Beyond the Seat

March 1, 2005
Schools need to emphasize the importance of furniture in enhancing the educational environment.

Experience tells us that school furniture:

  • Is expected to last forever.

  • Is usually selected by school personnel without professional design input.

  • Is selected without regard to color influence.

  • Will receive minimal maintenance during its lifetime.

  • Must be the most cost-effective.

Architects specify built-in furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) items as well as some loose furniture. However, most loose furniture is selected by district personnel.

Experienced architects and interior designers already know the products and the manufacturers, and this experience and knowledge can help school officials choose the right product, with the needed features, at the best price, within budget limitations, from a responsible vendor.

Simply stated, schools should:

  • Select the best they can afford.

  • Establish priorities of “best vs. less-than-best.”

  • Analyze and compare features among manufacturers.

  • Deal with products that are represented locally with an excellent reputation for service.

  • Seek out the experiences of others who have used the product.

How do you know if you have selected the best product for your needs? Weighing cost vs. priorities can be confusing, and often the advertising literature is not helpful. There is no right or wrong answer; it's a judgment call. An institution needs to establish a value level based upon its selection criteria. Prioritizing desired features is a systematic analysis based on logic and past experience. Create a scoring chart, and identify and prioritize features such as:

  • Aesthetics

    For highly visible furniture, such as in the student commons, auditorium or the principal's office, this may carry a higher priority than furnishings in the art studio or graphics-arts shop.

  • Ergonomics

    For furniture that supports students who are performing tedious tasks, ergonomics may be a higher priority compared with casual furniture used for a short time in the student commons, library or cafeteria.

  • Comfort

    Furniture used for a lengthy period in a lecture room, auditorium or classroom may have a higher need for comfort than furniture in industrial-arts shops, science rooms, and preschool and kindergarten classrooms, where students are moving more frequently.

  • Function

    Space and furniture use is determined by the educational philosophy, curriculum and teaching methodology. Furniture needs may vary at facilities in unique locations, such as alternative schools, fine-arts and business-immersion schools in shopping malls, manufacturing districts and commercial centers.

  • Flexibility

    Open classroom settings are dynamic and, given the proper furniture, the configuration can change almost instantly. Even fixed classrooms for inquiry-based, hands-on activities demand furniture capable of quick rearranging during the class period.

  • Adaptability

    This may be a higher priority for furniture where students are working independently or collaboratively in small and large groups — writing, discussing, viewing, experimenting, lecturing or creating models.

  • Adjustability

    Tables and chairs that are adjustable for kindergarten through adult may be desired if they are to be used in different settings.

  • Quality

    Furniture with a high-quality finish or upholstery fabric may be more desirable in an auditorium, cafeteria, library or gymnasium.

  • Durability

    Furniture rearranged frequently or used for active tasks in business, computer, industrial-arts, art, home-economics and science classrooms needs to be durable; some special-education classrooms need virtually indestructible furniture.

  • Storability

    For furniture and equipment used intermittently, products that are easy to store may be preferred.

  • Maintenance

    For furniture receiving heavy, continual use, the ease of maintenance may be a critical consideration.

  • Safety

    Strength to support occupants or tasks occurs in different ways, whether in industrial-arts shops or a library.

  • Budget

    Features determine the cost, and some furniture will be purchased at a higher cost because of unique attributes valuable to the school.

Many states allow schools to buy the majority of their FF&E through state contract pricing. Vendors provide cost information for their products, and participants buy goods and services under contract terms established by the state. A competitive analysis among manufacturers can be developed without going through the specifying and bidding procedure. Time and fees are saved, and volume purchasing results in lower costs.

Color it wonderful

Professional assistance is helpful in selecting the appropriate balance of colors: primary, secondary, tertiary, complementary, analogous, cool, warm, neutral, value, intensity, shade, tint and tone. Color affects student attitudes, behaviors and learning, and must be individualized for specific age groups. Colors have a strong emotional and behavioral effect. Blue is cooling and tranquilizing. Green is cooling and acts as a sedative. Yellow is cheerful, luminous and stimulating, just like sunlight. Red is exciting and stimulates the brain, but has an aggressive quality.

Color selection centers on student needs:

  • Preschool and elementary students are mostly extroverted by nature, and a warm, bright color can reduce tension, nervousness and anxiety. One source recommends palettes of red, blue and yellow, and another recommends light salmon, warm yellow, pale yellow-orange, coral and peach. Colors of opposite temperature (green, blue and violet family of colors) should be introduced as accents.

  • Secondary classrooms need softer, more passive surroundings that enhance the ability to concentrate. One source recommends palettes of cool colors — blue, blue-green, green and gray; another recommends beige, pale or light green, and blue-green.

  • If students always face the same direction, consider using a different color on the front wall, which will relax students' eyes and avoid visual monotony. One source recommends side and back walls of beige, sandstone or light tan and medium tones of green or blue on the front wall; another states that the color of the front wall should be the same value as the color of the chalkboard to minimize eye fatigue.

  • Rooms facing cool, northern light need warm tones, and rooms facing warm, southern light need cool tones.

  • Pastel or neutral colors on the wall allow bright accents to be selected in the furniture. Consider selecting one color for all student desks, which allows rearrangement throughout the school without concern for coordinating a variety of colors. However, if each classroom is a neutral color, then select a variety of colors in the furniture.

Additionally, specific recommendations can be found for unique spaces.

Pleasing aesthetics humanize the environment and stimulate learning, studying and socializing experiences. Beautiful spaces express energy and well-being; ugly spaces express fatigue and displeasure. Furnishings with a balance of pattern, texture and color enhance aesthetics.

Getting help

If possible, appoint a color committee and furniture committee with representatives from the school board, administration, maintenance department, and staff from each department to work with the architects and interior designers.

Furniture can't last forever, which might be an advantage. Fashion, styles and the educational process change. Desks still in use after many years may not be comfortable or function best for students.

Select your priorities based on what is important to you. Use a value chart (see p. 30) or create your own checklist. Some institutions construct buildings as cheaply as possible, including selecting FF&E, regardless of long-term issues.

Space and furniture are designed for people; this brings human factors into the design. Schools should design safe and healthy spaces that enable users to perform comfortably in aesthetically pleasing environments. Enhanced student performance occurs when the design responds to human factors.

Space is always in a state of transition as the inhabitants transform the space for their use.

Much has been written about how the design and condition of physical facilities affects student achievement, but schools need to place more emphasis on the importance of furniture in enhancing the facility and improving student performance. Furniture and color are major ingredients in establishing a positive learning environment.

Furnishing a school is more than just selecting items out of a catalog or following a sales representative's recommendations. It personalizes a school, supports and enhances the educational environment, affects long-term use, and affects maintenance and operations costs.

Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc., Minneapolis. Sorenson, IIDA, is associate, interior design, for the firm.


Color influences student attitudes, behaviors and learning, and must be individualized for specific age groups. Colors have a strong emotional and behavioral effect:

  • is cooling and tranquilizing.
  • is cooling and acts as a sedative.
  • is cheerful, luminous and stimulating just like sunlight.
  • is exciting and stimulates the brain, but has an aggressive quality.

Chart it out

How do you know if you have selected the best product for your needs? Establish a value level based upon these selection criteria. Prioritizing desired features creates a systematic analysis based on logic and past experience. Create a scoring chart, and identify and prioritize the features.

Item Feature High Priority Medium Priority Low Priority Aesthetics Ergonomics Comfort Function Flexibility Adaptability Adjustability Quality Durability Storability Maintenance Safety Budget

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