As traditional conferencing areas in the modern office continue to shrink, it seems like task
and conferencing chairs have gotten bigger and louder. From boldly architectural backs to neon-colored mesh, our chairs are rapidly becoming the focal points in a world without walls. And while it’s certainly an interesting trend, it also begs the question: What’s a designer looking for a little nuance to do?
For designer Joe Doucet and the staff at Bernhardt Design, that question was the starting point for what would eventually become Duet.
“What we wanted to do was create a conference chair that’s a bit of a chameleon. The issue with most conference chairs is that they have a lot of technical constraints. People tend to start off addressing those constraints and you end up with very overly engineered pieces of furniture,” Doucet says. “What we wanted to do instead was develop a chair that could sit within any architectural environment and not dominate it.”
As Todd Campbell, design director for Bernhardt, tells it, the decision to opt for simple and subtle instead of trendy and technical made for a novel challenge.
“It’s much easier to design something trendy for the day than it is to pare it down to a simple form that feels comfortable in any environment and will feel comfortable in that environment for years to come,” he explains. “Joe had the idea that he wanted the chair to be unique without trying to be unique. For us, it’s about trying to develop a product that’s simple and still kind of universal.”
Doucet certainly didn’t choose an easy project for his first contract piece. The design group
created numerous prototypes during the months-long collaborative process, not settling for anything less than exactly what everybody in the group wanted. They would eventually put together 16 prototypes in all.
“Somewhere around prototype 12 or 13 it was hard to see that we were going to make it through this process and come out with a product that we were all happy with,” Doucet says. “But to Todd and Jerry’s [Helling, president of Bernhardt Design] credit, they held fast and kept going ‘Let’s give it one more try.’ Somewhere around prototype 14, we started to see that we could make this work.”
The irony of the chair’s incredibly involved, labor-intensive development is that the end result looks effortless. But just because the chair is simple, clean and understated doesn’t mean that it is devoid of character.
“I think what makes Duet unique are the lines that it has,” Campbell says. “The simple detail of how the chair looks from the back with how the arm wraps around just gives it that bit of refinement, and that’s all it needs. For us, so many times it’s about that one detail, and that’s what this chair is all about and what sets it apart.”
The unique detailing of the chair’s arm serves two different, yet distinct purposes—one aesthetic and one functional, as the back of the chair is supported by the wrap-around arm.
“The aesthetic part is that when you have these chairs lined up near a table, this line that continues around the chair actually mimics the line of the table and you get this beautiful plateau in the room as you see them all lined up. It creates this plane in the space, which is a very nice and unique feature,” Doucet explains. “When the chair is so pared down, the details become very important. That became one of the defining features of the chair, how the arms create this sense of presence.”
Thanks to the team’s collaborative endurance and meticulous attention to detail, Duet was released at the 2012 NeoCon show, intriguing designers who had been entranced by the bigger-is-better trend of late.
“It’s gotten really nice reviews,” Campbell says. “Because it’s that smaller size for the smaller collaborative workrooms of 4-6 people, it fits a niche that we didn’t have, and there are not that many chairs that really are sized for that type of room.”
Of course, Duet might have received the same reviews if it had been designed with a few more bells and whistles. But for Doucet, the key to the chair’s success comes from simply believing in his own compass.
“I just started designing a chair that I would want to own and I thought other people might as well,” Doucet says. “This is not a chair about artistic statement, this is a chair about clarity and the purity of its lines. It’s very, very restrained and understated, but exquisitely detailed. Rather than a specific aesthetic inspiration, it’s more of an intellectual ideal that I think we started after and what we set out to achieve, and I think we pulled that off quite well.”
To learn more about Duet, visit www.bernhardtdesign.com.
Kylie Wroblaski is a former editor for BUILDINGS magazine, and has written previously about architecture and facilities management.