There are hundreds of reasons to redesign a familiar product, but efficiency is one of the best. When Ziba moved from its former offices in Portland’s Pearl District to a custom-designed building on the neighborhood’s northern edge, we made a conscious decision to make it the most efficient space possible. Twice the size of the building it replaces, it consumes less energy and fewer resources, earning a LEED Gold rating shortly after completion.
The building also includes one great luxury, a 200 seat auditorium for company meetings and community events. While auditoriums are not inherently efficient spaces — there’s all that space to light and heat — this one is remarkably compact, with narrow concrete risers that leave enough room to tuck the entire model shop beneath.
But this compactness posed a problem. Sitting comfortably in an auditorium requires folding seats, and typical movie theater seating would take up so much space on the narrow risers that people couldn’t easily pass each other. Traditional seating is also permanent, but to keep the space as flexible as possible, we needed seating that could be easily removed and stored in the smallest space possible.
As a design firm, it was also important to us that the seating visually complement the space. Its clean, minimal surfaces and honest use of materials demanded something both elegant and technically creative.
The Functional Genius of Bridges and Spines.
The immediate challenge was geometric: how do you make a seat that supports an adult, but nearly disappears when not in use? Typical seating is at least 12 inches thick when closed; our risers only allowed four. This ruled out off-the-shelf hinges and other support mechanisms as either to bulky or too weak, and directed the designers to look outside for inspiration.
The two fields with the most to offer were structural engineering and human anatomy. Bridges and tall buildings are incredibly efficient, bearing enormous weight with a minimum of material, in strictly constrained footprints. The cantilever bridge in particular is able to support vast loads in awkward places through the careful pairing of elements that support tension and compression.
We also found an analog in the human spine. Spines are thin and flexible, yet strong, and offer a free range of motion right up until they lock in place at their furthest extremity. They do this by stacking a series of discrete, rigid elements — vertebrae — and tying them together with strong but flexible ligaments.
What these two structures have in common is the use of thick, rigid compression elements and thin, ductile tension elements. Substituting plywood and sheet steel for bone and fiber, we had a promising strategy for making an articulated cantilever seat.
Simplicity is In the Details.
Moving from this structural insight to a working piece of furniture took months of refinement, through sketches, CAD and physical models, and plenty of prototypes and tests. A series of plywood slats cut at a slight angle give the seat a graceful curve when compressed, and alternating recesses at the edges keep fingers from getting caught. A sheet of spring steel, so thin it almost vanishes, works with the plywood to support up to 600 lbs. If overloaded, it bends and stretches instead of snapping, making it far safer than a folding chair. The high-density foam cushion provides seated comfort, yet allows the entire seat to fold to a flat 4” slab, keeping walkways passable for audience members, and taking up astonishingly little space when stacked for storage.
We named this new design the JumpSeat, in reference to the functional, fold-down seats traditionally used by workers on trains and airplanes. Because of its simple construction and minimal materials, we were able to have all 200 Jumpseats fabricated in a finish carpentry shop in Portland, suggesting that the design could be licensed for local fabrication elsewhere, eliminating shipment. Even the sling-style wool seat covers were locally sewn, and attach quickly with Velcro for easy replacement and cleaning.
Success: Pure Innovation, Pure Delight.
In use, the JumpSeat is a delightful thing. First time users tend to grasp the thin, unassuming plane of wood and foam, bending it back and forth a few times, uncertain if this is actually a place to sit. Then a sense of wonder sets in as they recognize its unique mechanism, and slowly extend it all the way down. The mundane act of sitting transforms into a slightly magical experience, more like levitation or bouncing on a diving board, that elicits sighs and broad smiles. It’s a rare thing to see in an auditorium.
The seat is also a triumph of skilled craftsmanship. Rather than hide its structure and materials like an upholstered couch might, it celebrates every cut and contact. Through its thoroughly modern design and appearance, the JumpSeat highlights traditional handicraft in a way few pieces of modern furniture can. This combination of material, skill, story and efficiency is entirely appropriate to Ziba, and a crucial last step in transforming the new building into a new home.