The need for seating
We were delighted to be commissioned to design and supply 24 curved and straight upholstered benches for Yale School of Management’s new Edward P. Evans Hall.
The building, a massive 26,600 sq m (286,000 sq ft), is a signature piece by Foster + Partners architects, built on five floors around a central courtyard with distinctive curving glazed facades and 16 idiosyncratic, iridescent, double-height blue ‘drums’ housing the teaching and lecture rooms.
‘Tailored to Yale’s curriculum, the teaching spaces can support every style of learning,’ say the architect’s notes, ‘from team-based working to lectures, discussions “in the round” and video conferencing.’
On the principle that interaction outside the classroom is as important as formal teaching, the building has a variety of social spaces – a coffee shop, media library and large common room on the ground floor, and a wide internal circulation ‘cloister’ on the second, the glazed façade mirroring the shapes of the blue drums to create areas where students can gather.
But spaces where students can gather need seating – which was a problem, as Yale’s then Associate Director of Planning and Design, Mark Francis explained. Foster + Partners, whose eponymous principal studied at Yale, had designed upholstered bench seating to go into the New Haven building’s curved enclaves, but Francis couldn’t find a manufacturer in the US to make it for less than three times his budget.
Drawing on our extensive knowledge of design for batch production and value engineering, we designed, engineered and delivered an impeccable set of pieces for a fraction of the price they had been quoted at by American makers.
There was also the problem of time. We had just nine weeks from the time we were commissioned before Bill and Hillary Clinton arrived to open the building.
Apart from the drawings for rise-and-fall lecterns and lecture theatre tables, the job was confined to 24 enormous leather upholstered steel-framed benches, whose size, ranging from six to seven metres (19 – 23ft) in length, belies the word ‘confined’, and whose shape (except for the straight ones) follows the curves of the courtyard–facing glazing.
Curved benches and sofas are inherently complex pieces to design and engineer, especially on that scale. Some of the pieces sport a central wedge-shaped back, allowing sitters to face either into the busy, animated interior, or outward to the calm of the courtyard. They are fitted with integrated power and data outlets at accessible intervals, and each is designed to locate over floor-mounted ventilation ducts.
But floor ducts and ventilation spell endless trouble for timber furniture because timber expands and contracts not with temperature but with humidity. Being right over air conditioning ducts meant these pieces were going to be sited in a pretty hostile environment for timber.
Senior members of the Luke Hughes team have long experience working with both leather and steel from the UK’s automotive industry, including famous brands such as Aston Martin. The solution to the issues of strength and speed was to make in steel, very much like a car chassis.
A modular set of components that bolted together, with the outer edges very thin and the centre thick for strength. Almost no edge can be seen beneath the upholstery – that part of it is a flat sheet of steel – but behind, there are beams running across, some rising into the upholstery.
The leather we selected was also influenced by the car industry. Furniture upholstery tends to be soft and floppy, but that would not have been at all appropriate for this project. These seats had to take people sitting down, putting their computers or cups of coffee on the seat beside them, perching on the central backs; the pieces had to withstand severe punishment and look new for decades to come. For that we needed to create firm, well-structured upholstery, with good stitching and much more durable leather from the automotive and aircraft industries.
The seats have an interesting style, a double stitched seam in the middle of the seat. It isn’t buttoning, which the architect had originally envisaged. We felt that would have been too traditional and therefore out of character with their fabulous contemporary building, requiring instead a technically more precise and complex process and detailed internal design, something we achieved using CNC machining.
The steel structural components were laser cut in Birmingham, England so that everything would slot together like origami. This was a product of the eye-wateringly tight schedule; contract, design, approval, manufacture, shipping, delivery and installation all had to be completed in nine weeks.
We got it all there on time and on budget and everyone was delighted.
Edward Snyder, the Dean of Yale School of Management, is complimentary about the building as a whole and the benches in particular, which ‘arouse a sense of interconnectedness, provide long lines of sight and encourage vibrant engagement.’
Bob Dylan and a Luke Hughes bench
Some months later we were delighted to see one of our Yale benches in an IBM Watson ad with legendary singer and Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, who picks up his Fender Stratocaster guitar and beats a hasty retreat when Watson, the artificially intelligent computer, breaks into song and starts ‘Do-be-do-be-doo-ing’ to one of Dylan’s better-known track’s.