Design projects typically kick off with a brief, but in the case of the new HiLo stool that the San Francisco engineering and design firm Box Clever developed for Knoll, it began with an metaphor seemingly pulled from left field. Benjamin Pardo, Knoll's director of design, bought two traditional Scottish kilts for Bret Recor and Seth Murray, Box Clever's co-founders.
"When we first started the project, he wanted to make sure we were sensitive to the different types of people who would be using it so he bought us kilts and said, 'Put these on and make sure you’re comfortable sitting on [the design] while you wear it," Recor says.
The HiLo is a new seating piece that debuted at NeoCon, an contract furniture trade show held in Chicago each year. The piece is shaped like a dumbbell—it has a central post with a slender seat on one end and a pivoting base on the other. It also provides a solution to the itinerant way people work today. "It’s like if you smashed a razor scooter and a pogo stick together," Knoll CEO Andrew Cogan says about the HiLo's portability and form. "It’s comfortable, it’s light, it’s mobile, it can be a guest chair, it can support you standing or sitting. It’s relevant to individuals in their homes as well as workers in their offices."
Like the Unscripted Collection by David Rockwell—Knoll's other big launch for the show—the product responds to a changing dynamic in workspaces. Increasingly, people don't sit—or stand—in the same place throughout the day; rather, they move about an office depending on the task at hand and need products. For contract furniture makers, it's no longer just about offering task and lounge seating; it's about creating a place to "perch" for any given amount of time.
"Our fastest growing [user] category is people working at height-adjustable workstations and we saw time and again that office chairs were pushed to the side," Cogan says. "We asked, what do you use when you're standing up? It was clear that you ended up with this chair gridlock when you were at tables. There’s got to be some device between a chair and a stool that would work in this environment, that people could use throughout the day, in group meetings, as well as provide support when they're standing up."
THE PERFECT COMPANION
Aside from the kilt analogy, the only other thing Pardo told Box Clever to keep in mind was that the HiLo should be a companion in the workplace, a piece that could work in myriad settings and that someone could easily take with them.
One of the common problems with seating in offices is that there's rarely the right number of seats at the table, and real estate is at a premium. Most offices have a massive "Situation Room" in which everyone congregates for important meetings. But it's rare that everyone has to be there regularly. On those occasions, there's usually a complex game of musical chairs. Some end up dragging seating into the room and others are resigned to sitting on the floor or standing in a corner—not terribly comfortable for extended periods of time. Also common: meetings around someone's computer screen or at a small table. Because most office chairs are hefty and take up a lot of space, such impromptu meetings can be challenging to accommodate.
Box Clever doesn't think the HiLo will replace a task chair for every office, and it wasn't intended to, but for some offices, it may. It's more of an intermediary. "The way people are working today, they’re not staying at their desks long," Recor says. "They're in meeting rooms and lounges. Sometimes you’ll need to have a quick scrum and pull people together and this is the easiest way to make it happen."
The HiLo weighs about eight pounds, which gives it enough heft to feel sturdy and robust, but enough lightness so that most people feel comfortable lifting it up and moving it around. To achieve that weight, Box Clever tried to remove as many elements as possible and integrate the mechanisms that made it through the editing process.
"Rather than trying to complicate things, how do we simplify?" Recor says of the though process behind the HiLo.
The height of most task chairs can be adjusted through an air piston, a heavy component that requires levers to operate. In lieu of this, Box Clever opted to use a long, threaded cylinder with a clutch that allows users to raise and lower the seat by pressing a button and adjusting the position by hand. To ensure the HiLo keeps its balance, the designers made the base heavier—it's fabricated from sturdy cast aluminum—so it has a low center of gravity. This way, users feel more stable when they're sitting on it and it's less likely to topple over if someone brushes against it when it's not in use.
Part of the stool's magic lies in the base. A steel substructure houses a fleet of springs, which allows users to lean forward or side to side on the stool, and a pivot that gives a 360-degree range of motion. The entire base is coated with a polymer that gives it grip. When you sit on the HiLo, your feet provide points of contact with the ground, too, for stability.
The overall form and silhouette is restrained, giving the HiLo the flexibility to be used in different environments, like homes or hotels. "We looked at the Knoll aesthetic, which is streamlined and modern," Recor says. He compares it to the aesthetic of Herman Miller, one of Knoll's competitors and a client of his when he worked at fuseproject to develop the Sayl task chair. "Herman Miller tries to bring their insides outward and Knoll is more discrete. It's more modern and universal."
A TOOL FOR ENGAGEMENT
It took about 18 months to design and engineer the HiLo, and Knoll views the product as one of its market-responsive products due to the relatively quick development process. (In comparison the Rockwell Unscripted collection was in the works for three years.)
The stool may seem a tad uncomfortable for workers raised on cushy Aeron chairs. But that might not be a bad thing. Recor points out that you're typically more attentive in meetings when you're standing versus slumped in a chair. And since you're partially standing while you perch on the HiLo, think of it as a less aggressive way to achieve a power pose—even if you're wearing a kilt.
The first prototypes debuted Monday at NeoCon and Knoll expects the production models to begin entering showrooms later this year. See more in the slide show above.All Images: Courtesy of Knoll, Inc