In the Comfort Zone

As an interior designer who specializes in healthcare and corporate environments, Christine Vandover believes that visitors to hospital waiting rooms and other large public spaces deserve to feel comfortable, relaxed and content.

“Healthcare design doesn’t have to be dowdy and institutional looking,” said Vandover, an HOK principal based in New York. “The same is true for products. A healthcare chair can look like it belongs in a hotel or an office, as long as it’s meeting the functional needs of the space.”

That philosophy formed the foundation of the IOA Portico collection, a signature line of sofas, lounge chairs and tables created by IOA Healthcare Furniture in collaboration with HOK Product Design.

The partnership developed from a casual conversation between Vandover and IOA President Fabio Delmestri as they collaborated on a customized bench project for a hospital board room that Vandover was designing a few years ago.

“After Fabio and I talked about the idea, he suggested we collaborate on a collection,” Vandover said. “IOA wanted to enhance its brand and extend to other markets outside healthcare.”

Vandover jumped at the opportunity and suggested they conduct research to better understand how people typically congregate in large public spaces. Delmestri then enlisted the expertise of a design graduate student who was studying how individuals use waiting areas in healthcare environments.

The student’s observational studies revealed that people in public spaces don’t like to face each other, prefer having empty space between them and tend to congregate toward softer shapes rather than bus station style-seating. These discoveries informed the design goals for the collection.

After the research phase, HOK Product Design Senior Industrial Designer Javier Palomares joined the team to assist with ideation and concept support for the new product line. His expertise in prototyping, manufacturing efficiencies and the design of residential products helped guide the design process.

“Healthcare environments can be sterile and cold, so we all thought it was important to bring in soft forms and materials such as wood accents, and also add some curves to the sectional elements to make the space more comfortable and dynamic,” Palomares said.  

During the two-year product development process, the team conducted weekly meetings using WebEx videoconferencing and virtual whiteboard technology. They also visited IOA’s manufacturing operations in High Point, North Carolina, to fine-tune details. Jin Park assisted with design and 3-D modeling of prototypes.

As the team explored various options, the scope of the collection expanded to include two sectional sofa and lounge chair systems (Milano and Capri) and two table products (Prato and Trieste). 

The versatility of the product lines allows designers to customize an arrangement to a particular space through numerous configurations, finish and detailing options.

“You can arrange the sectional pieces in many different ways—more curved or more angled or just a straight sofa,” Vandover said. “You can add a divider arm to make it modular, but you don’t have to add an arm to every seat. This allows it to feel softer while still providing the support that older people may need to rise up out of their seat.”

Configurations can be adapted as social patterns change in waiting or group areas. And the pieces feature seating heights designed to provide comfort and support to a healthcare population.

Clients and designers benefit from the efficiencies of using a single system to furnish all of a facility’s public spaces.

“It’s simpler for an owner or client to use one manufacturer’s products on every floor of a building, and designers can vary it in different areas by changing the finish or the arrangement,” Vandover said.  

HOK Product Design also created new marketing and branding materials. Jim Doussard and Kerry Hammond of HOK’s Washington, DC, graphic design team worked with IOA to design a new website, product brochure, price list and magazine ad.

“We’re helping to elevate their company to a different level,” said Vandover, who also worked with Delmestri to develop a mobile pop-up environment for IOA launch parties across the US. She even had the opportunity to leverage her expertise in fashion styling and photography to help with the photo shoot.

Working with IOA to bring these products to market has broadened Vandover’s perspective on design.

“I’ve always looked at details, but now I pay even more attention to them, especially looking at how things are made,” she said. “When I’m meeting with manufacturers, I ask different questions I may not have thought of before.”