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Design Collaborative: Seating for All

KI and designers Paul James and Dan Cramer partnered to create bariatric seating that works for users of all shapes and sizes.

By Janet Wiens

KI and designers Paul James and Dan Cramer partnered to create bariatric seating that works for users of all shapes and sizes.

Deborah Breuning, vice president of health care for KI, brings a unique perspective to her position. Breuning is a registered nurse, a career path that certainly gives her a special sensitivity when it comes to the company’s mission of providing products for the health care market.

The story behind the Arissa Collection, which was introduced at NeoCon®, shows a commitment to meeting the needs of an increasing demographic in the United States.

“Several years ago, we started looking at existing bariatric seating or seating for the size challenged,” explains Breuning. “We found in most instances that the answer for seating requirements for this population involved making a standard-size chair wider and reinforcing it structurally. The products on the market did not address a number of factors associated with the need.”

And the need, unfortunately, continues to grow. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that one-third of adults in this country are obese and that 16 percent of U.S. children also fall into this category. According to the CDC, “American society has become ‘obesogenic,’ characterized by environments that promote increased food intake, non-healthful foods, and physical inactivity.”

“Ten to 20 percent of the seating in a doctor’s office, for example, should meet bariatric requirements,” says Breuning. “There are a number of safety and aesthetic issues to address as well as probably under-valued emotional factors on behalf of users.”

Approximately seven years ago, KI asked the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association to look at test standards for bariatric seating and found that none existed. As a starting point for the company’s efforts for the new line, KI subsequently developed its own test standards to accommodate a weight of 750 pounds for an ambulatory user.

Breuning says that KI selected the team of Paul James and Dan Cramer to design the new line based on the duo’s design expertise and their previous work on another KI line. “Paul and Dan bring a great deal of sensitivity to each project, and we believed that they could successfully help us fulfill our goals for this undertaking,” she says. “Between them, they have more than 40 years of experience in seating design, and fully understand the importance of all elements, including lumbar support, ergonomics, seat angles, and other critical factors.”

In addition to reviewing existing seating, the team conducted extensive research and watched how size-challenged individuals selected their seating as well as how they sat. The team found that individuals will often avoid larger-sized seating because of the stigma associated with using those pieces; that they often sit sideways; and that arms to help raise from a chair are important.

“We could not find any statistically significant correlation between weight and body dimensions,” says James, who has his own studio in addition to working for KI. “We needed a solution that would facilitate getting in and out of a chair while also meeting other structural and aesthetic requirements.”

Both James and Cramer believed that a wide-chair solution was not the answer. A “stretch-limo” version, as James calls it, of an existing product would not work. The goal was to democratize lobby/lounge seating—to create a solution that was intuitive and organically adaptable … one that balanced form and scale and provided a transitional aesthetic by leveraging mid-century design fundamentals.

Arissa is a sleek and sophisticated line that would seem at home in any setting. By fulfilling the three Ds—dimensions, dynamics and dignity (additional principles that guided the team)—this line appeals to a universal audience and is appropriate for any facility type. While intended originally for use in health care facilities, Arissa products have also been specified for corporate, education and various other markets.

The line includes round and oval ottomans, a loveseat, an armchair, and an armless chair. Both the armchair and loveseat may be specified with wood arm caps to add further elegance to the product. All pieces may be finished in a range of materials for the seat and back areas. Eleven standard wood finishes are available and customers may also specify a custom-match stain.

The primary architecture involves a barrel-back chair with the arm and back presented visually as a single design element. Users can sit in the chairs and loveseat several different ways, such as facing front or slightly to the side. This auto-adjustable geometry, as James notes, means that the angle within the chair changes based on how the user is sitting. The rear-leg triangle, combined with the plywood, torsion-box frame, successfully meets KI’s proprietary testing standards for weight.

“The Arissa product line does not segregate based on size,” says James. “The form reduces the visual mass, which reduces the stigma associated with bariatric seating. The line has been well received in multiple markets and by users of all sizes—which means that our design goals were successfully fulfilled.”

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