Make a Face

Feb. 1, 2004
Furniture selection is more than just the period of the master plan's last sentence. When considered from day one, it can enhance a campus identity.

“Don't judge a book by its cover” is an old piece of advice that seems ideal in theory. But as colleges and universities compete for top-notch students along with their hefty test scores, an institution's “cover” may determine whether its reputation will shine or be left in the shadows.

A campus' desired identity often fuels the master-planning process for institutions of higher education. Aside from the design itself, the furniture chosen to match an institution's design also can complement its identity. Although it is one of the last things put into place, furniture selection should be considered from the beginning of the master-planning process.

Dave Larson, senior vice president with TMP Architecture in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., refers to furniture as a “microview” of the bigger picture in a building's design.

“There's the functional attributes that have to be first and foremost in everyone's mind,” says Larson. “Then there's the durability factor. Given those, there are so many opportunities for furniture to enhance the architectural environment.”

Mix it up

Variety is one consideration concerning furniture selection. In the planning process, schools should give attention to areas where specific types of furniture are in demand — where people hang out, study, read and talk, says architect Brian Amaral, a senior associate with Livermore Edwards and Associates in Waltham, Mass. A variety of furniture and seating options is necessary to avoid making any given space seem too bland, he says.

At Drury University, Springfield, Mo., a variety of furniture helps make the Trustee Science Center a place that keeps students on campus to do personal work or collaborate on group projects. Its lounge areas have benches, tables and chairs, lounge chairs, and ledges facing the wall for students to pull up a stool and work with their laptops, says architect Bill Odell, design principal at St. Louis-based HOK.

“Variety is the name of the game,” he says.

On the move

Flexibility also should be considered when selecting furniture to foster a school identity. Students are constantly on the go, so the furniture they use should accommodate their lifestyles. Movable furniture allows students to arrange their own workspaces, and comfortably participate in group-study sessions and other group work.

Labs in the Science Center at Drury University have furniture that allows students to move around the room as needed for different activities.

“The labs are quite different than traditional labs,” says Odell. “It's not high stools and benches that don't move. There are low tables with chairs that move so that students can move chairs to the center of the room and hear a lecture at the beginning of the class, and move back to their tables to do the experiment.”

Incorporating flexible furniture into lounge and commons areas can help mix a social and academic scene to promote a school's academic mission. By providing a place for students to gather and work comfortably, schools can keep students on campus and provide opportunities for academic discussions or group collaboration.

In his experience designing college and university recreation centers, Larson says he has noticed that lounge areas often feature a combination of active and passive activities.

“We've incorporated lounge spaces where it's certainly a place for people to hang out and congregate socially, but it's also a place where discussion groups might happen,” says Larson. “The teachable moment or an academic exercise could occur at many places in the building, not just in the classroom or the library.”

Make it fit

Whatever furniture is used to fill a space, it must be matched to the identity of the room in which it resides. Larson says the wide selection of fabrics available makes it easy to customize furniture to correspond with a room's interior design.

“There are so many fabrics out there right now, it's just mind-boggling,” says Larson. “Depending on the quantity, you can do custom things with fabric weaves, integrating logos or any number of things. You can do just about anything you want.”

The availability of so many fabric selections doesn't mean a compromise in quality, says Larson. Rub tests can be consulted to validate a fabric's ability to withstand a high level of traffic. Manufacturers also usually are willing to listen to clients and work with them to develop a solution that suits their needs.

“Sometimes you want to modify things, and the ability to do that is out there now,” he says.

The softer side

One way to create a sense of campus identity and bring a student community together is to create areas that feel more residential than academic in tone. Elements that recall home are important, such as a fireplace icon, warmer materials and less institutional-looking elements, says Larson.

Christopher Newport University, Newport News, Va., chose to create a new school identity by giving its campus a more traditional aesthetic, reflecting the university's ideas of academic integrity. One way it did this was by making its residence halls feel more like home.

“Our main goal in the design of the York Residence Halls was to create successful living spaces in which the students can grow academically and socially as both individuals and members of the broader academic community,” says architect Howard Melton, managing principal of DMJMdesign's Washington, D.C. office. “A key to achieving this goal was to create an architecture for the residence halls that was of a scale more residential than institutional in character.”

The residence hall commons areas feature fireplaces, sofas and chairs, along with wood flooring. Choosing wood rather than metal furniture can create a more residential environment. Usually a darker shade of wood, rather than a blond wood, works well for matching color palettes and upholstery materials, says Melton.

Chairs with upholstery, rather than hard-edge chairs, can be used as well. Durable fabrics such as wool and some synthetics should be used for upholstered chairs.

“We get patterns or stripes in the material that allows us to expand the color palette so that it's not as neutral or office-like,” says Melton. “It's more like a well-designed living room at home.”

Creating a more residential environment is not necessarily more expensive than creating a typical educational environment, he says. But schools under tight budget constraints may find the following advice to be helpful.

“Try to pick the places where you want to spend the money, and pick the places where you find efficiencies in the budget,” says Amaral. “And always try to emphasize the architecture, and complement it with the furniture.”

Whether a school wants to attract its students to campus with a variety of furniture, bring them together with flexible work environments, or create a homelike atmosphere in which they can socialize, it should contemplate which furniture can best reflect its identity, and represent its campus to current and potential students. Considering this from the beginning of the master-planning process can open avenues for creating a thorough “book cover” for the university, from the broadest idea to the most minute detail.

“If parents and students see places where academics can occur in a spontaneous way and there are healthy alternatives for socialization…I think that is a very big selling point,” says Larson. “I think that furniture helps that to happen, but it's not a direct selling point. It contributes to the bigger picture.”

Strahle, assistant editor, can be reached at [email protected].


  • Dave Larson, senior vice president, TMP Architecture, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

    “Furniture can be a nice enhancing element that would reinforce the ideas established by master plan precepts, as well as the interior design solution.”

  • Howard Melton, managing principal, DMJMdesign, Washington, D.C.

    “We get patterns or stripes in the material, and that allows us to expand the color palette so that it's not as neutral or office-like.”

  • Brian Amaral, senior associate, Livermore Edwards and Associates, Waltham, Mass.

    “It's a balance to find a variety of furniture under budget constraints…pick the places where you want to spend the money, and…where you find efficiencies in the budget.”

  • Bill Odell, Design Principal, HOK, St. Louis

    “In the public spaces, we've tried to find as many opportunities for students to stay in the building…variety is the name of the game.”

SIDEBAR: Boosting identity in campus buildings

The Science Center at Drury University, Springfield, Mo., has experienced a much-needed facelift. Before its transformation, visitors walking through the doors of the science building saw only a large corridor with labs off to the side, says Bill Odell, design principal at St. Louis-based HOK.

“Now you go into Drury and it looks more like Starbucks,” he says.

The new design clusters common and interaction spaces, reinforces the building's identity as a science center, and features casual gathering areas that encourage students and faculty to stay in the building.

Displays throughout the science facility showcase student work and science-related collections. Places are available for objects to be pinned up in public areas, and attention has been given to places where large exhibits can be hung. The building was planned so that “virtually every piece of wall is either used for student seating or display of science in some way or another,” says Odell.

Aside from static displays, there are places where interactive video and computers can be hooked up and displayed. Animations also can be projected from one side of the space to the other.

“It's going to take a while for all that to get into place, but the building is set up to do that,” says Odell.

Colleges and universities often can use items they already own to create an interesting and informative display that complements the identity of its buildings. The source for these displays could be in departmental collections that may have been stored away and forgotten, says Odell.

Once material for a display is gathered, it can be lighted carefully and complemented in various ways. It can be explained traditionally using plaques hung on the walls, or it can be explained by using a touch-screen computer near the display. A student or visitor can touch a number on the screen that corresponds with a number in the display and learn different facts about an object. This can be a cost-effective way to reinforce the identity of a building.

“There's a lot of package programs that are very cheap, $25 to $40, that you can plug in an old computer, put them on a loop and make what would otherwise be a static display really dynamic and interactive,” says Odell.

Incorporating displays that correspond with a building's purpose is one way to intrigue visitors and remind students that the building is a center for learning.

Since the renovation at Drury, it now is a common scene to find students gathered in the science building for group meetings, to do homework or to visit after classes are over.

“It's just a much more inviting, attractive area for everyone,” says Odell.

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