencing that fosters creativity and comfort.

Most of us have been there. We participate in meetings where the chairs don't fit under the table or the table feels too high. Perhaps you haven't been able to find a comfortable position in your chair—especially if the meeting goes on for more than a few hours. The award-winning SW_1 collection by Coalesse®, a Steelcase company, may very well make uncomfortable conferencing a thing of the past.

The comprehensive collection, which debuted at NeoCon last year, includes a lowered-height table, a conference lounge chair, standard and occasional-height tables, low- and high-back lounges, and conference-height chairs. Complementing the line is the PowerPod, a portable power source and accessory tray combined into one very useful product.

Jason Heredia, Coalesse's vice president of marketing, says that the line reflects the company's design philosophy. "As a brand, our approach is that life and work have merged. We have an image in our minds of how meetings take place, but that image has been changing over the years, especially among creative people. Furniture design to support conferencing has to change even more than the shift we have seen in recent years."

Heredia points out that e-mail, voice mail and teleconferencing have significantly impacted the times when individuals gather together to meet. Consequently, the role of the room's tables and chairs needs to be radically different.

"Meetings today are often about generating ideas," Heredia says. "Meetings related to idea generation are often longer and people move around more. This means that comfort and flexibility become even more critical."

That understanding was reflected in research done by the SW_1 design team, who observed many important behaviors while watching people interact with conferencing elements. People would bring laptops to a meeting, place them on the table and then push away. Likewise, rather than putting a notepad on the table, they would push their chair away and balance the pad on their lap. Fairly frequent repositioning in a chair was not uncommon. The team also observed that conversations are more intimate when people are closer to the floor and that productivity often happens in smaller groups.

Company executives knew that a fresh take on conferencing was needed, and Bob Arko, Coalesse's vice president and creative director, knew just the person to make it happen. Arko had experienced designer Scott Wilson's work with Nike and other creative companies, and recommended that Coalesse bring him onboard for the SW_1 project.

"Furniture has a lasting quality, and I've always been interested in working in this area," says Wilson, who is principal designer at MINIMAL, a Chicago-based firm. "Technology can be very temporary, so working on a product that can have a much longer life was very appealing."

Wilson and others on the design team believed that they had to capture the right balance between contract and residential furniture design. In their view, the pieces in the line had to be new but feel familiar.

"The image, materials and overall aesthetic had to be appealing," Wilson says. "We wanted to provide a collection that could help create an environment where people would want to be all day. We got rid of the extra adjustments that people don't use and focused on comfort and flexibility."

The line's low table design advocates a more informal experience than conference tables of the past. A tablet that extends from the table creates a personal work zone and allows the user to access personal devices or paperwork without having to change from a relaxed posture. The conference-lounge chair also fosters a more relaxed "lean back" posture that maximizes comfort. The chair features slide pads rather than casters to facilitate movement.

Wilson believes that it is the small changes that make the collection so appealing. The lounge chair references Mid-Century forms but swivels back to center when the user leaves it, instantly reordering the room. All of the tables come in a broad range of sizes and shapes, and are available in the company's full palette of glass, wood veneers, stains and laminates.

The company's commitment to sustainability is also evident in the line's materials. The chairs and tables are made of aluminum and steel, and are almost 100 percent recyclable. The mesh and 3D knits that are woven for each chair offer a no-waste solution during manufacturing. Upholstery may be updated when required and 85 percent of the existing product can be reused.

But for all of the SW_1 collection's exciting features, the PowerPod may be the most intriguing of them all. This portable power source and accessory tray rolled into one is sleek, efficient and sports a unique circular shape.

The PowerPod, which has six power plugs, sits on top of the table without taking up extensive space. The unit works as well with any work surface as it does with the grommet on the SW_1 table. When not in use, the accessory tray that fits on top of the power source provides a convenient space for storing pens and other work tools.

In reviewing the SW_1 collection, it is easy to see why the media materials from Coalesse refer to the line as "a hybrid collaborative space that is part conference/part lounge." It's an innovative conferencing collection that will have employees welcoming those long meetings, and may just keep them in their seats long after they are over.

Janet Wiens is a freelance writer based in Memphis, TN. She was formerly a marketing manager for HNTB and now works with industry clients to address their marketing and public relations needs. She can be reached at