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.
What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.