It’s Time to Let Go of the Food Chain Mentality (Really!)

Contribution from Colette Taber

Sometimes the architecture and design (A&D) industry feels like it was designed to nurture adversarial relationships. 

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Grassroots networking organizations like LMNOP NYC exist in direct contrast to the spirit of many formalized systems for procuring services and products. In the name of competition, we create information silos between disciplines and team members, preventing efficiencies and thwarting best practices that have the potential to actually deliver on cost savings for the client. In the late 2000s, the handful of professionals that ultimately formed LMNOP were meeting to pool resources and to mitigate an increasingly alarming talent brain drain within the A&D industry, just one result of the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression. They recognized that, in a challenging market, sustaining key relationships and nurturing an inclusive support system typically yields more benefits over time than one-off transactions. By fostering a better understanding of each other’s value and potential contributions, the entire industry benefits.

As expected, LMNOP’s latest event on October 25th, a panel discussion featuring the full 360-degree perspective on working with furniture dealerships, was both inclusive and all-encompassing in meeting its educational objectives. Panelists representing key players—designer, project manager, manufacturer, dealer—discussed each party’s expectations and requirements. At what point in the design process should the designer engage with the furniture dealer? What is the relationship between the manufacturer and the dealership? In vivid, relatable terms, the panelists described the give-and-take, the push-and-pull of a design process that, when ideal, is about negotiations between professional peers: equals. How quickly the parties reach agreement correlates with the degree (depth?) of shared objectives and mutual understanding.

A collaborative approach among professional service providers and dealers/manufacturers may contribute more toward competitive pricing than a competitive environment. Practically speaking, has the time finally come to do away with the hierarchical “food chain” mentality in the design industry?

Walk a Mile in My Shoes

If I could be you, if you could be me
For just one hour, if we could find a way
To get inside each other's mind

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They’re Joe South’s lyrics and music, but Elvis made the song “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” famous. Apropos considering our current political climate but these words also work when describing the professional backgrounds of LMNOP’s panelists. Indicative of the fluid nature of changing roles in the A&D industry, all individuals have experienced, at some time during their careers, working in the capacity of at least one of their fellow panelists.

Both the moderator of the evening event Alan Grandis, General Manager of Henricksen-NY, and his associate on the panel Dave Bryant, Director of Sales for the full-service, national furniture dealership, had previously worked at major furniture manufacturing companies. In addition, Bryant began his career as a workplace strategist working with global clients to support external branding strategies through change management and other workplace related options. And, representing furniture manufacturers on the panel, Larry Cohen, who is Regional Architecture and Design Manager at Allsteel, is an interior designer by trade, with almost a quarter of a century of design experience.

Representing design, Rebecca Dorris Steiger, Associate Partner at ZGF Architects LLP, and Charlotte Stanske, Project Manager at Perkins+Will, both have diversified experience in every phase of a project, from conception and planning through installation and occupation of a workplace. Both individuals are also familiar with many of the other contributing factors that can influence a project’s outcome; a design is rarely, if ever, realized in a vacuum. For example, Steiger has product design experience as a designer and fabricator of jewelry. Her expertise in communications helps her to understand a client’s concerns about customer-facing space. Similarly, Stanske is a furniture specialist and a project manager, expertise that includes working within the parameters set by both real estate advisors and end-users.

For purposes of the LMNOP discussion, it helped that the panelists had walked more than a few miles in each other’s shoes.

Role of the Furniture Dealer

At the start of the October workshop, Jennifer Graham, President and founder of LMNOP NYC, asked, “What is the role of the furniture dealer in the design process.” The panelists’ responses were surprisingly consistent: dealers are intrinsic to the successful execution of a project. They are “product application specialists,” said Grandis. Cohen concurred; why not avail oneself of the “sophisticated” insight into a project, including detailed knowledge of a regional market and a comprehensive understanding of technology’s impact? “[We all] benefit when the dealer addresses what the client demands.” 

Stanske emphasized the “earlier the better” for the designer to engage with the furniture dealer. You’ve lost the opportunity to create a solid set of drawings by failing to coordinate furniture specifications. Steiger pointed out that clients often have relationships with specific manufacturers, which is an inducement for designers to bring dealers into the process as early as schematics or design development. It helps to have a product expert at your side when clients ask detailed questions; no client wants to hear, “I’ll get back to you with that information” a half dozen or more times during the course of a conversation.

Furthermore, furniture dealers (working in tandem with manufacturers) have impressive presentation tools at their disposal, from powerful visualizations to full-scale mock-ups. Most designers have discovered that one of the most effective paths to project concept buy-in involves giving a client an experiential experience during the visioning phase. Don't discredit the “coolness” factor, either, when winning over a client. A helpful dealer will equip the design team with an array of cutting-edge technologies, fabrics, and more, in addition to the latest research on workplace strategies, all in support of “wowing” the client.

Consequently, the idea that the furniture industry is akin to a commodity market is limiting. “It’s never just about a chair,” said Bryant. A furniture dealer is responsible for “all three ‘P’s: People and Process, in addition to Product,” said Grandis. Code compliance and construction phasing are just two project considerations that can benefit from a dealer’s experience working in a particular region with a particular client type. Emphasizing “process” and citing the range of procurement options, including leasing, Bryant stressed, “There are multiple ways to get to an end.”

Worth noting, the furniture industry has been active for some time now investing in research-driven initiatives to identify improvement opportunities, as evidenced by the quality independent analysis and studies funded each year by the Office Furniture Dealers Alliance (OFDA). The Solomon Coyle Education Offerings are another excellent source for professional development.

From the perspective of the designer, viewing the furniture components as a collective resource can be helpful. And, in truth, multiple LMNOP panelists referred to the dealer/manufacturer association as a “marriage.” With a better understanding of the relationship between the dealership and the manufacturing company, the designer is in a better position to capitalize on the inherent synergies between two partners that have different, yet complementary, roles and expertise. Bryant used relations between a hospital and specialists to illustrate this dynamic. You go to the hospital to access a spectrum of medical care, but for “anything beyond a text book case condition,” you want a specialist doctor and an “experienced specialist, at that,” said Bryant. “The intern fresh out of medical school is insufficient.”

In this context, the value proposition of the role of the dealer/manufacturer becomes self-evident: a designer’s chances of meeting and exceeding client expectations are exponentially improved with increased awareness about available options and access to an experienced installation expert. Site-specific and regional knowledge further seal the “deal” in furniture dealer.

More Options for Creativity,
More Value in Value Engineering

An overarching theme of the evening was letting go of the notion that working with a furniture dealer has to be an “either/or” proposition. A designer that is open to collaboration with a dealer/manufacturer opens himself or herself up to a multitude of options—choices that can result in significant cost savings and, ultimately, solutions that more closely align with the original design intent. Stanske observed that junior designers often focus on implementing a particular aesthetic or space planning. “They need to learn to ask the nitty-gritty questions.” Feedback from a dealer can lead to solutions for maintaining or even augmenting a design concept, which is obviously preferable to hitting a creative wall (forgive the furniture pun) when a particular product fails due to budgetary or space constraints. 

When a furniture dealer moves beyond a traditionally passive role in the design process, she or he can more accurately calculate costs in real-time, including how a few adjustments in materials selection in one area can free-up funds for another potentially more desirable or impactful design component. According to Bryant, greater participation (a greater contribution) depends on understanding the “ultimate objective of a client.” Business or operational drivers can include a diverse range of factors affecting the efficiency or productivity of an organization: flexibility of workspace, talent retention, change management objectives. Understanding what these drivers are can lead to more options and more strategic options for the FF&E selection. For example, knowing whether a client sees a project as a solution for a high churn rate or a means to an end will affect which options a dealer will present.

However, increased transparency must be present on both sides. As Steiger stated, “Both parties [furniture and design] should be clear about voicing what applications work—or don’t work” for a site-specific installation. Part of being a “trusted advisor,” she said, is helping to ensure accurate and complete furniture specifications.

Most furniture dealers possess in-depth knowledge of multiple furniture lines, which designers can exploit to diversify offerings while still leveraging economies of scale. This approach can potentially yield further savings post-occupancy, if the design team taps into the dealer/manufacturer knowledge base of operational efficiencies resulting from the strategic pairing of products. It’s also very difficult to make “apples to apples” comparisons across manufacturer lines, which is why it is important to assess potential “Day 2” costs or impacts, such as adjusting panel heights and future-proofing products to accommodate tomorrow’s technologies. A product’s capacity for lasting non-obsolescence is also a driving factor for choosing it.

In summary, the installation of furniture encompasses so much more than the obvious “nuts and bolts” or aesthetic preferences. As projects become more complex and demand more specialization, designers will need collaborators who see product value in holistic terms, where value is derived from the benefits a component can produce over the lifetime of a project. The contributions of an adept furniture dealer extend far beyond unit savings and can be quantified in more expansive terms, including the potential to realize a project vision better, faster, and more economically than ever imagined. Such a change in mindset necessitates changing how the A&D industry defines what constitutes a project team. This means eliminating the disciplines’ segregated silos and shedding preconceptions about the value all individuals can potentially bring to a project.

Note: LMNOP would like to thank Allsteel and Henricksen for hosting the October 25th evening event at the Allsteel New York City showroom. The generous support of our sponsors enables LMNOP to provide members of the architectural and design (A&D) community with professional development, mentoring, CEU workshops, panel presentations, and networking activities and resources. For information about sponsoring similar events please visit our website.
Michelle HillComment