Arup’s Rebecca Stewart (RS) explains the difficult art of designing everyday products, the latest trends and her own office space, while also describing how chairs can uphold the quality of an entire project.
Q: You design a wide range of products. Do you find designing chairs more or less difficult than other objects or products? How does it differ?
RS: Designing a chair is one of the most challenging briefs. Chairs have been around since we first decided to sit down, so coming up with something more comfortable, fitting a wider range of cultures and sizes and more beautiful is, at first glance, impossible – ‘it’s all been done before’. However, the nice thing about the brief for Abacus was that Forum Seating set really tight requirements on manufacturing method, materials, price and market position, so the chair evolved from this brief quite naturally, with a guiding hand from the process and a heavy seasoning of human factors and architectural aesthetic.
Other products I have designed tend to be unique and innovative solutions to a newly perceived problem, and therefore it’s the first time this product has been designed – not so the chair! With a chair, the user is highly critical since they have pre conceptions of the types of chair they like; they have many around them in the different aspects of their lives, work, eating, travelling etc., so a lot to compare my chair with.
A stadium seat is the one product in a stadium which the visitor is intimate with, being in contact with it for sometimes hours (that and plastic beer glasses!). The seat therefore has to uphold the brand quality of the stadium all the way through from the first sight to the final goal. If it looks fussy or is uncomfortable after 10 minutes, it can really affect the visitors’ experience of that stadium.
Q: What do you take into consideration while designing? Are the materials that the product is made of, the functionality and the ergonomics as important as the design itself?
RS: The single most important consideration of designing a chair is the human factor. From the first moment a stadium client sees and tries out the seat, he or she will make a decision about what that seat says about its brand. If the manufacturing process is too labour intensive, the seat will be too expensive. If it is difficult to install, the opening night is delayed. If it is too flimsy it gets used as a weapon in rowdy games. All the other aspects are considered with reference to how they help the human aspects.
The great thing about materials and manufacturing processes is that they are constantly evolving to give us, designers, a wider set of tools to craft a more successful product for all its user groups.
Q: How are trends in design evolving? What trends do you think will be the most important in the near future?
RS: A trend in design at the moment is ‘simplicity’. Simplicity in look, simplicity in user interaction. The technology and design effort to achieve this simplicity can be very complex. Individual user customisation is also a big thing, and getting bigger.
The other obvious design trend is led by the value of materials and labour. For stadium seats, the cost of plastics compared to steel has fluctuated, making it more or less desirable to design using one or the other material. The cost of labour in the more heavily manufacturing countries, and the typical manufacturing processes they use, can guide the design of a product to utilise one method of fabrication over another. The underlying design can change significantly to accommodate the more economic material and process. It is imperative, but also very satisfying to design for the material and the way it is made.
As for future trends, I think we will be challenging the assumptions of a ‘user group’ and we will be designing for a thousand individuals rather than a specific target user group.
Q: What are the most important distinguishing marks of the Abacus chair? Did you intend to create the whole line of products (Abacus Bronze, Silver and Gold) the moment you started designing or did the project evolve?
RS: To defend copy-cats, Abacus had to be patentable. The way the seat gravity tips about the beam on which it is mounted is unique. This reduced the number of components in the seat, eliminating pre-assembly and reducing costs.
The open contours of the seat means it is comfortable to a wide range of body shapes, which was important to Forum Seating as they wanted to have a globally applicable product. The minimal aesthetic means the seat can be applied to a wide range of different stadia’s architectural look.
The product range has evolved from the one basic seat design. I believe it is important to get a strong product identity first in the most significant seat – the basic seat (sold in much greater volumes than the others).
Q: How do you feel seeing a stadium with 59,000 chairs designed by you? And do you feel excited that those chairs have been installed at arenas that hosts events like the recent European Championship?
RS: It’s an incredible feeling seeing so many of my design in one space! The venues are very impressive and I am immensely proud of the design and development teams in Forum Seating for achieving this level of success.
I really enjoyed watching the audience jump up and down in their seats at a goal, and seeing the banks of Abacus behind the player’s faces in the press!
Q: Nowy Styl Group identifies different types of work spaces and provides furniture that serves them best. What does your work space look like and could you describe it for us?
RS: Open plan, bench style desking (designed by me!). Height adjustable of course. We have low, or no, screens between desks allowing for open team work. The rows of desks have rows of cupboards running behind the chairs for personal and team storage. The tops of the cupboards support models and samples creating interest. At the end of rows we have round tables for informal meetings. Floor to ceiling ‘blades’ of acrylic of different colours denote the different groups making it easier to find a specialist. The overall feeling is of a busy design office.
Main image (top) of Arup’s Rebecca Stewart: ©Thomas Graham
About the Abacus project
European Championship 2016 (EURO ’16) host venues in Lyon and Nice have been equipped with Abacus chairs made by the Forum Seating brand. The chair was designed specially for Nowy Styl Group by Rebecca Stewart from the internationally-recognised architectural studio Arup.
For the Abacus project, Stewart was awarded the very prestigious FX Award, which is given for international design excellence.
“A stadium seat is the one product in a stadium the visitor is intimate with, being in contact with it for sometimes hours. The seat therefore has to uphold the brand quality of the stadium all the way through from first sight to the final goal.” – says the designer.
Abacus chairs provide sports fans with excellent comfort in France, Finland, Ireland, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Bulgaria and Poland. The chairs are an ideal choice for both small stadiums, such as the Termalika Bruk-Bet Stadium in Nieciecza (Lesser Poland), and for huge facilities, such as the sports arenas where the 2016 European Championship’s were held. They are manufactured in the Plastic Processing Plant, a factory belonging to Nowy Styl Group, which is able to manufacture 500 chairs per day; one chair takes about 3 minutes to manufacture. The production process consumes 1,800kg of materials.
Further contracts in France
Forum Seating is currently carrying out other projects in France: with 450 Unit chairs to be assembled at the sliding tribune in l’îlotFontenoy-Ségur, the new administrative headquarters of the French Prime Minister, which is due to be opened in summer 2017. Forum Seating will also supply 4,300 Fen chairs and a telescopic tribune manufactured by Nowy Styl Group to the prestigious concert hall Cité Musicale in Paris, which is due to open in spring 2017. To realise the project, Forum Seating is cooperating with the well-known company Bouygues.
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You can also watch a video showing how the Abacus chair is produced at: https://youtu.be/3BeiPw1AmZo