Milliken Carpet and HDR, ranked as the country's leading designer of acute care facilities for 2003 by Interior Design magazine, joined forces three years ago to achieve a common goal: to create a new aesthetic for healthcare interiors, most specifically for carpet. The three-year experience has been enlightening for both companies, and offers healthcare design participants a profound insight into the challenges of product development in line with modern concepts. Here's what happened, and what it led to.

Milliken had researched flooring concerns in the healthcare market throughout the world for many years and had found a critical need for high-performance carpets using noninstitutional designs. In interviews, focus groups, and written surveys, Milliken frequently encountered comments such as “There are a lot of older styled carpets on the market.” “We want a different look.” And, “If we use carpet, it has to be bulletproof.” Both designers and facility managers indicated an eagerness to use carpet as a healing aesthetic but said performance concerns severely limited their carpet choices toward this end.

While the need to balance aesthetics versus performance criteria exists in the specification of many interiors products, the dilemma is perhaps most pronounced in healthcare flooring. Floorcoverings occupy the largest interior area and, therefore, provide the greatest opportunity to offer patients a feeling of wellness. Yet, healthcare flooring must perform under extreme conditions, 24/7, in facilities where durability, maintainability, and infection control are only a few of the operational concerns.

The floorcovering dilemma gives rise to several questions: Can carpet actually project a feeling of health and well-being? How can an essentially flat surface appear more pleasingly three-dimensional? Can carpet connect people to their space by appealing to their senses? Can we in the carpet manufacturing business “have it all,” i.e., great designs and an essentially indestructible product?

HDR, for its part, welcomed the opportunity to create something different from the glut of carpeting on the market that displays small-scale botanicals. The firm had the credentials: HDR was the first designer to fully carpet a hospital back in the 1960s. The firm has always valued the warm, familiar touch of carpet, but has also learned from product disappointments, including shrinking, staining, and indoor air quality issues. It was clear to HDR that any initiative to heighten aesthetic sophistication would have to be paired with a serious product development effort addressing durability, stain and soil resistance, fiber content, moisture barrier, antimicrobial effectiveness, and convenience to rolling traffic.

After discussions between HDR and Milliken, two teams were formed: one to concentrate on innovative, health-encouraging design, and the other to develop a high-performance carpet system of specific value to the healthcare sector.

Getting back to those questions about carpeting:

Question 1. Can carpet actually project the feeling of health and well-being? To answer that question, Milliken and HDR drew from HDR's network of designers around the world by asking them to share their “inspirations” for healthcare. Every interior designer has his or her collection of “cool stuff”—pictures taken from magazines, intriguing photographs, swatches of favorite fabrics, exotic collectibles from inspiring places. Designers keep these materials on-hand to trigger visual responses and help them formulate exciting new patterns and color combinations. The 11-member design team for Milliken/HDR organized inspirations such as these into “buckets of concepts.” From these buckets, clear preferences and trends emerged for the team as a whole.

Ironically, though, once the team assembled these materials and learned from them, it became important to set them aside. The goal was to capture the inspiration offered by these items, but then go on to transcend them. Each group member took a concept, sketched possible designs based on it, and gave it a distinct personality. Although the team had vast computer technology resources at hand, many drew their images by hand, making them more personal and sensitive.

Deciding on these designs wasn't simply a matter of personal preference, however. Today's healthcare organizations seek to engage the mind, body, and spirit in the healing process. Taking the global view of this trend, the design team studied Eastern philosophies, as well as aromatherapy and age-old approaches to holistic healing. Although each of these modalities alludes to the power of nature, HDR cautioned the team against designing just another “chunky leaf” pattern. Instead, the group brainstormed about how nature could be embraced visually in carpet design using a new aesthetic. The designers explored imagery of rock gardens, lily pads, bamboo stalks, and banyan leaves—natural forms associated with the philosophies they were investigating.

In approaching these designs, a sense of personal communication was also important. Communicating the idea of touch, for example, was suggested by scanning a thumbprint into the computer as a potential design element. The hand-drawn sketches were digitized, projecting imperfect linear patterns that alluded to rhythm, heartbeats, and life-sustaining elements. The team experimented with calligraphy, attempting to communicate subliminal messages incorporating the handwritten words “mind,” “body,” and “soul” into the designs.

Question 2: How can an essentially flat surface appear more pleasingly three-dimensional? To develop compelling imagery, the design team needed to project a more lifelike dimensionality into the design. The challenge was significant: Healthcare interiors require a smooth, flat flooring that readily accommodates rolling traffic and eliminates spaces that can trap soil and debris. Textured surfaces, such as high-low patterns, grooves, or waves are not practical in healthcare facilities. That means dimensionality must be achieved visually.

The quest for “virtual 3-D” pushed the design and technical teams toward a breakthrough. Using a new application of Milliken's dye technologies, Milliken and HDR designers created fine gradations of shading that conjured up the appearance of depth. The new device allowed the team to mimic textures, such as gauze and linen, and create realistic images of banyan leaves, rippling water, basket weaves, and bamboo stalks. This layering of color resulted in watercolor-type effects that are soft, positive and uplifting (with the added benefit of camouflaging stains and soiling).

Question 3: Can carpet connect people to their space by appealing to their senses? One of the team's design challenges was to engage not only the sense of touch, but all five senses in an effort to ground people in their space. Creating this connection is particularly challenging in healthcare interiors, where patients, visitors, and staff are often surrounded by stark and sterile surfaces.

Like a painter working with a canvas, designers “painted” images that evoked the sounds of gurgling water, the herbaceous scents of plant life, the savory taste of wild berries, the tactile sensations of linen and gauze, and the harmonious look of calligraphy. For colors, the group drew inspiration from essential oils and herbs that have been used for thousands of years to stimulate the senses and create emotional and physical health. For instance, cedarwood oil—used in some Eastern cultures to treat anxiety and nervous tension—has an orange-golden tinge that is reflected in a carpet colorway of warm golds, natural greens, and blues. The chicory plant, with its blue and purple flowers—used in the Middle Ages to strengthen weak stomachs—inspired a colorway of lush plum and olive shades.

In this way, the collaboration explored natural imagery and ways to use these associations to induce relaxation and feelings of well-being.

Question 4: Can we in the carpet manufacturing business have it all—great designs and an essentially indestructible carpet? Simultaneously with the design development team process, a second team of Milliken engineers and technical specialists worked to develop two new carpet systems that would perform under healthcare's extreme conditions. They began by reviewing market research and by interviewing HDR's designers and clients to develop a specific list of the attributes needed. Designers and facility managers who were interviewed showed clear preferences for either six-foot broadloom or 36" × 36" modular carpet, depending on their past experiences. The decision was made early on to develop both product platforms.

Bringing new carpet systems to market requires a significant investment of manpower and capital resources. Milliken is fortunate to be able to draw on the resources of its parent company, Milliken & Company, to support the carpet development process. Milliken & Company operates the largest textile research center in the world, staffing a research team whose expertise ranges from process engineering to microbiology.

To manufacture nearly “bulletproof” carpet, Milliken also partnered with best-of-practice companies, such as Invista (formerly DuPont), tapped for their newest and best-performing fiber, and Milliken Chemical, to supply an antimicrobial treatment that has had a successful track record in such fields as food preparation, apparel, and medical device manufacturing. To lock in performance, Milliken and Invista also added proprietary stain-blocking treatments to the carpet systems.

Roller mobility, another key issue in healthcare, was addressed by engineering an extremely tight, dense carpet construction that provided a smooth surface for gurneys, wheelchairs, and equipment. Milliken decided to add an extra step to the manufacturing process: The loop-pile carpet is heat-set to lock in an increased twist in the yarn to maintain this surface over time.

Two new backing systems were developed, as well. Milliken tested the backings to ensure that they provided comfort without compromising roller mobility. Other tests were conducted to ensure that spills would not penetrate the backings. Meanwhile, because one of the benefits of using modular carpet is its fast installation, Milliken's engineers exploited this advantage by developing a high-friction coating that is applied to the backing instead of glue. This innovation not only reduced installation time and expense, but also improved indoor air quality.

Team Collaboration

The performance team worked closely with the design team on various issues. HDR's designers felt strongly, for example, that the warranty package must be sufficient to back up performance claims. The group worked out a package of 12 lifetime warranties, plus a separate guarantee that designs will continue to be available for 10 years—an important assurance to an industry accustomed to long and sometimes unpredictable project lead times.

The teams also worked together to develop the design and performance stories for the market. One of the first questions encountered in this process was, which message should be emphasized in marketing—design or performance? They are equally important, so the decision was made to create a Z-fold brochure combining two informational packages in one; one side of the Z-fold would communicate the new carpet's performance attributes, while the other would describe its healing aesthetic. Many of the design illustrations used in the brochure are hand-drawn.

Following an eight-month design and product development process, the collaboration released its new carpet, Soul, in August 2002. The six-foot, loop-pile carpet won a Nightingale Award at the 2002 Symposium on Healthcare Design and awards from industry publications, including Architectural Record, Buildings, and Display & Design Ideas. Honing its aesthetic expression for healthcare, the collaboration launched in early 2004 its second collection: a 36" × 36" square, loop-pile modular carpet called Sense. While both collections introduce new aesthetics and carpet systems, the modular carpet system has some added advantages—i.e., faster installation, the ability to replace damaged tiles rather than entire floor covering sections, and dimensional stability-enhancing durability (advantages that have made modular carpet the fastest growing carpet product in the office market and increasingly popular in healthcare).

Final Thought

The experience of the Milliken and HDR teams and those who have used these carpets suggests that going to such lengths to create a healing aesthetic through carpet does make a cultural difference—by putting people at ease, by encouraging a connection with their space, and by promoting in them feelings of well-being. As healthcare design evolves, it will be exciting to see how other product designers harness concepts such as these to engage the mind, body, and spirit in the process of healing. HD