Comfort by design

MARQUETTE – Students in Northern Michigan University’s human-centered design program got plenty of hands-on experience in December as they headed down to Menominee to pitch their designs for contemporary woven furniture to long-time manufacturing company Lloyd Flanders.

Students presented their ideas – meant to make wicker furniture more appealing to younger customers – to company officials, learning what it’s like to work for a client and how to temper creativity with real-world problems, such as the availability of materials, production methods and actual labor costs.

Peter Pless, NMU art and design professor, said the experience helped the students learn what a job in the field of design would be like.

“This project allowed them to move outside the comfort zone of their campus studio,” Pless said in a news release. “They had to create not just stylized objects, but pieces that incorporated functionality, human behavior and ergonomics. To draw a design is one thing. To do computer modeling of a design is another. When you add the unique requirements of mass production versus a custom piece and working on a client’s terms instead of their own, it challenges their sensibilities. I’m very pleased with the results.”

As part of the collaboration between the university and the company, Lloyd Flanders will select three designs to fine tune for its display at the International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market in Chicago, slated to take place mid-September. The pieces may also be shown at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City.

Lloyd Flanders CEO Dudley Flanders said in the news release the company has launched an aggressive program to develop “contemporary, smaller-scale, urban/hip-looking” furniture targeting younger professionals.

“We were eager to see how college students would approach design using our materials and we hope to broaden their interest in manufacturing,” he said. “We were thrilled to work with NMU because we consider ourselves very much a part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and appreciate the opportunity to foster that U.P. spirit. The progression from their early designs to functional and potentially marketable products was incredible.”

The progression began earlier in the semester, when NMU students took a tour of the iconic Menominee factory, which still weaves wicker on the original 1917 “Lloyd Loom” and then hand-stretches it over frames of aluminum tubing.

“They make the cushions in-house, too,” said student Matt Steinmetz, of Grosse Pointe Park, Mich, in the news release. “It helped to see how it all comes together so we could factor the process into our designs. We also had to factor cost, which is new for us.”

For the project, each student received a kit of materials, allowing them to play with the form and function of woven wicker, learning its capabilities and limitations.

Two Lloyd Flanders research and development veterans also visited campus to offer constructive critiques of preliminary concepts. They turned the students’ drawings into prototypes for workshops held at the Menominee facility.

Lloyd Flanders furniture can be found on the Truman balcony at the White House and at the vice president’s home in Washington, D.C. The company is in the midst of creating new seats for Mackinac Island horse-drawn carriages.

“We are the only loom champion in the industry,” Flanders said. “There are hundreds of imitators who produce vinyl wicker. We do that, too, but the loom products manufactured in Menominee have a more natural look and feel. We have a long tradition of using durable materials to produce unique, high-quality products. We’re just trying to expand our consumer base toward the younger generation.”

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.