Two companies learning & growing together, across the miles

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What does dog sledding have to do with seating ergonomics?

Or what does a manufacturing plant have in common with a herd of reindeer?

And why would two furniture companies based more than 4,000 miles apart decide that a partnership is a great idea?

For more than eight years, izzy+ has been making treks to visit the Norwegian side of its family and uncover answers to those questions and more, firsthand.

Most recently, in March, it was a group of 11 izzy+ sales representatives who traveled to Norway, where HAG has been based since it began designing and making workplace seating in 1943. izzy+ founder Chuck Saylor met HAG leaders in early 2004, when izzy+ was just three years old, and the two companies announced alliance at NeoCon that June.

“The corporate culture and beliefs at izzy+ and HAG are so much alike,” says seating product manager Nick Fernandez, who has visited HAG twice since starting at izzy+ in 2012. “When you’re at HAG you hear the same types of stories, and see the same passion for the same things. It’s also laid back like izzy+—they don’t take themselves too seriously on a day-to-day basis, but they take what they do really seriously, just like izzy+ does.”

While the commonalities of the two companies sparked the partnership, it’s their differences that inspire such a vibrant collaboration—and make these regular treks to Norway so important—according to Rune Akselberg, a native of Norway and Vice President of Sales and Market Development at izzy+.

“The culture in Norway is quite different than in the U.S., especially when it comes to caring for the environment and general health and wellbeing,” says Akselberg. “It’s a much stronger lesson when you can experience it for yourself—when you see the elk and the reindeer drinking from the stream right outside the HAG plant, you understand that everything is connected. The choices a company makes have a broad impact, well outside its doors.”

The Norway trips, which include time in Oslo, where HAG is headquartered, and Roros, the small mountain village where HAG’s main plant is located, are all about learning through active participation in the culture, not passive observation.

For instance, at the Oslo Opera House, izzy+ groups see another type of Scandinavian design, experiencing how form, function, and people come together. When they visit a dog sled camp, they learn basic dog sledding techniques, then harness the dogs on sleds and go on a thrilling ride into the mountains. After dog sledding, the group convenes around a big fire in a teepee, where they eat, drink, and share stories—perfect object lessons in HAG’s focus on movement and izzy+’s Better Together philosophy.

“Dog sledding is an experience like no other, and it perfectly demonstrates the HAG philosophy around balance, movement, and the environment,” says Akselberg.

Laura Connell, who is based at the Chicago izzy+ showroom, says immersing yourself in Norwegian culture really makes a difference. She uses the word “profound” to describe her experience in Norway this past March.

“Norway is the healthiest country I’ve ever been to. The culture is all about balance and movement, and how our bodies are supposed to function,” says Connell. “Everything we did on the trip tied into something we were learning about HAG. At HAG they have a very holistic approach to everything—the environment, corporate responsibility, ergonomics, design—it’s all there in every chair. It was great to see it all in action, both in how they work and how they live.”

Seeing HAG’s beliefs in action has really stuck with Fernandez, who says, “No decisions are made randomly or by accident at HAG. Every decision is held up against their brand standards. It doesn’t matter how cool something is or how easy it would be to sell. If it’s not up to all their standards, they won’t make it.”

More than anything, Akselberg loves seeing groups of izzy+ travelers return home with stories to tell and a deeper, more passionate understanding of HAG, their Norwegian family.

“I think this relationship with HAG has played a huge role in how we understand and talk about important issues like the environment, and health and wellbeing at izzy+,” Akselberg says. “Learning together, experiencing something new together, is a really powerful experience. izzy+ and HAG have so much in common, but also so much to learn from each other because of our different perspectives and cultures.”

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Pictured at the top of the post is the izzy+ group that traveled to Norway in March (photo by Stacy Marcus). Below are photos of the izzy+ group preparing to go dog sledding; people congregating and walking on the new Oslo Opera House (both photos also by Stacy Marcus); and a recent outcome of the izzy+-HAG collaboration: HAG Capisco Puls seating, pictured with Dewey 6-Top tables.

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Making space(s) for inspiration

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“Inspiration”—it’s one of those words most of us are drawn to but can’t easily define.

Of course, if you look up the word in a dictionary or on the Internet, you will find definitions, but they might prompt more questions than answers.

For instance, is inspiration rooted internally or externally? Is it a pull or a push?

Can you impact inspiration, or only be open and wait for it?

And does inspiration work the same way for all of us, or is it an individualized experience?

Dictionaries don’t answer these questions, yet somehow when we encounter inspiration we know it—without a doubt. And the effects of being inspired seem mostly universal: Our minds start buzzing, energy levels spike, and time seems to stand still. We’re able to be more creative, more productive, and more focused.

In other words, the feeling is great, and so is the outcome. We’d all love to be under inspiration’s magic spell every day. So what can we do to get more of it?

An informal survey around the izzy+ office and on Twitter revealed two factors that seem to consistently impact how inspired we are: people and places. Our interactions with others, and the spaces we live, work and relax in, play important roles in how inspired we are.

Since all our interactions with others happen in spaces (and since we at izzy+ happen know a thing or two about spaces), it seems safe to boil it down to this truth: Our environments play an important role in inspiration.

Just think about the spaces you gravitated to as a child: A nook under the stairs, a window seat in an alcove, a fort in the branches of a tree. As adults, we might have a favorite table at a coffee shop, a chair on a porch, or a bar in the kitchen where everyone seems to gather at every party. Each favorite space may be somewhat unique to us, but the characteristics often overlap: People are drawn to spaces that are cozy, intriguing, out of the ordinary and fresh, yet familiar. We want alternatives to our typical office-and-desk settings.

“Even as adults, you still need a space to get away and change your point of view in,” says interior designer and izzy+ consultant, Allison Roon. “Different scenery and different people can inspire you, and help you stay engaged in whatever you’re doing.”

The recent article “Purpose: A Discussion on the Future of Office Design” also links creativity and inspiration directly to the design of spaces:

“Instead of seeking space to simply house workers, companies are now seeking spaces capable of serving and fostering communities of creative problem solvers.… In place of a generic working environment the new workforce is looking for spaces that are authentic and personal.”

Today’s workers and learners clearly want spaces that go beyond utilitarian purposes.

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This year’s annual Valentine’s promotion at izzy+ is all about inspiration—finding and sharing more of it as a key way to be Better Together. And the new products we’re featuring, the Nemo Bar and Trellis, are all about creating spaces that inspire, much like the tree fort of our childhood did—spaces that are cozy, intriguing, out of the ordinary
and fresh, yet familiar.

“When I was a kid, we built a fort in a stand of big trees and kept expanding it,” says izzy+ founder and CEO, Chuck Saylor. “All the guys in the neighborhood hung out there—it was a gathering place.”

That favorite childhood space definitely played a role in inspiring the idea of the Nemo Trellis, Saylor says.

“Trellis gives you that sense of going outdoors while you’re indoors, this space within a space. And when you see it, in the midst of this sea of sameness, all of the sudden you’re attracted to it and your tendency is to immediately go and explore—and hopefully to be inspired.”

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What spaces inspire you? What design elements make spaces more inspiring? We love hearing what YOU think!

Be sure to visit our Valentine’s mini-site to hear more stories about what inspires izzy+ designers, to find out more about the Nemo Bar & Trellis, and to enter our Trellis design competition. There’s also information about registering to win gift cards or a giving-back adventure to Nicaragua.

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The Nemo Bar and Trellis set up as a recharge/refresh station on the first floor of the Merchandise Mart at NeoCon 2012.

How color & materials inspire: Behind the scenes with izzy+ flavors

Allison Roon and Kerry Rowe, above, created izzy+ flavors, the new color and materials program being introduced this month at NeoCon. Recently, izzy+’s writer, Kristin Tennant, sat down with Allison (wearing white and blue in the photo above) to talk about this foundational element of the izzy+ brand—why it’s important, what inspired the palette, and how, in turn, these tools will inspire designs and spaces.

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What sparked the creation of a new color and materials program?

We started developing the program more than two years ago, because we wanted to bring the izzy+ Better Together story to life through surface materials. We also wanted a color and materials program that reflects izzy+’s brand and design philosophy. It’s a very design-driven company, in a foundational way. For izzy+, that focus has never been just about product design, it also about color and materials.

What were your sources of inspiration?

Fashion was huge for us, not just in terms of trend-forward color, but also in how different elements can be put together. We love the layering aspect of fashion, and all the opportunities it brings to mix different colors and materials in unexpected, fresh ways. Fashion gives us a model for mixing timeless classic—those practical, core parts of your wardrobe—with splashes of more trendy color and accessories. The goal is to provide that perfect balance between timeless and trendy. This approach applies to a very izzy+ way of designing spaces, too.

What do you mean by that “very izzy+” approach?

Well, one of the biggest sources of inspiration for flavors was the feel and personality of the izzy+ brand itself. From its start at NeoCon in 2001, with it’s Mini Cooper parked outside the Merchandise Mart with the convoy of big tractor trailors, the izzy+ brand has been a little quirky and off-center. It possesses a strong human element that doesn’t take itself too seriously—a youthful spirit that’s easy to be around.

How would you characterize the palette you ended up with?

In terms of color, Kerry really felt izzy+ was in a position to move the [contract furniture] industry forward. We started with 15 core plastic seating colors—eight Evolving, trend-forward colors with lots of bold energy, and seven Classic colors—and then we built the rest of the program out from there.

Being a young company means we have the opportunity to start fresh and to conceptualize around color and materials. We don’t have to worry about a legacy, so we can take risks. That’s why you won’t find traditional colors like navy, hunter green or burgundy in our palette. It’s time to move on, and we think izzy+ is the company to make that move. Chuck (Saylor) and everyone at izzy+ really feels passionate and excited about bringing a relevant palette to the market. People appreciate the honesty and authenticity, as well as the quirky personality.

What does it mean for colors and materials to be “authentic”?

Authentic materials are materials that are very approachable both in how they feel and how they look. They’re enticing and demand to be touched—they invite human-to-product engagement. They’re also not stuffy or too high-end, just simple, natural and clean.

So is the colors and materials program bigger than it used to be?

Well, it’s definitely broader and more fresh, but all of the redundancies and dull, old colors were eliminated, so it’s more efficient. As Kerry and I were doing our research, we listened to several focus groups and learned that the A&D community really looks to izzy+ to provide lots of options and personality, unique, fresh colors, and something different. Many other companies in the industry are paring down their materials program right now, but designers were begging us not to do that. We decided to broaden our program, but do it responsibly, in a trend-forward way that gives the A&D market more options for expression.

Specifiers have also been telling us they need all the izzy+ brands and products to work together, and to also coordinate with other competitive environments. That was part of our thought process, as we eliminated redundancies, filled in voids, and made the whole program consistent and easier to use across the different brands.

Do you have an example?

Our laminates are a great example. We went from a total of 75 laminates being offered across the various izzy+ brands to 35, 27 of which are new. We overhauled all of the finishes—there isn’t a single area we didn’t take this thorough approach with.

Designers will definitely be happy about that!

It’s definitely going to be easier to use. Everything is consistent and works together, across the different palettes and brands. But flavors isn’t just designed to be easier to use. We also created it as a tool for designers—one that really inspires them in new ways, providing plenty of options and ideas for creating more inspiring spaces. We did all the work when we curated the program, so designers can come to us for a fantastic collection of ingredients.

When you look back at the past two years, what were your favorite aspects of the process?

I really loved the way Kerry and I came together and created the perfect team. Kerry’s background is in textile design and color, and my background is in applying color and materials to spaces. Our collaboration is a perfect example of izzy+’s Better Together mantra.

We also met with lots of materials industry people along the way, especially at the Color Marketing Group conference in Portland. There was lots of sharing and input, in both directions. Some really important collaborations and partnerships formed, and we were able to align ourselves with great companies that put the same level of importance on design, like Formica, Maharam, Camira, Greenhides, Momentum, Knoll Textiles, and 3Form.

What’s next?

This is just the beginning of the journey. We’ve included some Core and Classic offerings that will be there as a foundational platform, but the Evolving colors and materials will keep changing. We’ll always be introducing new things that keep designers excited and engaged with our product. The whole flavors brand was designed to be an innovative, evolving platform that sets the stage for the future.

Ta-da! The 15 foundational colors of izzy+ flavors. The entire flavors program was built around this core.

The power of inspiration: Beyond bad posters & sappy songs

Inspiration. It’s a word that can easily drift towards Cheeseville, thanks to bad “inspirational” posters featuring eagles flying into the sunset, and songs like that sappy 1984 hit by Chicago.

But the truth is, we not only love being inspired, we need it. Without inspiration, our dry moments would grow into deserts, and the walls we hit would become insurmountable. We can’t always keep the ideas flowing, the good moods soaring, and the creativity generated simply by reaching deeper inside ourselves. Sometimes we need to reach for inspiration beyond us.

Put simply, inspiration is something that moves your emotions or intellect. That movement can get us over a hump, shift us out of a rut, or just knock us off-balance enough to help us see things in a new way.

What inspires you? Or, to put it a different way, what do you do when you’re feeling uninspired and stuck? Do you seek out certain people, or maybe a different setting or activity?

Michael Smith, owner and lead at DesignVox in Grand Rapids, Michigan, doesn’t hesitate when asked what inspires him.

“I’ve got to have a certain amount of recreation and outdoor adventure in my life,” Smith says. “Being outside is a huge deal for me, as well as learning new things.”

Being on the move is a theme for Smith. He loves traveling to see new art, architecture and theater, and he tries to keep his design studio staff moving, too. Whenever he can, Smith makes plans for a team of designers from his studio to work together at his cottage near Lake Michigan. Once, the entire office even went to Chicago to visit museums, cook together and hang out.

“Getting a change of scene is an important part of staying inspired,” Smith says.

Even within the no-walls office space, people move around depending on their changing projects, teams, and other needs. Smith himself no longer has a designated desk in the office. It’s all about connecting people, opening communication, and keeping things fresh.

Allison Roon, an interior designer, adjunct professor and long-time izzy+ consultant, also relies on inspiration—and puts it into action—daily. In particular, travel, people, and great design inspire her in both her life and work.

“In order to be creative, you have to rejuvenate your creative juices,” Roon says. “Experiencing different settings and cultures is essential in having a larger wealth of design context to draw from. I love to explore bigger cities and hang out in social places with inspiring interiors. ”

That social piece is important to Roon and her work as an interior designer, whether she is traveling or at home in her usual setting and routine.

“Learning from others is always an important part of life,” Roon says. “And being a good life-long learner and listener is an essential part of being a good designer, because it’s all about listening to your client and learning from their perspective. To be a designer you need to be a people expert! Spaces are for people. Human-centric activities help me create better human-centered places.”

Some other izzy+ friends and employees shared with us what inspires them. We’d love to hear from you! Add your inspiration to the list, by leaving a comment!

– My team is comprised of a group of amazing, creative people, and my view from my desk is of a beautiful Michigan fall day. I’m inspired…and lucky. 🙂 – Laurel Pfister, E-marketing Specialist at izzy+ in Spring Lake, Michigan

– When I am able to forget myself, I recognize the ‘inspired’ work that has taken place.  – Gary Howe, an educator, photojournalist and social entrepreneur for public spaces in Traverse City, Michigan

– I’m inspired most by the open road, the kindness of strangers, good conversations, and the hope of tomorrow.  – Emilee Shake, Sales and Marketing Specialist for a print center in Champaign, Illinois

– My most compelling moments of muse often happen while traveling. The mixture of solitary instrospection, diverse people-watching, and the very concept of transit is incredibly rich.  – Melanie Kahl, K12 Education Knowledge Manager at Perkins+Will, Chicago

– izzy+ inspires me because I love my employees that work for me and love the company. I enjoy going into work and putting out good quality products that improve people’s lives.  – Brian Keeton, an izzy+ Production Facilitator at the Florence, Alabama plant

Why NeoCon needs more “concept cars”

Every June, over 40,000 architecture and design professionals converge on the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, ready to network and see what’s new in the more than 700 showrooms and booths. The experience can be as overwhelming as it is exciting. When it’s all said it done, what products, of the thousands displayed, stand out?

For many who were commenting on Twitter during the show, the izzy+ Nemo concept pieces made an impression—in part, perhaps, because they are different, but also because they engage people and spark imaginations.

“I’ve always felt that the industry needs to do a better job of showing off what is possible instead of just what is,” says Rob Kirkbride, associate editor of MMQB, the weekly publication that covers the contract furniture industry. “We could learn a lot from the auto industry. Auto companies build concepts to show off what they can do, get customers excited about what’s coming and build brand awareness.”

izzy+’s founder and CEO, Chuck Saylor, has collaborated on designing the izzy+ concept pieces shown in showrooms 1150 and 11-100 during NeoCon. He says he loves exploring what is possible and watching how people react.

“If you really, truly want to gain knowledge and get non-filtered input around ideas, you have to be confident enough to stand in front of the bus and share your ideas,” Saylor says. “You have to be willing to hear all the feedback—the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Showing concept pieces at NeoCon is particularly important, Saylor says, because there are so many people in one place, ready to engage in ideas and conversation. “It’s a thought leadership issue,” Saylor says. “We need to be having a broader conversation in the industry about what it really means to change the nature of work, from an isolated setting to a more communal and collaborative one.”

While “collaboration” is a hot topic in the industry—one that was referenced extensively at NeoCon and explored to some extent through certain products, like benching—Saylor says providing something physical for people to experience takes the conversation to a different level.

“It’s one thing to say ‘We believe in collaboration,’ but it’s another thing entirely to say ‘This is what we think it might look like’—to put something out there as a reference point. The more real and meaningful the experience that’s offered in the showroom, the richer the discussion.”

Designer Joey Ruiter, who has collaborated with Saylor on the Nemo concept pieces displayed in the izzy+ showrooms at NeoCon and also designed izzy+’s Dewey line for the next generation of teaching and learning, loves the collaborative, future-focused nature of putting new ideas out there.

“Concept pieces aren’t meant to be perfect, finished ideas. They’re thought-starters that help other people start imagining and envisioning what’s possible,” Ruiter says. “That’s what the best concept pieces do—they should get you thinking about how you see yourself using it and moving the ideas forward.”

Secrecy often keeps companies from sharing concepts, but Saylor and Kirkbride both believe less secrecy will help energize future NeoCon shows.

“Concepts add excitement,” Kirkbride says. “Office furniture makers in Europe do a much better job of showing concepts at shows like Orgatec and iSalone. And that makes going to those shows exciting. In many booths, furniture concepts are placed front and center at these shows. The companies want feedback, and they get it. They don’t hide the concept behind closed doors.

“I think companies that show at NeoCon are missing a great opportunity to build excitement and brand recognition by keeping concepts hidden away…. It is time to pull back the curtain and build a little buzz in the industry again.”


Chuck Saylor and Joey Ruiter, two generations of designers collaborating on Nemo concepts for izzy+

The Nemo Lounge concept, designed by Joey Ruiter

The Lotus Chair concept, designed by Chuck Saylor

This post was written by izzy+ writer Kristin Tennant