It's not a stretch to say that most people don't enjoy going to the dentist. The white fluorescent lights, the sterile smell, and the fact that you're probably going to have to, rather embarrassingly, spit into a small chairside sink causing drool to extend from your lip to the bowl all add to the unpleasant nature of these essential clinics. This is a concept Los Angeles-based design firm Graft understood when designing the KU64 and Kinderdentist dental clinics in Berlin.

“There are very few environments that are as negatively associated with experiences as a dental clinic,” says Alejandra Lillo, a partner at Graft. “Between the colors, the aesthetics, the hygiene and sterility, the very white color ranges, the smells associated with dental clinics, as well as knowing that you're probably going to be in a bit of pain, it is a psychologically challenging design to undertake.”

Through Graft's patient-centric design model, they were able to create two dental clinics that are simultaneously similar in their effectiveness and aesthetic goals, while being wildly different in visual and spatial presentation, as well as being aimed at notably different demographics.

Designing comforting spaces

Graft's design in these two projects hinged primarily on the concept of bringing hospitality design into a traditionally sterile and strictly clinical setting. “We really challenged ourselves to generate a new paradigm for dental care and look at it much more as a wellness center and wellness experience—as a lounge or a spa—or something that would not only create a narrative experience but would be much more comforting and warm, as well as be something of a journey for the user to enjoy and experience,” says Lillo.

This paradigm shift can likely be attributed to the way Graft approaches design. Lillo notes that Graft has become well known because most of its staff—Lillo posits about 95%—have been trained in architecture, even though not everyone is a certified architect. As such, the firm takes a different approach to the interiors of buildings, expanding both the design vocabulary and the spatial possibilities. “What we do, by and large, is an architectural experience,” she says. “It's more architectural move than interior design. We like to create spaces, or utilize architecture to accomplish the function we need it to accomplish.”

Included in the design of the KU64 clinic is a lounge/spa space (figure 1) that Graft felt was essential to the hospitality setting. A row of chairs with views to the outside and a nearby wood-burning fireplace are utilized to help calm patients and put them in a more peaceful state of mind. “You come in and all of your senses are appeased or tranquilized in a sense,” says Lillo. “From the color choices to the soft curvatures in the space, the use of fireplaces, to the imagery we have on the walls, which are very playful in that at a certain perspective we can see the human figure and from another perspective it just looks like clouds (figure 2), this was all intended to create a more soothing environment.”

The lounge space in KU64 has views to the outdoors and a wood-burning fireplace

hiepler brunier architekturfotografie

Graft used playful imagery that looks like the human figure from one perspective and clouds from another

hiepler brunier architekturfotografie

Along with having this lounge space, the owner of KU64 is taking further measures to ensure the comfort of its users. KU64 has extended hours of operation in order to allow late-goers to visit the dental lounge, something that alleviates the stress of leaving work early or trying to fit an appointment into your schedule. “You can go in and relax in a lounge and you have a wood-burning fireplace that's creating something different,” Lillo says. “The sensation is incredibly different from what we usually see. And it likens it much more to hospitality design.”

Creating nature

“[Kinderdentist and KU64] were grounded in natural phenomena, which is something that Graft likes to do,” says Lillo. “We will look at sand dunes or canyon landscapes or wave patterns as a point of departure in that it does create quite a chunk of well being and fascination with the natural environment. I'd say that those were the two main points of departure for both of them.”

The primary aspects of designs of Kinderdentist and KU64 are the ocean and sand dunes, respectively, tropes that can be obviously identified throughout the entirety of each facility. While Kinderdentist's ocean influence manifests itself through color schemes—the entire office is made of differing shades of blue—wall murals (figure 3), and a 12-foot wave that welcomes patients (figure 4), KU64's design premise takes a much more noticeable and prominent role throughout the clinic.

The walls of Kinderdentist are adorned with murals of fish, adding to the ocean motif

andi albert photographie

The 12-foot wave wall greets patients at the Kinderdentist clinic

andi albert photographie

KU64 is driven by the idea of sand dunes, which are carried throughout the entire facility, from public spaces to clinical spaces (figure 5). Graft even went so far as to put these sand dunes on the ceilings of clinical spaces to give the patient something to look at and take his mind off of the treatment. Lillo noted that the creation of these dunes took more research than initially thought. The curving walls needed to be covered in an epoxy that is somewhat uncommon in clinical settings. “It's used in many laboratory setting or actually on some roofs as well,” says Lillo. “It's a very thick, elastic paint that doesn't crack and will adhere to vertical surfaces as well as it does to horizontal surfaces, which was one of the big problems, to find a material that can coat this that could withstand the wear and tear that it will obviously undergo.”

The design stays consistent in both the clinical and public spaces while privacy is supplied through the use of lumnisty film on glass

hiepler brunier architekturfotografie

These sand dunes are not just for aesthetic purposes, in fact, they have a practical application as well: hiding the clinical programs that give dental clinics a stern, sterile look. “There are a lot of programs that can very easily be hidden—machinery storage, casework, millwork,” says Lillo. “If you look at KU64, we made it almost into a landscape project where it looks like a sand dune is coming up and you're sitting inside one when you're getting your teeth worked on. The mounds that are around you actually contain all of the programs that are necessary.”

Privacy and lighting

Even with such a strong focus on contemporary design, Graft made sure to find a way to protect patients' privacy without having to alter its design premise or change due to clinical restrictions. Kinderdentist has a relatively traditional separation of clinical and public space, providing the type of privacy is in most dental clinics.

However, KU64, as Lillo notes, has a much different formula for providing privacy. “We began thinking about wanting light perforation in the space and how we wanted a certain amount of visibility without being able to see the person that's being worked on,” says Lillo. “We brought in lumnisty films, which allowed for certain perspectives to be transparent whereas other perspectives are opaque. With those two strategies, as well as doing back-of-house storage and functions, we were really able to create privacy and storage in very useable spaces for the dental clinic while still maintaining that sensation of free-flowing, well-luminated, comforting space.

“KU64 brings the partition walls, which end up being low curved walls that are made out of drywall. Those low curved walls with the glass dividers and lumnisty film are the ones that start to create privacy for individual treatment spaces, but it's all part of a larger language or larger sculpture. It's almost like the drywall creates this sand dune or topological surface on the ground then gets carved out and the negative spaces are the spaces where you put in your dental chairs and then divide it with glass and lumnisty partitions.”

In addition to this revolutionary way of providing privacy, Graft approached the lighting of the clinics to avoid the fluorescent lighting of a typical dental clinic. “We really like to use coved or obscured lighting, in many cases to either highlight the architecture or a cutout, or create an indirect lighting situation,” Lillo says. “It tends to be warmer toned and much more muted. These are a lot of things we've learned from our hospitality design projects. Nothing makes you look less healthy than bright fluorescent lights.” After all, it's ultimately the patient's health that takes top billing in both of these clinics. HD

For more information on Graft, visit http://www.graftlab.com, e-mail la@graftlab.com, or call 323.441.9610.

Healthcare Design 2008 December;8(12):30-37