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What The [email protected]%$&! Is Contract Design?

Innovative fabrics and materials are breathing new life into the once ho-hum world of contract design.
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The classic Mies van der Rohe Flat Bar Brno Chair was invented for contract design in the 1930s. It’s still going strong, re-covered in the newest materials.

Inside the Box
With a plethora of new luxurious fabrics and materials, once-boring contract design has become glamorous. Now, if we could just get rid of those pesky purchasing agents.

The LC2 chair by Herman Miller will never go out of style.

Next time you buy a lottery ticket at the gas station, look around. Someone chose the flooring, the wall vinyl and countertop, and even the color of the walls in the bathroom. This is contract design at a certain level. At the other end of the spectrum is the new W Hotel, designed by HKS Inc., with the North Tower residences by Lionel Morrison. Or I.M. Pei’s Morton Meyerson Symphony Center. Outside of nature, nothing happens randomly. Someone, somewhere, made the decision to change the fluorescent lighting over the vegetables in the grocery to incandescent pendant lights – contract design.

The end result of specially chosen finishes, fabrics, and lighting might be the same as residential interior decoration, but the process is very different. Residential designers work with a homeowner to design a home in whole or in part. They work within a budget, and hopefully, work to please the homeowners, not the neighbors, friends, and that aunt who never liked blue. In addition to budgetary constraints, contract designers must meet all the governmental criteria of safety, flammability, and environmental concerns. If it’s a large project, they might also be forced to run a gantlet of wannabe decorators, such as a board of directors, who second-guess the color scheme, fabrics, finishes, and space renderings. A purchasing company might also be designated to handle the acquisition of materials, sometimes with little consideration of the real design idea – instead only seeking to get a similar product at a better price. Imagine the disastrous results when a purchaser sees only an expensive mahogany armchair and not the design or look; many commercial projects have been derailed due to the bad decisions made by a penny-pinching purchasing agent. Perhaps an interim finance company has been hired to make the payments, and the designer must also have the approval of vendors.

The Aeron Work Chair by Herman Miller changed the lives of workers everywhere in the 1990s and is still a staple.

Obviously, we are talking about a much longer process for the start-up of a commercial project than a residential job. Unless, of course, that aunt who hated blue is vehement about it and is really, really rich. But once approved, the contract job is strictly business, deadlines, and commitments. Generally, minds are not changed, and the project is completed without emotional decisions.

Years ago, designing doctors’ waiting rooms and corporate lobbies used to bore the socks off most decorators. But it was the bread and butter that kept most of them going. The good news about landing a contract job was that it was lucrative. The bad news was that it was a contract job, which meant creativity was not paramount. Upholstery had to last forever, so most of it was tough looking and scratchy, and it came in horrendous colors.

Commercial design has changed in the past few years, thanks to new fabrics that are sturdy and luxurious. The true innovation in fabrics came in the 1990s. Trevira CS, which was developed in Europe, was more beautiful than the shiny, slimy Trevira polyester we used in the States. To comply with fire codes and wearability testing for commercial products, synthetic fibers were developed to mimic the qualities of silk and cotton without rotting, fading, or flammability concerns. Once considered cheap, European Trevira cost as much as or more than the natural fibers. Even wool, which has been used because of its inherent flameproof nature, has now been reproduced in Trevira, as have all hides and leathers in synthetic materials from faux chinchilla fur or llama longhair fur, shagreen walls, plaster walls, cut velvets, and embossed alligator leather.

Attractive textiles such as metallics, damasks, and pleated silks are all made from the newest materials that look as great as they wear.

But nothing set contract design on its ear more than a new generation of outdoor fabrics, which started in Dallas at David Sutherland Showroom, called Perennials Outdoor Fabrics. Prior, the only outdoor fabric in existence was Sunbrella, a waterproof, fade-proof acrylic fabric that came in solids and stripes. But it was stiff and scratchy. Ann Sutherland launched Perennials in 1997 after experimenting with the solution dyes and the size of acrylic fibers, which are woven liquid acrylic spun into fiber, then spun into yarn, then woven together. She came up with softer, more complex colors taken from nature, as well as sheers. There was even a natural hand to the fabric, which made it feel more appealing. Outdoor fabrics are now considered all-environment fabrics and are available from every major fabric source. Because they are washable and fade proof, these fabrics are now used in family rooms and children’s rooms.

By way of the corporate hotel lobby, long-wearing and elegant textiles from the contract world have made their way into private homes. New, beautiful industrial fabric paved the way for trendy boutique hotels by making it possible to design lobbies and rooms that make you feel as if you were in someone’s home. Both contract and residential designers have blurred the line between the two fields of design by using all sources available to successfully complete a project.

Alice Cottrell uses Kravet’s quilted patent leather vinyl, soft faux chinchilla from Rodolph, and faux llama from Dorian-Bahr in residential projects. From, she orders a white goose feather suspension lamp and sheep stools. “These furry white sheep with leather hooves and ears are great in restaurant bar areas and children’s rooms in homes,” Cottrell says.

Saarinen tables like this one make great conference room – and dining room – tables.

David Cadwallader frequently uses contract furniture companies for his residential projects. His favorites are Bernhardt Contract for casual dining, lounge, and breakfast chairs, David Edward for dining chairs and lounge furniture, as well as HBF, Knoll Studio, and Herman Miller. “I look for fabrics with a Krypton finish from Pollack and Knoll, not really Superman Kryptonite but certainly beyond Scotchguard,” Cadwallader says.

Deborah Lloyd Forrest of ForrestPerkins sees the innovation in hotel beds and baths. “The presentation and attention to detail of fine hotels in beds and baths is incredible; patrons want that quality at home and are buying mattresses and sheets directly from the hotels,” she says. “Hotel companies were smart to take the high thread count Egyptian cotton sheets used in fine homes and make it their own idea.” Now, these are available in linen stores marketed using such names as The Hotel Collection.

Vanessa Redman of Paul Duesing Partners likes to use artists and special finishers from their contract projects on residential jobs because, “They are used to working on a deadline, within a budget, and don’t let the creative process spiral out of control.” Redman also utilizes contract lighting sources and case good manufacturers. “The contract lighting companies are great for custom capabilities, and builders of commercial case goods can produce the scale that is necessary in some of the larger homes,” Redman says.

Believe it or not, these luxe fabrics are plastic embossed alligator; polyurethane, polyimide, and lycra combinations; and faux fur.

When it comes to furnishings, commercial design continues to look to the past. Great modern design has its origins in the banal corporate community that made the Barcelona chair possible. In the late 1920s, architects at Germany’s famed Bauhaus school merged contract and residential design by incorporating industrial design for furniture for the stark structures they were designing. Examples are the Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe for the Barcelona Industrial Exposition in 1929 and the Le Corbu chairs designed in chrome and leather by Le Corbusier and his assistant Charlotte Perriand in 1928. Also designed by Mies in 1930 for the Tugendhat house is the Brno chair, which is seen around conference tables everywhere. The Eero Saarinen dining table was designed in the late 1930s as a holistic structure in answer to the confusion of table legs and undersides. The Arco floor lamp by Castiglioni in 1962 in marble and stainless steel moved lighting away from stationary floor and table lamps and ceiling fixtures. Florence Knoll coffee and side tables were designed in 1961, severe and angular using steel and marble.  These all reflect the then-new approach to furniture: design, technological innovation, and mass production. They are as new now as then, and you still see them in commercial buildings everywhere.

Track lighting, which was originally used only in commercial spaces with high ceilings, is used in lofts and modernist homes. Later, architects poked holes in lower ceilings for can lighting, which further minimized the way light was transported through a room. Pendant lights suspended by thread-thin wires were first used in industrial work areas but are now in restaurants and home kitchens, such as the Ingo Maurer lighting. The original task chair, the Aeron, by Herman Miller, was ergonomically designed for the computer age by Stumpf and Chadwick. There is scarcely a home office that is without a swivel chair, be it $19.99 or $1,900.

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