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When The Design Is All Hat!

March 10, 2011
Last year I took a beach vacation where a group of friends and I rented a private home right on Pensacola Beach. We sort of rented the house sight unseen. We did see the outside of the house in person. It was very contemporary with several big porches on the backing facing the water. We only saw the inside via a virtual web tour.  Thank goodness, the interior of the house lived up to our expectations.

Well, most of it did. After we arrived at the house and unloaded our gear, I started looking around the kitchen. There was a loose-leaf binder on the kitchen counter with the heading, “Stove and Oven Instructions.” I thought that was odd because I have been successfully operating stoves and ovens all of my adult life. How hard could it be?

As it turns out, harder than I could have anticipated. The stove and the oven were strikingly contemporary European design. The clean design was complimented by black glass fronts with no writing whatsoever on them. There was nothing to indicate what the few eccentrically designed knobs did. The position of the control knobs on the stove didn’t correspond to the position of the burners on the stove. Worse, even after reading the instructions, we still had problems figuring out how to cook on either appliance and we all had college degrees!

Now, you might be saying to yourself, what in the world does this have to do with outdoor furniture? Here’s what: I have always heard that in a good design, form should follow function. In the case of both of the stove and the oven, function had nothing to do with form. I suddenly realized this was an object lesson to manufacturers of outdoor furniture.

How many times have you seen a piece of furniture with great design that is so uncomfortable you know it won’t sell? Or perhaps you have wondered what the designer was thinking who created a cantilevered umbrella with no obvious way to raise or tilt it. Also, if you read my blog about ill-conceived catalogs, you realize there is a plethora of catalog designers who don’t even think about function during the design process.

I am not suggesting this is the problem is pervasive throughout our industry. Certainly, there are manufacturers who “hit the sweet spot” of comfort with their furniture while still creating stylish designs. Woodard’s Terrace cushioned hidden spring lounge chair comes to mind, as do the series of cushioned spring base club chairs from O. W. Lee. All are comfortable and have eye appeal.

On the other hand, Brown Jordan’s Zephyr line had great eye appeal but didn’t sell because it wasn't as comfortable as it was pretty. There are some really great designs in cast aluminum chairs that I long to show. However, as soon as a customer sits in them, they jump out with their heads shaking. That’s never a good sign. The same goes for some cushions I have run across over the years. They will be thick, boxed, welted, maybe even buttoned and look very high end. But they pancake when you sit on them or they are too deep or too thick. Whatever it is, they should never have been produced.

To take this one step further, I encourage you to look at some of the designs showing up in big boxes and warehouse clubs. They look extraordinary but upon closer inspection, you realize the construction doesn’t live up to the design. For example, a big time model has a new outdoor wicker line that looks great in catalogs and on the web. However, it turns out the frames are steel and the cushions are polyester. Great design, even better price points but not very functional.

So, the next time you sit in a dream design and realize you are sitting on a nightmare, ask the designer what in the world they were thinking.

Yours in confused retailing, Bruce