Furniture influences virtually every design directive related to patient care, aesthetics, and business concerns in an acute care facility, helping set the tone for the environment. It serves as a signature component of the complete design package, which also includes carpeting, wallcoverings, art, and lighting. Interior design professionals use those elements to help create a supportive, relaxing, and inviting atmosphere.

Because everyone interacts with it, furniture represents the most versatile and personal product within a healthcare facility's interior design. For patients and loved ones, hospital furniture can provide a welcome retreat. A well-placed, comfortable chair that is part of a coordinated and smartly designed environment can remind them of the comfort of home.

Business-wise, furniture can positively affect a healthcare facility's ability to differentiate itself from others in the increasingly competitive healthcare market. The right type of furniture can also allow planners to optimize space, usually at a premium in facilities. Furniture with appropriate durability saves hospitals money by reducing repair and replacement costs.

In short, its characteristics, uses, and purposes make healthcare furniture unique among design components; it addresses a healthcare facility's needs and requirements across the entire organization. Designing furniture begins with appreciating this unique function, as well as understanding the dynamics of the healthcare market.

Issues Affecting Healthcare Furniture Design

Designing healthcare furniture requires an in-depth understanding of the many issues and trends affecting the industry. It demands time reading journals, visiting healthcare facilities, searching the Web, talking with vendor partners that serve the market, meeting with architects and interior designers, and otherwise keeping up with the industry state-of-the-art. This type of comprehensive research creates a valuable foundation for designing and developing healthcare furniture based on relevant issues.

Some of the issues affecting healthcare design and furniture include:

  • Business issues. Healthcare facility administrators are grappling with a variety of business-oriented concerns. These challenges include improving financial performance, recruiting and retaining employees, branding and marketing facilities and services, and differentiating services in an increasingly competitive market.

  • Societal issues. Hospitals must develop solutions that meet the baby-boom generation's expectations of high quality. Other societal factors that affect furniture development include meeting the needs of an increasingly obese population, accommodating the involvement of family members in patient care, acknowledging the cultural differences of an increasingly diverse society, and recognizing the growing influence of women as purchasers of healthcare services.

  • Patient-centered care issues. More than ever, hospitals are fo-cusing on providing comfort, privacy, dignity, and respect for the patient. Emphasis is being placed on a holistic approach to healing that encompasses the mind, body, and soul.

Furniture can directly address or significantly influence these issues. Furniture developers need to keep these considerations in mind when beginning work on a new furniture collection.

The A&D Perspective

The challenge for A&D professionals lies in bringing together the wide range of furniture required by a healthcare facility to create an environment that is both functionally and aesthetically coordinated. Often, finding the right mix has meant purchasing from several manufacturers. For designers of healthcare furniture, however, the key is to maintain an integral look without being heavy-handed to ensure that a collection works together without every piece looking identical.

Interior designers want to work with a wide range of options that allows them to carry a consistent visual theme from public to patient areas. They require many choices in furniture sizes and characteristics, which give them flexibility in scale and function when designing a space.

To maximize design flexibility, we recently developed (as part of a collection) three different sizes of chairs with complementary styling cues that make them functionally and aesthetically appropriate for different spaces. This approach affords facility planners and interior designers more choices on how to best outfit spaces, whether private rooms, waiting areas, or signature lobby settings, while maintaining stylistic integrity.

Designing for Change

Historically, healthcare furniture had an institutional feel because of the materials and manufacturing processes that were used in producing it. Each piece looked the same and, as a result, healthcare furniture gained the stigma of being cold and sterile.

In the past, it was also common for furniture manufacturers to take a chair developed for the office environment and market it to healthcare facilities. If there was enough interest, the company would then develop—and sometimes force—other types of healthcare seating in a style based on that original chair. Today, there is a much greater appreciation for the importance of developing furniture that can be integrated smoothly throughout every room in a healthcare facility.

As noted, today's movement in healthcare design is toward creating a supportive environment that is nurturing and comforting to patients and their loved ones. There is a line of thinking which holds that “softening” healthcare facilities will lead to more patient relaxation and overall positive experiences for everyone. As a result, today's healthcare design increasingly reflects aesthetics that evoke the comfort and security of home. This residential design directive brings with it exciting opportunities for creative expression among healthcare and furniture designers.

Putting It All Together

We started development of our most recent healthcare furniture collection by gathering visual information about residential design trends. We looked at a variety of consumer catalogs that were clearly marketing to women because they typically make decisions about interiors in their homes. From these catalogs, we tried to identify styling trends or rhythms that retailers were using to attract female buyers. We then created a “landscape” of residential styling preferences.

The challenge then became to take these styling cues and incorporate them into a range of products that had to meet the different functional requirements of the various environments within a healthcare facility. Seat height and width, safety, durability, and modularity are just a few of the many considerations for healthcare furniture that make it a challenge to create something that has a significant residential impulse.

We also had to take into account how seat height and composition relate to the ability to easily move in and out of seating. Residential seating tends to be softer, lower, and deeper than typical contract seating found in healthcare facilities. Finding a compromise in which the seat is firm and comfortable, as well as accommodating to a range of patients with varying degrees of mobility, is essential. Developers also have to keep in mind the varying ages, physical abilities, and other characteristics of patients—from young adults to the elderly—who will use furniture.

A number of other design considerations are unique to the healthcare environment. For example, furniture must be easy to clean and repair, and fabrics must be resistant to moisture and staining, as well as able to incorporate antibacterial protection.

As we developed our collection with a residential aesthetic, we paid attention to current residential trends, such as the influence of mid-20th-century modern design. This trend works well for healthcare design because it comes from a corporate aesthetic of the 1940s and 1950s that was based on creating a flexible yet functional environment.

We also strove to achieve a coordinated look among the patient, lounge, tandem, and sleeper pieces in our collection—similar to the interior design found in many homes. Sleek lines were chosen to capture the essence of residential design.

Conclusions

With an emphasis on creating a supportive environment based on residential influences, healthcare design is entering an exciting new era. For the many people affected by healthcare design and furniture—staff, patients, and family members—the changes taking place now will further serve to heighten the overall healthcare experience and provide hospitals with the design distinction they are trying to achieve. HD

Dan Cramer has operated an industrial design studio for 20 years and has developed furniture for such companies as KI, Tuohy Furniture Corporation, and Brandrud Furniture. Paul James has been an independent design consultant since 2001 and has worked with such clients as KI, Williams-Sonoma, Inc., and Fixtures Furniture. Both are based in Minneapolis.