Posted on 1/24/2012 8:57 AM by Adam

What can one say about Jasper, Indiana? There’s factual things of course. For starters (literally the first paragraph in the Wikipedia entry), Jasper, Indiana is a city in Dubois County, Indiana, and had a population of 15,038 as of the 2010 census. Jasper was also apparently the birthplace of seven-time MLB All-Star Scott Rolen (.282, 2,005 hits), architect Wilford Worland and—perhaps most famously—supercentenarian Minnie Kearby, once the oldest resident of the Hoosier state.

(Speaking of, it should be noted that residents also happen to be rabid basketball fans—it’s recommended that one develops an opinion on the Pacers or the University of Evansville—although that isn’t necessarily peculiar to the town itself.)

Perhaps more importantly, Jasper is a small town tucked into the corn and soybean fields of Southern Indiana, and home to some of the most influential players in the contract game, such as Kimball International and the Jasper Group. (another big hitter, OFS Brands, is headquartered 10 minutes away in Huntingburg.) The roads in the area are filled with semi-trucks shuttling in raw materials and hauling out finished pieces of furniture that will fill the offices, schools and public spaces of the nation.

But why? It’s a question I found myself wondering as we toured immaculate showrooms and bustling manufacturing plants over the course of three days in December. Why this area of Indiana? Why now?

And why all the sauerkraut?

“When you actually look at the history of where we’re at in Southern Indiana and all of the plentiful hardwoods that were here,” explained a helpful Doug Shapiro, brand manager with OFS, “there was a strong migration of people that were from the Black Forest in Germany, and they brought with them knowledge of hardwoods, woodworking and furniture building. It’s like these pockets in Italy where they know how to work leather like no other place in the world can do. That’s kind of what you have here.”

To this day, Jasper holds onto this unique place in both the past and future of our industry, perhaps best represented by Dubois County’s unique position on the edge of the Eastern and Central Standard Time Zones. It’s a humble area that continues to exist on the things that made it strong—hard work and ample supplies of hard lumber—and yet it is constantly looking forward. For every worker you see assembling a wooden side chair, there are talented designers plotting out the nth iteration of the newest open plan benching system; for every classic ornament, there is a floating desk top; for every intricate mortise and tenon joint, a sleek laminate knife edge.

That dichotomy is perhaps most evident at the appropriately named Jasper Group, home of the JSI, Community and Klem brands. Founded in 1929, Jasper Group made its mark early on with distinctive and durable wood furniture for schools, libraries and other public spaces, and walking through the company’s showroom, it is obvious that wood remains an artistic medium of choice.

The Community showroom at Jasper Group’s headquarters features a wide array of traditional wood seating, but also shows off the capabilities of Jasper’s talent base. Seating, such as the Scandinavian-influenced Finn line from Community, was on display in a beautiful walnut.

That’s not to say it’s all wood—far from it. Community’s Wink seating line was on display, made with vibrant, transparent plastic (although it is also available in multi-layered wood for the traditionalists out there).

The company is further [PUN ALERT] branching out in 2012 with the development of an open plan casegoods collection that will compete with systems available from other Jasper standbys like Kimball Office and National Office Furniture. While the system remains in development and is slated for a NeoCon release, I did manage to get Ashley Werner, Jasper Group’s director of marketing, to give up a few tidbits:

“Gone are the days when we have a lot of closed door offices, so we’re bringing casegoods and the work environment more into the open plan.” Werner said. “[The new line] is light and airy from a design standpoint, and it will be all about mixed materials. We’ll have metal extrusions, acrylic dividers, solid laminates, fabric on the cushions—there will be lots of flexibility from a design standpoint.”

Just down the road, Kimball International (originally founded as The Jasper Corporation in 1950!) was equally busy pushing the contract industry forward, with both Kimball Office and National Office Furniture proudly displaying a range of new product lines and innovations for the modern workplace in their showrooms.

What was perhaps most exciting at Kimball International headquarters was the way that employees have clearly bought into the new office paradigm. One work space was outfitted with Kimball Office’s Hum open plan desking system (shown below), and according to Kent Reyling, director of market education for Kimball Office, when employees were first alerted to the change, there was a good amount of alarm and consternation. The company proceeded to design and place abstracted metal dividers between desks—still shown below at the front of each desk, to help minimize visual noise ahead of workers—but within weeks, employees were asking to have them removed. The post holes for the dividers can still be seen in the tops of the shelving units between desks.

For Reyling, creating open, flexible spaces that draw workers in—workers who now have the option to work from home or the local coffeeshop—is his company’s biggest focus for 2012.

“I think one of the big challenges for the future is the fact that as workers can work from anywhere and want to have more mobile working, office spaces need to entice and really encourage people to come into the office,” says Reyling. “Because people as human beings want to be with other humans—we’re social animals. But they also want to come to an environment that’s really going to please them and support the kinds of activities they’re doing while they’re here.”

Kimball Office’s Priority desking and benching system—described by Reyling as “our priority as a foundational product”—is the company’s solution for bringing workers back into the office, and numerous configurations were on display in Kimball’s showrooms and office spaces. “Pilers” will appreciate Priority’s shallower storage spaces and wide open surfaces, while integrated soft seating will keep the socialites and collaborators happy.

(Oh, and please indulge a quick shout-out to Kimball Office’s Xantos mesh chairs, which were created in a partnership with Interstuhl and feature a cantilevered base. Almost too comfortable at the end of a long day of facility tours…)

National Office’s new Epic casegood line and Exhibit wall rail solution follow in the same footsteps as the Priority line, creating a multi-level platform for open, collaborative spaces, but the company’s showroom space also played up the area’s long-standing wood connection. National’s stately Eloquence and Casbah lines of tables, desks and lounge seating were all on display, with the power and respect imbued by National’s Casbah casegoods (and Respect chair, no less) going to my traveling companion’s head just a bit (pardon the blurry iPhone pic).

National’s Swift modular lounge was also strutting its stuff on the showroom floor, and way too comfortable (and soft!). Capable of snaking around corners and columns, this lounge is amazingly versatile.

“We really just want to continue the legacy,” says Nick Blessinger, marketing communications manager with National Office, when asked about the company’s plan for 2012. “There’s a rich heritage of fine craftsmanship [in the area], and we want to make sure that we’re using the best materials. Design is a part of it, as is quality, and we just want to carry on that legacy.”

At Indiana Furniture—located just blocks from Jasper Group’s operations—the selection in the showroom was noticeably limited, but it was explained to us that the company is gearing up for a re-visioning of everything from the showroom to its informational brochures. The company, originally founded in 1905, is embarking on a $12 million investment to create a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, further cementing the connection between the traditions of Jasper and the future of Jasper (the company’s acknowledges this, stating “We build our future on our history.”) According to Chris Rodgers with Indiana Furniture, once the new facility is complete—likely within the next year and a half—the company’s lead time will be reduced to two weeks “across the board,” down from three.

That’s not to say there wasn’t some good-looking furniture on display. Indiana’s Canvas desking system can do light, airy looks for contemporary tastes or more traditional looks for the executives, all done with laminates. Canvas is also GREENGUARD and BIFMA level 2 certified.

Also of note were the Jot table and Chat chairs on hand to greet visitors, both of which are available for ordering now. Chat’s swivel base effortlessly and automatically returns the chair to center upon exiting.

Versteel is another Jasper stalwart finding itself in the midst of rebranding. Pam Mathias, vice president of sales with the company, emphasized that 2012 will mark a new face for the company known for its steel fabrication prowess—although not necessarily in the way of products.  

“The largest thing we’re doing now is bringing the human element into our company—it has always been here, but trying to portray that. Yes, there will be product, but the biggest part is getting our company out there and showing people the heart and soul of it.”

“We’re a very personal company,” she adds. “We’re very customer first. We’re so much more than just a chair or just a table.”

Fair enough, but it would be a shame to overlook the chairs and tables on display at the Versteel headquarters (which, it should be mentioned, also won the trip’s award for prettiest Christmas tree.) For example, the company’s Quanta chair melds a steel base with a beautifully shaped wood seat and sides.

The company’s Companion side chair also received some double looks for its deceptive use of materials—both the seat and back look as though they’re made of plastic, but are actually made with clear-coated metal. Heavy duty without being heavy, the Companion line is perfect for the most demanding educational and work environments.

And how could you bypass these Entourage cabinets with funky Lamin-Art cabinet faces?

Last, but certainly not least, was our visit to OFS Brands, which is headquartered in nearby Huntingburg, Indiana (the “Hollywood of the Midwest!”). Encompassing OFS, First Office, Carolina Business Furniture and Loewenstein, it should come as no surprise that the OFS headquarters is a visually stunning facility full of sleek surfaces and forward-thinking furniture. What’s interesting is that the architecture and interior design of the building incorporate large amounts of wood, warming the environment and making that connection to the area’s past.

And did I mention the furniture on display?

(From top: the W chair from OFS, designed by Daisuke Nagatomo and Minnie Jan of MisoSoup Design; the Banda work table from Loewenstein is minimal, functional and sleek; Commons by Carolina Business Furniture on display in a half-circle configuration.)

But perhaps the star of the tour was Eleven, the new collection from OFS that will be officially launching in March. Designed by Swiss designer Daniel Korb, Eleven is a versatile platform that can scale to meet the needs of any private or open office. We got a sneak peek at Eleven, already working hard in Doug Shapiro’s office.

“The reason we were drawn to Eleven and we’ve connected with it on such a strong level is because of its balance of beauty and utility,” Shapiro says. “When you look at Eleven and you understand it at a surface level, it’s this clean, Swiss design where you have no exposed fasteners—it has a tremendous opportunity to be a design winner at an aesthetic level. But when you drill down and understand how it goes together—how it’s a platform and not just a product—the utility that it offers is just incredible. It has become more than just a product—it’s also a brand mentor for OFS. Everything that we have coming, we’re thinking about both beauty and utility.”