Insights Report May 2018

From the Editor

Welcome to Spofford!

For designers, manufacturers, and consumers who need support and connection around product development and discovery, Spofford Design is THE community that creates a next generation value chain for making and selling furniture, because only Spofford Design fosters meaningful connection to the real people and places behind the objects.

This insights report is an artifact generated from an ongoing, four-stage process based on the human-centered design “double diamond” (see below). It is intended to communicate what has been learned so far in Spofford’s first furniture co-creation process. It also provides an essential foundation upon which the rest of that co-creation process will be based.

The first stage of the process occurred as a series of three lunches that took place over the course of the week of May 7th, and included four participants (the first lunch had two participants). The primary intent of these lunches was to conduct an interview about three different kinds of furniture, using an existing piece of furniture as a basis for the discussion. These interviews represented the first stage of the four-stage double diamond process.

first stage of double diamond

All of the lunches featured freshly cooked meals using handmade pasta (recipes included throughout this report). The process facilitator concluded after all the interviews were complete that 1) his long held belief that interviews go better when there’s an object or prototype around which to base the discussion, in this case furniture, was correct 2) sharing a meal allowed for deeper reflection on the furniture in question and a more intimate and and equal exchange (rather than a interviewer-interviewee dichotomy) and 3) providing everything handmade provided a feeling of hospitality and connection that a catered meal couldn’t have provided.

Future activities like this would include some changes. It was the facilitator’s point of view that serving wine might add an air of fun and put participants at ease. While everyone partook, this ultimately seemed like an unnecessary, unexpected addition to the meal.

Additionally, the facilitator noticed that certain types of furniture elicited a much longer response and engagement than other types of furniture. In this case, discussions around the table quickly grew into conversations about people’s more general experiences in their homes. In contrast, discussions about chairs and a wardrobe were relatively very brief and highly practical reflections. This should not be construed as a judgement on the value of one conversation versus the other. Quite the opposite. Simply, the facilitator had not predicted such diversity in the responses, and future facilitators should bear those possible differences in mind in the future.

This insights report is the second stage of the double diamond. It brings together what was learned during the first stage. Distilling over 17,000 words of transcriptions and additional historical and design, it concludes time spent in the “problem definition” stage of design.

second stage of double diamond

The importance of understanding a problem before generating possible solutions can not be understated. While it may seem like common sense, one simply has to observe any number of products or services, and even the furniture discussed here, to see that we are surrounded by things that are good in theory, but fail to address a problem fully and therefore fail in some way. This becomes all the more apparent once the design process moves into generating solutions, the value of which are equal to the degree they solve the problems laid out in artifacts like the one you read now.

It is the hypothesis of Spofford’s team that human-centered design as it is currently understood will prove to be insufficient. It may perform well as a method for providing services that people find desirable. However, in our experience it fails to provide structure around meeting ideal scenarios that link desirability with viability and feasibility early enough in the process to make a difference.

Additionally, a very strong case can and should be made for human-centeredness that is understood not only from the point of view of the consumer, but the producer as well and his or her quality of life and the type and degree of actualization they seek to derive from their work.

Third, while products that meet the needs of consumers may be more likely using the human-centered design framework, a great deal goes into marketing, distributing, delivering and creating a supply chain for any product. Spofford recognizes these additional challenges by identifying the product development process (referred to above as co-creation), as only one part of a four stage cycle, which itself links to the (hopefully) interlocking experiences we hope to provide to our whole community.

Lastly, the solution to the business problem of accounting for externalities like economic, environmental, and social externalities that result from the production and consumption of any object, again early enough in the process, early in the process and as part of the design remains elusive. It is incumbent on Spofford to identify potential solutions to this and the challenges noted above, iterating on existing frameworks with every design process in order to create a new framework that works for Spofford and its community.

What follows are three case studies corresponding to the three kinds of furniture that interview participants discussed: a dining table, dining chairs, and a wardrobe. Not all design processes will center on finished or vintage pieces. Instead, these objects represent constraints on this process. In the future, constraints may take the form of materials or processes, or a problem to be solved. For now, Spofford will learn all it can from these three items.

General Thoughts

General design challenges and responses to Spofford’s emerging process

At the beginning of two out of three lunches, interviewees entered into a lengthy discussion of Spofford’s process and the interviewees’ past and current living situations. These discussions revealed relevant insights that went beyond reflections about the furniture around which the furniture was based.

Reflections on the co-creation process and ideas for improving it. All interviewees were comfortable with the co-creation process rather quickly. One interviewee had a deeper interest in Spofford’s approach, owing to a past attempt at creating a business that relied on connecting consumers with designers. The primary contrast between that experience and Spofford’s approach was the facilitation component that Spofford employs. Spofford’s team has written at great length, both internally and publicly, that other brands’ attempt to provide infinite customization is misguided. The interviewee in question validated this notion, noting that consumers were often more comfortable with “remixing” existing designs rather employing total creative control.

“I’m not a designer, I love design, but it’s not something I do professionally. There’s a lot elements of design I don’t know and I’d be naive to, but I’d like to be able to connect with those people and learn.”

This overlaps with Spofford’s ambition to create a community made up of designers, producers, and consumers. People possess a great deal of creativity, but may require a degree of empowerment or necessity to find their voice. One interviewee learned carpentry and plumbing to outfit a former apartment, which had a great deal of potential but lacked basic amenities. He relied on instruction found online and coaching from a relative. People enjoy and need design, and want to connect with others engaged in it, either professionally or otherwise. The desire for engaging in a lifelong learning process and a connection to creative endeavors are very powerful. Mediating these through a larger community and authentic relationships is potentially very valuable.

One interviewee suggested a specific approach that aligns with Spofford’s existing method and model. Briefly, Spofford relies heavily on the power of constraint in the initial steps of its process. In the case of these lunches, for examples, the constraints were the pieces of furniture that the facilitator wished to improve through better design. The interviewee mentioned suggested that individuals be able to “pitch” projects, either in the form of things they own or found on Craigslist, as the bases of future co-creation processes. This “pull” dynamic for identifying available materials and projects seemed very compelling to the facilitator.

Partnering and nesting. One interviewee described the process of moving in with his partner at great length. He felt a high degree of personal investment in his existing space, so wished to stay in his apartment and have his partner move in with him. Negotiating that process was made more easy, paradoxically, by a challenging initial stage in the relationship, that the couple emerged from as a stronger pair. Thankfully, neither partner needed to shed a great deal of stuff, although more storage was necessary. The facilitator found this intriguing...that things like beds or tables were ultimately a far lower priority than storage or, interestingly, the art on the walls. Ultimately thing to go was empty space.

“The aspirations in that are not just the fucking couch or the furniture they’re selling. It’s your aspiration that your children are neat, and that your house is spotless, and blah blah blah.”

The facilitator’s assumption were challenged as this line of conversation continued. Some interviewees agreed that design in the home provided a sense of control. One interviewee pushed back, and suggested that it was instead and act of creation, and an opportunity to bring something new into the world. So while a nesting component exists, there’s an added component of bringing forth something that didn’t exist before. That interviewee also ascribed the popularity of IKEA to that impulse. Whereas in the past that degree of nesting and creation was unavailable to those in a certain stage (or not in a certain stage) of life, IKEA made that impulse possible. Spofford’s challenge will be to appeal to not only various age ranges, but different life stages and situations.

Aspiration and Inspiration. Talking about the absurdity of some furniture advertising was funny, but revealed something very poignant about the aspirations of consumers. A photo of a child playing, with its shoes on and with a bowl full of cherries next to it, on an all white couch, allows the viewer to think about the couch and the the life it represents more generally.

Aspirations are funny things. They work in both directions, and not only reveal the life you want, but the life you had, and maybe want to keep alive now or want again. One interviewee told a story of a cabinet he bought because it reminded him of a wonderful summer he spent living abroad. This is highly challenging to some of Spofford’s core assumptions around regionality, and asks some questions the facilitator couldn’t answer. How do you encourage furniture made regionally and speaking the design language of a region, when someone wants a reminder of time spent in a different region entirely?

Case Study 1: Drop-Leaf Dining Room Table

From history and design to reflections from interviewees

The facilitator received this table as a gift from a close friend who was just keeping it in storage. The table was passed to the friend to his wife from her mother. Further provenance or manufacturing is unknown. The type of wood is unknown, but may be surmised by a more informed professional. The table is slightly damaged on the top surface with a minor but noticeable gouge.

“It’s too much work. You’d have to fit this table into your life.”

The table is a classic drop-leaf dining table with leaves on the sides supported by brackets underneath the table to support the leaves while they are up.

Drop leaf table with leaves extended Supporting brackets for leaves

The table has an affordance for additional, center leaves (I do not possess these).

Drop leaf table fully extended

At its smallest length, the table is unusable as a means of dining or sitting, and is often used in this form as a “console”. In many interior design resources this is considered a feature, rather than a drawback.

Drop leaf table in console mode

Oddly, despite the fact that drop-leaf tables are often pictured in their console form with chairs to the sides.

Bullshit use of drop-leaf

It is also not uncommon to see drop-leaf tables used with only one leaf up.

Bullshit use of drop-leaf

History, briefly. In a way, the ubiquity of dining room tables demonstrates the democratization of design. What were once objects possessed only the upper classes (who had the space to dedicate to them) have become a focal point of many homes. Oddly, we have the black plague and religious conflict in Europe to thank for dining room tables. In medieval times, only lords had tables of any significant sized. These lived in great halls, with the lord’s family at the front and all the lord’s vassals or subjects seated at long tables (called trestle tables) occupying the rest of the hall. Monasteries had similar configurations. When so much of Europe’s population died during the plague, these social hierarchies dissolved, and lords began to take their meals with only their family in smaller spaces other than the great hall. The revolt against Catholic dominance chipped away at the hierarchies and sheer number of residents of monasteries as well, with similar effect on the use of space. As the centuries went on, the upper classes with space in their homes for dining room also had a parlor as well, and after dinner men and women segregated into different rooms, with the women exiting to a parlor next to the dining room and the men remaining in the dining room.

As the democratization of design and manufacturing unfolded thanks to mass production and changes in access to financing, more and more families had access to homes that could handle a dedicated dining room. Having rooms that are idle outside of certain times represents a significant change in how most people lived, and is a sociological change that merits further exploration another time. For our purposes, it’s worth simply noting that demand for dining sets boomed, and our society is now awash with pieces of furniture like the piece in question.

General reflections and setup. The couple interviewed owned a table that was expandable, and one interviewee owned a drop-leaf table that he disliked. Everyone agreed on the importance of a durable table that worked in a space, and that it should serve not only a utilitarian purpose as a means for eating, it should facilitate conversation before and after a meal without feeling restricted by comfort, space, or design.

“You do think of them being, oh, this is very modular, utilitarian, useful table…They’re good in theory.”

All the interviewees were asked to set up the table from a starting point of chairs and table pushed against the wall. Each set up the table differently. One interviewee only lifted one flap, and set the chairs kitty-corner to one another. Another opened both flaps, and then set the chairs in the same configuration. Upon being asked why he opened the other leaf even though we clearly wouldn’t use it, he was unable to produce a clear answer and ultimately decided it was for a more instinctual reason he couldn’t identify. All participants agreed that sitting across from each other for lunch and conversation was highly undesirable.

Movement, storage, and expandability. It was clear to all interviewees that a primary feature of the drop-leaf design was to facilitate storability. However, other design aspects made this very difficult, such as the weight and size. These aspects also took away from other essential features, such as slightly sagging leaves and the resulting unevenness of the plane of the table at the seams. This design flaw was exaggerated further when the table was further extended, as several place settings would be awkwardly placed at either a seam or a leg.

Actually extending the table by using the center leaf was noted as an attractive feature in theory but a highly unattractive experience in practice. Pulling the table apart was more than one person could do, and storage of the leaf was noted as something we all remembered helping our mom with during childhood and now seems like a tremendous annoyance. Once opened to its full length, it was unclear where appropriate additional chairs would come from (people often use office chairs or other types of chairs ill suited for dining at the table). Even if the owner of the table possessed a sufficient number of chairs, it was universally regarded by the interviewees as a potential storage challenge.

Moving the piece between homes without damaging was noted as a tremendous headache by the couple who had attempted it with a similar object. Methods such as padding, bungeeing the leaves closed, and transporting it upside down were all identified as having mixed results.

Look and feel. The dark wood of the finish was regarded by everyone as too formal and therefore unattractive. This led the facilitator to conclude that in general people of a certain age have been conditioned to associate this look with certain social conventions. Additionally, it was noted that the finish communicated an unwanted fragility, as it would be prone to scratches or other permanent markings from things like setting a wet glass or hot item on it. Again, this may speak to a sociological question that goes beyond the scope of this document, regarding the possession of breakable or fragile items and class or the perception of class. Some finishes were noted as being improved by dings or scratches, providing a desirable patina and character. However, it was clear that this table was not one of those cases.

“I can’t handle that I can’t put anything on this table without damaging it. And I feel like every time I damage it I am slapping my grandmother in the face.”

When asked what visually communicated that this was a dining room table, the interviewees provided a variety of responses. The delicate wood finish was high on the list, even when compared to desks made from wood. The finish makes this difference in this case. Form factor also played a role in communicating dining table, both in terms of the angled edges and the obviousness of the multi-leaf functionality. One interviewee suggested that the presence of drawers also accounted for the distinction between the two types of objects, although also noted that a drawer on this table would be helpful. This distinction also fails to account for a table that’s obviously a worktable (while not a desk per se) and the table in question.

Two interviewees noted that the table was uncomfortable to sit at when in a position other than sitting upright at eating position, specifically when trying to cross one’s legs. Another interviewee noted that pushing the side chairs into the table was a challenge.

Multifunctionality. It is well known that many homes use dining room tables as storage or work spaces when they are not in use. This is due in part to the infrequent employment of the object for its “intended use.” Questions about uses of dining room tables for purposes other than multi-party dining validated that the interviewees used their dining room table for working. This is something now possible thanks to the ubiquity of laptop computers, and the attraction of a large workspace for spreading out. Given this known multifunctionality, suggestions for dealing with cords or drawers to allow for quickly converting to an eating surface were compelling.

Case Study 2: Set of Four Dining Set Chairs

Various aspects of the chairs that go with the dining room table

Back story. The facilitator received four chairs, two of which have arms, along with the dining table and can reasonably assume that they were sold as a set. The chairs have upholstered seats–given the style of the upholstery, surmising that the fabric is original is not unreasonable. Even if it isn’t, it’s very dated as evidenced by the condition and the style. The seats are relatively easy to remove for the sake of reupholstering. The back of the chairs is a play on a classic cross-backed design. The color of the chairs matches that of the dining table.

“They’re very adorned!”
Dining chair with arms Dining chair without arms

The two chairs without arms have the same structural breaks at the rear joint where the vertical supports meat the horizontal stretcher of the seat. It is the opinion of the facilitator that this represents a flaw in the design of the chair, given its occurence in both chairs.

Break on dining chair

History, briefly. Seating for the seek of having a meal is slightly more interesting than actual tables. For centuries, and even now, some cultures preferred to sit on the floor to eat. The Greeks and Romans preferred couches or a type of chaise to lounge on while eating. In the era of long trestle tables, benches were preferred to individual tables.

Relatively more recently, dining chairs have come to resemble what we expect. The tradition of armed chairs at the heads of the table and armless chairs as side chairs is a tradition that goes far back, and comes from a time where all chairs were part of a grander dining room set up reserved for the upper echelons of society and were much larger. These chairs were themselves much bigger in size and so the presence or absence of arms on the chairs were largely a matter of space. Although chairs got smaller as dining rooms and therefore dining tables got smaller, the tradition persisted despite the fact that chairs with arms could now probably fit without issue. An alternative to dining chairs like those analyzed here are known as parsons chairs [link to parsons chairs], and feature upholstery over the entire chair.

Look and feel. The presence of arms was by far the most noticeable feature of the chairs. Chairs with arms allowed the seated individual to lounge back more easily and assume a seated position that was more relaxed, open, and comfortable. Alternatively, the un-armed chairs required the individual to cross their arms, thereby seeming more closed. Chairs, moreso than the table, were the subject of more discussion around ergonomics, whether it was with regards to the angle of the chair back or the chair’s height relative to the table.

Like the table, the style felt too formal and adorned for all the interviewees. While all interviewees felt that it was “nice”, they would never imagine purchasing a dining room set that featured chairs like this, either because of it’s stain color, the design on the back, the upholstery, or the medallion ornamentation where the crosses on the back met.

Case Study 3: Men's Wardrobe

The past, present, and future functionality of what was once a highly practical piece.

Back story. This wheeled, men’s wardrobe came into the facilitator’s life soon after moving to Boston, and was intended as a separate closet for his things (the primary closet space being reserved for his wife’s apparel). As living situation’s changed, the wardrobe became an extraneous piece of furniture, in part because of its redundancy and in part because it was only marginally effective at storing clothes and shoes.

“I don’t understand decoration that doesn’t have a purpose.”
Men's wardrobe Interior of the men's wardrobe

The piece is made from a light wood, and has a much more textured finish than the dining room set. It is on casters, however these do not work and moving the piece requires either two people or a suitable interface (such as a cloth pad) between the casters and the floor to move.

When in good condition, the doors close by shutting the left door first, then the right door. However no aspect of this sequence currently functions: the wardrobe is missing the clasp that holds the left door in place, and the right door is warped to a sufficient degree such that its closing mechanism, a spring loaded, semi-circular protrusion from the top of the door that fits into a pocket on the top rim of the wardrobe’s opening, doesn’t stay put.

Part of a latch for the men's wardrobe Part of a latch for the men's wardrobe

History, briefly. While it doesn’t reach back to the beginnings of human history like a table or a chair, the wardrobe (also called a closet, chest, or armoire) is a very old furniture solution. Initially intended to (you guessed it!) store a lord’s robes, the traditional wardrobe style came to be recognized by a three door style, with hanging garments in the center, and drawers and shelves in compartments to either side.

While still very much a vintage piece, this wardrobe comes from the far more recent past. The facilitator guesses the early 20th century at the soonest. It is also his conjecture that this piece fit perfectly into the life of a male, either single and boarding somewhere or married and living in a small home, with the standard wardrobe of the era: a small handful of suits, enough shirts to last the week, two or three pairs of shoes, and undergarments. For the needs of this gentleman, this must have worked tremendously well.

One aspect of the facilitator’s own home indicated one of the primary causes for the demise of this type of furniture. Throughout his home, obvious indications that closets were added well after the apartment was designed and built tells the visual story that closets as we understand them are a relatively recent architectural innovation. One interviewee noted that not only is this obvious in older American cities like Cambridge, but in even the nicest apartments and homes in the United Kingdom as well.

Reflections. Interestingly, the wardrobe left interviewees far more stumped than the other pieces. The utility of the piece was obvious. Unlike the table, however, in which discussions talked about its shortcomings, all of the discussion around the wardrobe spoke in some degree to a level of organization that the interviewee wished to have, but didn’t. Which is to say, the conversation was far more aspirational than the other pieces, with topics from organization of running or biking equipment to setting aside a seasonal wardrobe apart from the entire collection of clothing that one owns. Interviewees saw how predictable the wardrobe must be for someone who used this originally, and projected some aspect of their own behavior (or desired behavior) onto this wardrobe.

Closing Thoughts

Given Spofford’s early stages and because these interviews represented events in the inaugural co-creation process, the learning was abundant and multi-layered. From creating community, to process constraints, to interviewing technique, the facilitator continues to reflect on the all the data provided, either explicitly or more “between the lines”.

First, and importantly, the facilitator had lovely, personal conversations about home, family, and life with four wonderful people. Some of these people the facilitator knew well, others were acquaintances that he now considers friends. If anything comes from these conversations at all, these relationships are by far the most important if Spofford seeks to go beyond community based solely on transactionally based ties between a brand and its consumers, and toward more authentic linkages that constitute something real, helpful, equitable.

The constraints around this particular process were vintage pieces, which the facilitator believes had a powerful impact on the nature of the conversation that similar interviews centered on entirely original pieces wouldn’t experience. Very importantly, discussing these pieces revealed the social cues and norms of the time when they were created, many of which have all but evaporated today. They have, however, been replaced by entirely new norms. It is the opinion of the facilitator that a glimpse into these new norms would not have occurred without the point of reference that these old pieces, and a discussion around the problems they sought to solve, provided.

Lastly, reflecting on interview technique validated that early stage interview go better when there’s a thing to talk about (rather than simply an open ended set of questions). However, in looking at the data the facilitator believes that the table got far more attention than the chairs or the wardrobe, despite pointed questions and time set aside to discuss them. He concludes that because the centerpoint of the engagement with interviewees was lunch, that naturally focused attention on the table. In the future, interviews should be limited to a single object, or have planned exercises actually using pieces (e.g. place this pile of clothing into the wardrobe) instead of simply turning the attention of the conversation towards those objects.

In the following step of the process, the facilitator and Spofford generally will depart from defining the problem and begin to find solutions starting with the third phase of the human-centered process known as ideation. Many questions are unanswered as to how to most effectively go about not only generating solutions but providing a framework for elevating good ideas and extracting kernels of value from ideas that at least superficially seem bad. The facilitator is certain that other designers have tried to tackle similar problems, so any further work will incorporate the results of those designers’ processes as well.