Monday, November 10, 2008

The Careful Design of Airport Buttholders

They are perhaps the last thing we consider during the hustle and bustle of passage through the airport. Certainly, they are often overlooked by critics for the “bigger picture” items in airport design. Consider, though, just how terrible an experience the airport could present if it were lacking its seating. Each airport has its own unique army of seats, quietly and stoically poised side by side, day in and day out, to cradle the bottoms and briefcases of traveler after traveler. Design of airport seating must meet a number of design challenges. It must be comfortable. It must be durable. It must serve as more than just a seat. It must be configurable. It must be located well. It must complement its environment. It must meet stringent fire and safety standards. It must be cost-effective. It is no insignificant object, then, that your rear end is squashed upon as you rest your feet in the airport terminal.

Airport terminal seating sees uniquely heavy use. Much more than a seating surface, it is a luggage rack, dinner table, and even a punching bag for travelers who are in a particularly bad mood. No mean feat, especially considering it weathers this [ab]use twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week! Durability under many situations is key. Exasperated travelers may flop into a seat quite unceremoniously, and luggage is sometimes tossed about without a great deal of care. Herman Miller tested the iconic Eames Tandem Sling chair for durability “by dropping a 100-pound weight on a seat pad 15,000 times at a height of 5 inches” to simulate the sort of abuse it would see over its lifespan. For its “Trax” seating system, used in the Ghuangzhou Baiyun International Airport, OMK Design “developed a molded polyurethane seat that can even be slashed with a knife” (Thomas-Emberson, 82). It is clear that materials are important. Construction needs to be carefully designed as well, both to minimize parts and to maximize strength in areas of high stress. The fewer parts there are, the fewer joints and fasteners will be weakened and wiggled loose over time. In spite of the designer’s best efforts, even the most durable furniture can be damaged by a determined individual. Unfortunately, there is really no time when airport seating is not in use. Thus, it needs to be composed of modular, easily interchangeable parts. Repairs that can be made on the fly by a relatively untrained handyman will minimize inconvenience and loss of efficiency to the flier and the airport. And of course, it must be easy to clean in the event of any sort of messy accident. Material quality must be tempered with practical concerns toward its absorbance and ability to repel foreign goop.

Modularity is key to an effective seating system. Like any furniture to be used on a large scale, it will be asked to serve many different functions. A system that works broadly and seamlessly must be highly configurable to serve any need, location, or geometry that the airport can throw at it. OMK’s “Trax” system “is a kit of parts with interchangeable panels that can encompass hard and soft surfaces” (Thomas-Emberson 80). This, in fact, allows the airport to configure the same seating system for levels of comfort and exclusivity that serve a wide range of travelers. Spanish firm IMAT builds its SARDI system with “clear premises: the adaptation [and] personalization of almost the whole system according to specific demands and requirements of each arrangement. … They confer definitely differentiated features to the system within the current market.”

Aesthetically, airport seating plays a delicate role. It is often produced for multiple, unknown, unique applications, and must work harmoniously with any of them. Moreover, it must do so over a long lifespan. The airport chair “has to be a visually timeless product – nothing to do with fashion,” says designer Rodney Kinsman (Thomas-Emberson 80). The seats must not clash with or overpower the terminal. For this reason, many seating systems are offered in mute, monochrome schemes, and feature sedate, timeless structures. Material can often be ordered to fit a particular color scheme, of course.

The cost of airport seats can be a counter-intuitive notion. At first blush, seating as “affordable” as $90 per seat can seem appealing to bean counters, especially when faced with options sporting four figure price tags. However, airport seating sees a very long lifespan – it “must stay in use for 25 years” (Thomas-Emberson 80). This is a time period over which non-durable products would deteriorate and fall into ruin many times over. Architect Lawrence Speck encountered this cost dilemma when he attempted to appropriate $500 Knoll Furniture chairs for a restaurant seating area in Austin Bergstrom International Airport. After an intensive study of their lifespan and durability relative to much “cheaper” alternatives, it was discovered that the $500 seats were in fact more cost-effective in the long run thanks to their superior build quality and robustness. They also proved more environmentally-friendly and sustainable, thanks to conscientious, efficient application of recycled materials and considerations for the product’s disposal after its service life.

Specific societal concerns often come into play in the design of airport seating. Armrests can act as a physical and psychological barrier between seated travelers, creating isolation between two parties seated very near to each other. This aids in the capsularization that travelers seem to seek, as observed by Gottdeiner (185). Armrests are an aid to “non-interaction,” the alternative to which is one of the “pet peeves of frequent fliers” (187). A concern not typically encountered by Westerners is the need for women to maintain their distance from men while seated encountered in some Middle-Eastern locations, such as Istanbul Ataturk Airport (Thomas-Emberson, 82). This is where the modularity of airport seating again comes into play – certain parts, such as tables, can be added into a series of chairs to provide the necessary gap.

Conventional wisdom may hold that it is every seat’s goal to provide the plushest repose possible, but can an airport terminal seat be too comfortable? Is its job to provide the ultimate in pillowy comfort, or should an intermediate level of temporary relaxation be sought? Seasoned traveler Angela Wen recounted to a panel of experts her experience of falling asleep in a seat at a terminal and missing her flight. In fact, many fatigued travelers run the risk of nodding off when they take a short, too-comfortable breather from their busy itinerary. At the individual level, this is devastating to the traveler. For the traveler, as well as the airport at large, this represents a loss in efficiency – a detriment to the airport’s ultimate goal, as stated by Paul Andreu (75). With the airport now as much an environment for commerce as a nexus of travel, it serves the airport’s concessionaires, and subsequently the airport best if traveler-customers are on their feet, taking advantage of commercial establishments. A seat that is overpoweringly comfortable can engender lethargy in the traveler, and dissuade them from moving about the terminal and concourse as a consumer. A seat that provides just enough comfort to be viable only as a temporary resting surface will encourage the traveler to spend more time in the shopping areas after they have cleared security and are waiting to board. Regarding the traveler’s health, it likely serves them best to be seated as little as possible prior to extended flights. Extended periods of seated inactivity have been pinpointed as a cause of Deep-Vein Thrombosis, a potentially fatal condition. Less-comfortable seats may prompt a higher level of activity prior to flight, mitigating the risk of cramped economy seating to fliers’ health. Ultimately, this design goal lends itself well to other airport seating considerations. A less comfortable seat is able to minimize cushion material and occupy a minimal footprint, fulfilling the necessities of material, monetary, and spatial economy.

A demonstration of the Tandem Sling's strength

A well known example of airport seating, and perhaps one of the most iconic of the category, is the Eames Tandem Sling system. Designed in 1962 By Charles and Ray Eames for the Chicago O’Hare International Airport, and recognized as one of the first applications of design to seating in an airport context, it is used as prevalently today as ever. Its timeless appearance seems to subtly complement any airport it is used in. Its cast aluminum and simple stretched vinyl construction, based on the Eames’ series of aluminum lounge and office chairs developed in the late 50s, minimizes individual parts for simplicity of assembly and repair. It also keeps the overall weight of the structure down. It is available in myriad lengths and configurations. The Tandem Sling is arguably the basis for much other modern airport seating – it set forth concepts of modularity, configurability, simplicity, and basic construction that are still followed today. The contemporary version produced by Herman Miller, while holding to the Eames’ original design, is made of 54% recycled material, and is 87% recyclable after its product life. The tandem sling also remains valuable after its service life. An old, worn four-seat section is currently available on eBay for just under $2000.

An even earlier airport-oriented chair was the Kastrup Chair, designed in 1958 by Hans Wegner for the Copenhagen International Airport. It introduced a number of key concepts the Tandem Sling would later build upon, such as configurability and multiple attachments – though only four chairs could be mounted together. It is not as simple, durable, or technically accessible as the Eames piece, being made of a relatively complex birch frame on a steel chassis wrapped in leather.

The future of airport seating may see a new challenge in the ever-increasing overweight population. With over one billion overweight individuals in the world, and a projected 2.3 billion by 2015 (World Health Organization), airport seating must be sturdy enough to withstand greater weights, wide enough to accommodate larger waists, and positioned for ease of ingress and egress. How designers will address this problem remains to be seen. Perhaps some seats should be replaced with stationary bicycles.

Like any element of such a grand architectural, engineering, and design endeavor, the seats found in airports are carefully considered, expertly designed objects of functional beauty. The next time you enjoy a moment of respite during a layover or while waiting for a flight, be mindful of the significance and resilience of the device on which you rest.

Works Cited

American Heart Association. “Economy-Class Syndrome and Deep Vein Thrombosis .” American Heart Association. 2008. 8 Nov. 2008 .

Andreu, Paul. Interview with Patrick Javault. . N.p.: n.p., 1991.
Coldwell, Matt. Personal interview. 30 Sept. 2008.

Danish Furniture. “Kastrup Airport Chair.” Danish-Design. 2008. 8 Nov. 2008 .

Gottdeiner, Mark. Life in the Air: Surviving the New Culture of Air Travel. New York: Rowan & Littlefield, 2001.

Herman Miller. Eames Tandem Sling Seating. Zeeland: Herman Miller, Inc., 2008. 8 Nov. 2008 .

IMAT. “Waiting Areas Seating: SARDI System.” IMAT. 2008. 9 Nov. 2008 .

Speck, Lawrence W. Personal interview. 7 Oct. 2008.

Thomas-Emberson, Steve. Airport Interiors: Design For Business. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2007.

Wen, Angela. Personal interview. 8 Nov. 2008.

World Health Organization. “Obesity and overweight.” World Health Organization. Sept. 2006. 8 Nov. 2008 .

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