Modular Option

This summer Ahrend, the Amsterdam-based office furniture manufacturer, found a home in Muscatine, Iowa. That is where Allsteel, its new North American distribution and service partner, is based. Though American consumers might specify the company’s minimalist products based on aesthetics alone, there’s more to its furniture than appearance suggests. In Europe Ahrend has built its brand on flexible work systems and ecologically sensitive production methods.

Perhaps the product that best embodies those principles—and is now available in the United States—is the A500 desk system. By creating a versatile frame of universal modular components (based on a concept by IDEArchitects), designer Wijtse Rodenburg allowed for seemingly infinite configurations with a relatively small number of parts. Critically, the tabletop supports and the injection-molded aluminum connectors on the tops of the legs are virtually identical, making them interchangeable. In other words, wherever there is a point of attachment under a tabletop, you can choose to install a leg or a support. You also have the option to add underhanging accessories, such as cabinets and CPU racks, which attach to the connectors at any of these points. Similarly a rail with holes at two-inch intervals allows the user to place privacy screens, paper trays, and other accessories wherever they’re needed. So with just a few variations, the system can be used to create everything from a detached sit/stand work surface to a communal conference table to screened clusters of workstations rigged out with file cabinets, letter trays, and pencil cups.

The A500 had to be more flexible than any of Ahrend’s previous offerings because it was created to replace three lines currently being phased out: the A100, the Synta, and the hugely successful Essa. Each line looked and worked differently; the simple A100 and Synta desks had two C-shaped and four N-shaped legs respectively, and the Essa system offered variables of both. The A500 had to fit next to all those existing systems. “I could only solve this problem by making the A500 really modular,” Rodenburg says, “so that it truly offers all these different functions.” It also had to look more contemporary, be easier to assemble, and remain affordable. Lightness—visual and physical—was essential.

The key to Rodenburg’s success lies, literally, in the elliptical leg. “The A500 needs to be like a thin ballerina—tiny but still strong,” he says. “In 1994 it wasn’t possible to do the Essa with these very small legs.” In both systems the legs house the operating parts that allow the surface to be raised by as much as two feet, but the Essa’s are nearly twice as large as those of the A500. Injection molding made it feasible to fit thin height-adjusting mechanical parts within the elliptical steel tubes, using 50 percent less material (which otherwise would have been used on corners). Though the operating parts aren’t that novel, Ahrend has patents pending on the innovative way they fit snugly inside the leg. With aluminum connectors and foot covers, the A500 uses 70 percent less steel than the Essa. A basic six-foot A500 table weighs 72 pounds, versus the 122-pound Essa.

“The most important sustainable improvement to the A500 was using as little material as possible,” Rodenburg says. “There is always a lot of energy and transportation invested in the material itself. For example, how you manufacture a coffeemaker is not that important because if you look at the energy it uses during its lifetime, the making of the machine is peanuts. It’s less than one-tenth of a percentile. With furniture only the manufacturing itself is important. So the less material you use, the better. That’s why we invest millions of Euros in tooling.”

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