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Students Design Wicker for Lloyd Flanders

Northern Michigan University’s human-centered design program partnered with longtime Menominee manufacturer Lloyd Flanders to develop concepts for contemporary woven furniture that might appeal to younger consumers. Students gained valuable experience working for a real-world client and tempering their creativity with the constraints of available materials, production methods and labor costs. Company officials appreciated the fresh perspective and imaginative uses for the trademark wicker material that is weaved on the original 1917 Lloyd Loom (pictured below) and hand-stretched over frames of aluminum tubing.  

Students presented their final design concepts and prototypes at the company Dec. 4. They received constructive feedback on aesthetic value, practicality and manufacturing potential. Lloyd Flanders will select three to fine tune for its display at the International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market in Chicago. The pieces may also be shown at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City.

The students did research on current trends, consumer desires and Lloyd Flanders’ traditional products before they started their own design processes.

“This project allowed them to move outside the comfort zone of their campus studio,” said Peter Pless (Art and Design). “They had to create not just stylized objects, but pieces that incorporated functionality, human behavior and ergonomics. To draw a design is one thing. To do computer modeling of a design is another. When you add the unique requirements of mass production versus a custom piece and working on a client’s terms instead of their own, it challenges their sensibilities. I’m very pleased with the results.”

CEO Dudley Flanders said the company launched an aggressive program to develop “contemporary, smaller-scale, urban/hip-looking” furniture targeting younger professionals.

“We were eager to see how college students would approach design using our materials and we hope to broaden their interest in manufacturing,” he said. “We were thrilled to work with NMU because we consider ourselves very much a part of the Upper Peninsula and appreciate the opportunity to foster that U.P. spirit. The progression from their early designs to functional and potentially marketable products was incredible.”

Early this semester, NMU students took a factory tour to witness the production of woven furniture from start to finish.

“It begins with inch-wide paper that is twisted and rolled onto large spools,” said Matt Steinmetz of Grosse Pointe Park, Mich. “The paper is fed through the loom and comes out as patterned wicker 39.5 inches wide that can be stretched over the frame of a chair, couch or table. They make the cushions in-house, too. It helped to see how it all comes together so we could factor the process into our designs. We also had to factor cost, which is new for us.”

Lloyd Flanders research and development veterans Greg Hayward and Bob Nordquist worked closely with the students. They provided each with a kit of materials to become familiar with woven wicker’s capabilities and limitations. Both visited campus to offer constructive critiques of preliminary concepts and turned the students’ drawings into prototypes for workshops held at the Menominee facility.

Hayward said, “This project opened our eyes, too. We need to think outside of the box and maybe use new and different materials. One student had a flexible teak wood band cover the separation between two wicker pieces. That was inventive and looked nice.”

Nordquist agreed: “They did a remarkable job from the first prototypes to their final presentations. The way they applied what they learned and modified the designs to something that could feasibly be manufactured here was impressive.”

Lloyd Flanders furniture can be found on the Truman balcony at the White House and at the vice president’s home in Washington, D.C. It also is bipartisan in its appeal, having been featured on the holiday cards of both Al Gore and Dick Cheney. The company is in the midst of creating new seats for Mackinac Island horse-drawn carriages.

“We are the only loom champion in the industry,” added Flanders. “There are hundreds of imitators who produce vinyl wicker. We do that, too, but the loom products manufactured in Menominee have a more natural look and feel. They come in 29 color options compared with a couple for vinyl and can be repainted as they weather. We have a long tradition of using durable materials to produce unique, high-quality products. We’re just trying to expand our consumer base toward the younger generation.”

The collaboration was facilitated by Lloyd Flanders assistant product manager and NMU alumnus David Ostrenga. Pless received a grant promoting economic development in Michigan to support the project.

“I’ve driven by the Lloyd Flanders building since I was an undergraduate student at Northern in 1995 and often wondered what it would be like to work with them,” said Pless. “The generosity they’ve contributed to this class is amazing.”

Pictured in the group photo are (front) Aaron Ratza, Flint, Mich.; (middle row) Paige Doolin, Birmingham, Mich.; Matt Steinmetz, Grosse Pointe Park, Mich.; Brendan Solinsky, Tucson, Ariz.; Mike Carl, Marquette; Aaron Ratza, Flint, Mich.; Hunter White, Indianapolis, Ind.; and Gaby Alzaga, Mexico City, Mexico; (back row) Michael Rasmussen, Walworth, Wis.; Professor Peter Pless; and Nolan Warn, Shawnee, Kansas.