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Steelcase Takes a Desk in the Classroom

Posted by: Michael Arndt on June 14, 2010

I’m sitting next to a desk that could have been mine in elementary school. Yours was probably like this, too: a hard-backed wooden chair on steel legs with a small writing tray bolted to a steel pipe. The one I’m sitting in could hardly be more different, starting with its bright green plastic seat that swivels, and has elbow perches that double as backpack hooks and gives a little when I lean back.
“There just hasn’t been any significant innovation in classroom furniture in I can’t remember when,” says Sean Corcorran, director of product development and marketing for the education solutions grouo at Steelcase, which designed and made the desk I’m test-sitting. “We see 50-year-old chairs in classrooms today. I think there’s pentup demand.”

Still, I wonder whether the desk will enable Steelcase to break out of the office market and into classrooms. With a laptop-friendly work surface, the node, as it’s called, lists for $599. By comparison, basic desks by market-leader KI start as low as $169. What’s more, I haven’t heard of a school anywhere that’s got extra cash these days. Many, in fact, can’t even pay all their teachers or afford new books.

At a Neocon event in Chicago, Corcorran tells me that in four months of pre-sales, the company has received orders for 50% of the first year’s production. Yet in better times—say, seven years ago when Steelcase decided to branch out into the education market—the order rate probably would have been higher, concedes his boss, Steelcase Group President James Keane.

Schools are mostly submitting try-out orders, buying desks for a classroom or two rather outfitting the entire building. “There’s probably less across-the-board opportunities in this sort of economy,” he tells me. “But we’ve been very happy with the success so far.”

The node is so unusual because, as a newcomer to the market, Steelcase looked not at how classrooms are generally equipped, but at how teaching has evolved. Used to be that teachers stood in the front and drilled rows of students much like a sergeant would address the troops. Today students are just as likely to be learning from one another in groups. Students also need a place for their backpacks and, at the college level for sure, a work surface with room for a laptop and a book.

Steelcase began developing its desk with help from design shop IDEO about a year and a half ago, Corcorran says. The early prototypes, on display at the event at the Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy, were assembled from crudely cut plywood and old plastic chair seats. Nonethless, they look basically like the final product.

The node comes on wheels, making it easier for students or teachers to roll them into new arrangements. The concave base, made of aluminum, provides an out-of-the-aisle space for backpacks or other gear. Not only does the plastic-molded seat swivel; the work tray does, too. And the 22x12-inch plastic surface can easily accommodate a laptop with space to spare.

One of the bigger changes was to make the seat bigger. Corcorran says Steelcase added an an inch and a half to the width so that today’s heftier students can squeeze in. The desk, which weighs 32 pounds, can support up to 300 pounds. The American classroom has changed.

Reader Comments

Walter Barnett

June 15, 2010 1:18 PM

Casters -- a really bad idea until the college level -- did you get that -- a really bad idea. Has anybody on your design team spent any time in a k -- 12 class room ? Kids and casters is asking for all kinds of mobile assault. Bolted down is almost better - perhaps an in floor modular clamping system ?

Hunter Blankenship

June 15, 2010 2:26 PM

Steelcase made extensive investigation into the classroom and understanding the needs, also made node available on fixed feet.

Craig Schoppe

June 15, 2010 2:51 PM

Right on Walter! I couldn't agree more and the size, type and number of casters is not likely to survive a school year at a kindergarten or college without trouble.

Where is a kid suppose to put his feet? I'm noticing myself as I type this sitting in an office chair with casters and most of the time my feet are behind the wheels toward the center of the chair. What ever papers, books, cloths, computers, etc. that get stored under the set will certainly get kicked around and stepped on.

Back to the (steelscase) drawing board.

Rick Yeates

June 16, 2010 7:38 AM

Target market for the node chair is high school & higher education. The base of the tripod was designed specifically to allow the student/user to place their feet on the "ring" of the base.
Beta sites at both a high school & a university have validated the value of mobility in the classroom to support active learning. Both students & teachers strongly support the ability to support multiple modes of learning during class.

Sleepy McGee

June 16, 2010 2:32 PM

Craig, you are putting your feet behind the casters, because typical 5-star based chairs don't have a feature to rest your feet. Node has a foot ring to accomodate...your feet. In regards to the size, the base is actually smaller than a 5 star base.

Walter, casters are an option. The chair also comes with feet/glides. As Rick said, the chair isn't designed for K-12, however; I wish I had it when I was in highschool.

With the worksurface being larger than your typical 'tablet', you eliminate the need for tables and chairs in a classroom.

Randi Berg

June 16, 2010 5:33 PM

BRAVO!!!!! This chair is awesome! I love how the tablet arm can be used comfortably by left handed users (such as myself) and right handed users as well. It's about time somebody cared about us left handed people! We are no longer in the stone ages where people are forced to be right handed. However, all the desks out there up until now were made mostly for right handed people and schools would have to special order ones for us lefties! A nightmare for somebody like me because I actually like to chose where I want to sit when I come to class. Who wants to not have a choice in that?!! So, what would end up happening would be I would just end up sitting in a right handed desk! Would I be super uncomfortable? Yes. But, with overcrowding in classrooms these days..... I was not as uncomfortable as that right handed person, that is used to the whole world revolving around them, and them getting stuck in my left handed desk!!!!! Now that was funny! Thank you Steelcase it's about time!


July 2, 2010 12:41 PM

If the target is high school and higher education (which has many non-traditional and older students) I recommend reconsidering the width of the chair and/or having stationary arms. I recently took an evening course where many older adults had great difficulty getting into and out of the chairs with attached desk tops and arms.
Remember: the population is aging and in school much longer than the past. Additionally, childhood obesity rates tell us that high school and college teens may be much larger than in the past. Uncomfortable students do not learn well.

Jenny Fields

July 3, 2010 10:05 PM

Wow, what an exciting chair. Having just left the classrooms and experiencing those uncomfortable chair and small desk attachment combo's I am thrilled to see someone coming up with a better Idea. At 6' tall, trying to wiggle in and out of the tiny seat was rather painful. I like the idea of the table being able to swivel out of the way when I want to sit down/stand up. The larger work surface is needed as well, it looks a piece of paper will actually fit on the work surface and more! Many times the students are required to change from the standard rows and columns line up to a circle or small groups, so I am digging the casters. The under-seat storage is ingenious, I don't know how many time's my stuff has been stepped on because I have no where to put it but in a tiny isle. I wish I could have sat in this chair during those long uncomfortable lectures.

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