Q&A with Ted Rapone, Weiland Healthcare
Hospital rooms are not designed to accommodate the needs of visitors. They can be made to accommodate a visitor’s needs, but that often requires some ingenuity on the part of a visitor. Clearly, there’s an opportunity there for better design. One effort to achieve better design of the experience of visiting a hospital room is, we think, outstanding. The IDEA-winning SleepToo is a single piece of furniture that serves a number of functions. In this interview, we learn a bit about how this solution came to be:
Tell us about some of the SleepToo’s early iterations. Was it always designed to be a single piece of furniture? Did you consider any multiple-piece solutions?
Actually, not for a moment did Blair [Wieland] consider sleepToo to be anything other than a single piece of furniture. This conviction sprung from all the research he conducted on a previous, and very successful, sleep-sofa project called the Allay, which brought to light the enormous space constraints imposed upon hospital designers. The space allotted to visiting family members is continuously under pressure to be made smaller and smaller so, far from there being room for multiple pieces of furniture (sofa, bed, table, chairs, recliners, desks, etc.) Blair had to focus his creative energies on how to drive the functionality of all those disparate units into one.
What inspirations did you draw from to generate the form factors of the SleepToo?
Early sketches were of all the various elements—sleep surfaces, recliners, storage units, side chairs, tables—all pushed together on one piece of paper where Blair would ponder how they could possibly be merged into one without compromising the function of any. The moment of inspiration dawned as Blair was viewing photographs of dining booths out of old diners—one in particular called “The Lucy.” As he contemplated the slim table sitting between those two chairs he thought, “There it is.” That led to the first concept sketch of a three-seat sofa with the middle seat removed and a small table sticking out of the back. As simple as it was the power of the concept was now evident in that drawing. Users could either sit normally with legs forward or they could unobstructedly swing their legs “inboard” and face one another, using the table as a dining or working surface. sleepToo was born.
Which function was most difficult to incorporate alongside the others?
The table, of course, was the most challenging function to incorporate into the design since the pressure to make it strong and functional competed at every step with the need to beautifully integrate it into the sleep-sofa. It was quickly discovered that it couldn’t be attached to the back—not enough support, not enough flexibility. Nor could the table be supported by legs since they would prevent users from swinging their legs inboard. A cantilevered solution remained, the development of which took some time to get it to operate smoothly when moved up and down, to get it to lock safely at any height, and to get it to hold the weight of people who might choose to flop down on it as a seat. As it turned out, it was engineered to dock in three positions: the lowest allowed it to serve as an end-table and to support the sleep surface; the mid-position turned it into a working surface, perfect for a child doing homework and someone using a laptop; and the upper position made it appropriate for dining, allowing two or three people to share a meal together. Safety was engineered into the table so that when it was under even the lightest load the release handle could not be activated. In other words, should a person sit on the table in the highest position, or place a child in a carrier on the table, and then activate the handle the table will remain locked. And, finally, even though it’s cantilevered, the table in its lowest position will hold a remarkable 500 lbs dropped from six inches and in its highest position 300 dynamic lbs.
How did the need to maintain a sterile environment impact the choices you made re: the materials used in SleepToo?
Full-renewability, which was pioneered by Wieland as far back as the 1980’s, is the governing principle behind all of Wieland Healthcare Designs and touches the heart of modern Infection Control Standards. Every component of sleepToo can be easily renewed or replaced to keep the furniture perfectly maintained. In addition to being fully renewable, Blair designed sleepToo with cleanouts so that anything on the seats, like crumbs from a sandwich, will fall straight to the floor where they can be swept up. Upholstery seams are kept to a minimum and away from points of contact with the human body. All exposed wood surfaces, even under sleepToo are sealed so they can be easily wiped clean. And, with the use of thermoformed surfaces seams and cracks, where microbes can hide, are kept to a minimum.
How difficult was it to commit to using suppliers who employ responsible forestry practices?
We’re in no position to stand on a soap box and preach to others since we, ourselves, have got a long way to go—but, with that said, all decisions we make concerning the materials used in sleepToo, and other products, are always pointed in that direction. As much as we are able we use wood from sustainable forests, use plastics that have been recycled, and strive, by building our furniture to last 25 years, to keep it out of landfills.
Talk about some of the user research. What insight(s) helped shape the way people interact with the SleepToo?
What we learned is that we’re dealing with competing imperatives. Everyone wants their sleep-sofa to be rich with features and options, but designers need it also to be beautiful, so all of those features and options must be seamlessly, almost invisibly, incorporated into the unit. End-users, however, want the sleep-sofa to be intuitive and obvious so that even the uninitiated, without instruction, would know how to operate all those features and options, but that, of course, would lead to a contraption with handles and levers and pedals everywhere sticking out of it. Balancing those competing priorities, which came to light in our research, lay at the heart of the design challenge. Blair needed to design each feature so that it was both obvious and unobtrusive—both intuitively used and visually compelling.
What role did hospital administrators and other health-care professionals play in developing the product? How did you engage with hospital designers in developing the SleepToo?
Their help was invaluable. sleepToo sketches, drawings and prototypes were shown to over 75 hospital administrators, healthcare professionals and designers and brought to over a dozen hospitals around the country. The contributions gleaned from these interviews were most helpful and critical in confirming that the design of sleepToo™ must be classic, its features seamless, and its function intuitive. It’s important to note, however, that the truly innovative feature of sleepToo—the fully integrated, cantilevered, height adjustable table—was not a result of research but of revelation. In other words, healthcare professionals knew what they did NOT want—a hospital room cluttered with a sofa-sleeper, recliner, side chairs, table and storage—but they didn’t know what to ask for. When they were shown early versions of sleepToo built from Blair’s Lucy-inspired sketches, their surprising response indicated that finally a solution had been found. They stood and applauded.
In what ways did the design team help clear the hurdle of getting hospitals to begin acquiring and using the SleepToo?
Frankly, the self-evident value proposition of sleepToo swept hurdles away. As soon as people see it they get it.