Form meets function

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 Courtney Manor
Courtney Manor

If there is one element of interior design that creates a “wow” factor for visitors, it is furnishings. When people enter a community and see expertly arranged chairs, sofas and tables in a lounge area, it leaves a positive, lasting impression. And it can go a long way in attracting new residents and gaining a competitive advantage.

But furnishing a community goes beyond the initial encounter. That same “wow” factor also should extend into resident rooms, dining areas, corridors, outdoor areas and even utility rooms. Furnishings also should provide more than aesthetic appeal, manufacturers say.

For instance, Anna England-Chaney, designer for Flexsteel Industries, says her approach is to incorporate a “cross-application” between form and function.

“Beautiful furniture is always important, but consideration should always be made to construction,” she says. “Three great questions to ask are: What's safe? What's durable? And most importantly, will residents be comfortable?”

As long-term care facilities have become more hospitality-oriented with independent and assisted living models, the role of furniture has taken on a much more prominent role in the décor and as an amenity for residents looking for relaxation and comfort. Andrew Christmann, marketing manager for Hekman Contract, says manufacturers serving the healthcare and hospitality markets tend to focus on making products for group usage, but that doesn't mean they don't take individuals' needs seriously, either.

“The needs and wants differ greatly from one person to another,” he says. “The challenge and fun part of our role is to develop and introduce products that meet the needs of a larger swath of the population, then work on identifying the ever-changing solutions to be in harmony with senior residents' individual needs.”

The contemporary movement toward person-centered care in senior living has motivated furniture suppliers to transition away from stereotypical, commercial-looking designs and toward creating an at-home experience, says Dean Jarrett, director of marketing for H Contract.

“The homelike environment helps ease the transition from living independently for many residents,” he says. “The furniture also has to be functional, in addition to achieving the right look. Manufacturers need to provide the residential styling, while also delivering durable products with value-added features required in the senior living marketplace.”

Common areas — foyers, lounges, dining areas and meeting rooms — are where furnishings are most visible and where the most pieces are required. Fully furnished common areas typically will have chairs, sofas, recliners, benches, pillows and tables, as well as lamps and other lighting fixtures. Besides beds, resident rooms need chairs, tables and case goods. Office areas need desks, chairs and tables.

At Flexsteel, England-Chaney says the company takes a holistic view of the facility in its commercial approach.

“For us, there is an equal balance placed on resident rooms and public spaces,” she says. “Since so many of today's senior and assisted living centers focus heavily on community and interaction, we design to ensure that the comfort and durability residents experience in their private spaces is just as present in the public spaces. This means designing furniture that not only is beautiful to look at but also is easy for residents, caregivers and family members to use.”

Christmann says that if there's one room where the “wow” factor is essential, it's the dining area.

“Dining room furniture is a very important piece of it,” he says. “How potential residents will be fed is paramount for decision-makers. Making an impression with the dining room speaks volumes, both positively and negatively, to prospective residents.”

The ‘Trendy Trap'

Fashion is fickle by nature, and what's “in” for a time also can go “out” in a flash. The worst furnishing faux pas is to purchase a style that looks dated after a short time. To avoid falling into a “trendy trap,” manufacturers say facility operators should trust the design staff's sensibilities on the issue.

“We don't view this as a ‘trendy trap,' but rather the evolution of senior living,” Christmann says. “It seems that the current style is very hospitality-oriented with specific healthcare properties. The biggest considerations a facility operator should make when furnishing a new development is to stay aesthetically relevant and functionally sound.  Never compromise the performance of senior living furniture for a less expensive but very stylish piece of furniture. It is up to manufacturers to anticipate the trends and provide quality, lasting products that satisfy aesthetics and function.”

John Martin, founder of Martin's Chair, says the traditional style is perfect for senior living communities because it gives residents a feeling of being at home and offers them a sense of ownership.

“These people often have a history and a story and would like to feel as if the surrounding area does, too,” he says. “Furniture and furnishings can help with this. Most would prefer this over more modern furniture or the furniture that reflects the vision and decision of an interior designer they don't know. Also, when made properly, traditional and even Early American- style wood furniture rarely goes out of style.”

Face the floor

When considering the design, form and function of a room, it is important to include walls and floors in the equation. Although not considered furnishings in a conventional sense, wall treatments and flooring options complete any room's design scheme, industry stakeholders point out.

“Identifying the right type of floor covering is essential to creating that great first impression for visitors and prospects,” says Bob Bethel, director of business development for education and healthcare at J+J Flooring Group. “The right floor covering can help set the tone for the design and functionality of the space, so it's critical to know who will occupy the space and how that space is being used. Naturally, a soft-surface flooring can greatly contribute to a sense of home. A soft-surface product, such as carpet or textile composite flooring, adds an enhanced level of warmth, comfort and noise reduction to create a quieter and more calming living environment.”

With regard to flooring, facility operators also should be mindful of other associated costs that can be unforeseen, such as slip-and-fall injuries. To reduce potential slip-and-fall events, operators should consider a flooring that is both slip-resistant and helps reduce noise in a space, Bethel says. 

“Should they occur, falls can be less severe on a soft surface versus a hard surface, as a soft surface is better at absorbing the impact of a person's fall,” he says. 

“With a less severe fall, residents and patients spend less time recovering, reducing any medical expenses related to that recovery. Perhaps more importantly, it means people are back doing the activities they were doing before the fall.”

Wall coverings have advanced to provide bright aesthetic qualities to a room's look as well as providing more durability than paint, says Clarence Porch, director of national accounts for Koroseal.

“Wall coverings can be tailored to a facility's level of care,” he says. “There are a variety of colors, patterns and designs, and the durability is strong enough to resist scuffs, scratches and chips.”

Digital printing allows facilities to apply custom designs and patterns to the walls, and templates enable sections to be replaced with no discernable difference, he says.

Consistency rules

Design themes and stylistic continuity are considered by most professionals to be unifying forces in the overall facility décor. Yet some say the rules can be bent, even broken, and that conformity shouldn't be the overarching concern.

Brian Martin, son of the Martin's Chair founder, is a big believer in consistency, rationalizing that “most homes have consistency in them, so why shouldn't senior living facilities?” Creating furniture “that looks like it ‘belongs' in the interior space is important not only to the external perception of the facility, but internally from the point of view of the residents as well,” he says. “When furniture appears like it belongs in the facility, it can give the residents a better sense of belonging as well.”

The younger Martin contends that the best way to ensure consistency is to work closely and collaboratively with the furniture manufacturer. 

“Sending specs to a manufacturer and leaving it at that can lead to serious disconnects in the overall interior design,” he says. “The less collaboration and specification occur, the much more unprofessional and disorganized the facility can appear, which can cause potential residents to choose other facilities.”

England-Chaney agrees that design consistency is important, and adds that “it has to fit the mission of the facility.” For example, she points out that if there are various wings with differing focuses, such as memory care, “it's important to ensure the design focuses on integrating to the needs of residents in those areas.” 

Conversely, Christmann believes that design consistency is less important these days.

“There was a time when mixing wood finishes with a space was taboo,” he says. “Now it is generally accepted, if not encouraged.” 

“Design trends today are unpredictable, unscripted and very impressive. The general rule seems to be, when it comes to style within an environment, there are no rules.”

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