Furniture Providers Deliver Trendy Designs That Stand Up to Student Renters

by Katie Sloan

Furniture installation may be the last task to complete on a development project, but it’s certainly not last on student’s minds. In fact, furnishings can seal or break the deal for prospective renters and residents, on- and off-campus. It’s one of the first things that catch the eye while touring housing options. Is it clean? Not out of date? Functional? Can the student picture him or herself studying and relaxing there? From the owner’s perspective, the question is usually, how long will this last before I have to replace it?

Furniture companies that serve students have a special understanding about the unique environment students create. “We have flourished because we thrive on building products that help make our customer’s property special, regardless of style, materials, or finishes,” says Curt Christian, president and CEO of Function First Furniture (F3). “We make it beautiful, and it will always hold up to the beating furniture gets from the students.”

Student housing furnishings have come a long way. Today, the furniture segment of the industry is delivering the styles and function that students want and need better than ever. And like others who are optimistic about a return to “normal,” furniture suppliers aren’t all that worried about online learning having a harmful trickle-down effect on their business.

“Sure, virtual education has been crucial during these unprecedented times, but I do not think that is the way of the future for every student,” says Eden DeGeorge, business development manager and senior designer for D12 Commercial Interiors. “For some students, college is not just about getting your degree. It’s about the whole experience of moving out of your parents’ house, meeting new friends and community engagement. You cannot possibly get the full experience online. Of course there are so many uncertainties right now, but we remain positive that things will eventually get back to the ‘new norm,’ and students will be back on campus.”

In some cases, the pandemic has actually increased business for furniture teams. “I had certainly been concerned about demand and the impact of virtual learning long-term,” says Christian. “On the flipside, because of mandates that there only be one person to a room on many campuses, I have also had customers contact me needing more product because unexpected rooms are getting filled up by on-campus students that were forced to leave their dorms.”   

For Savoy Contract Furniture, the crisis has been transformed into a chance for growth: “We have been enjoying the opportunity to flex our creative muscles by designing new products meant to help encourage social distancing and minimize the risk of returning to school,” says Chris Frantz, director of marketing and sales.

Ecologic Furniture is also engineering safety into its products. CEO Dan Goldman reports that many customers are upgrading fabric options in their common areas. To meet this demand, Ecologic is using nanotechnology-based high-performance fabrics that include stain resistance, moisture barriers and anti-microbial upholstery options for sofas and chairs. Additionally, Ecologic is incorporating anti-bacterial and anti-fungal laminates that use silver ion technology in its construction. “This is the same technology used by hospitals and in clinical settings,” Goldman says. “We feel by including these advanced materials our customers can offer this as a great feature for their properties.”

At InterSpace Living, today’s uncertain economic climate could actually provide the foothold for future growth. “Short-term, we expect at least some hiccups as owners, students and their parents deal with the uncertainty that comes with a pre-vaccine world,” says InterSpace Living President and Co-Founder Abe Ash. “But looking medium to long-term we are bullish on the need for more student housing. Kids want to be in school. In addition, as interest rates remain at rock bottom we expect owners to continue to refinance their projects, which may create an opportunity for more upgrades, including for furniture, to make students feel more safe in a post-COVID world.”  

What’s On Trend Today?

For this article, we asked student housing furniture experts to boil down trends into one word. The results included ‘adaptable,’ ‘tailored,’ ‘inventive,’ ‘versatile.’ and ‘sleek.’ One thing is certain, furnishings, just like the need for bandwidth, have to support an increasingly digital-dependent world.

“I hate having to unplug an alarm clock in a hotel to make a spot for my phone charger,” says Johnny Collins, partner and CEO of AUS Smarter Furnishings, which recently completed an installation of 1,200 bedrooms of furniture at Purdue University in the midst of the pandemic. “Turns out, I am not alone. Powered nightstands and powered mobile pedestals are becoming very popular and demand is growing.”

Ash concurs that as technology continues to become more a part of student’s lives, furniture has had to adapt to it too. “We are seeing furniture design changing to accommodate our constant demand to be connected,” he says. “Our phone batteries are always low. For example, every Starbucks has bar tables with phone-charging pads on them or tables with USB ports so you never run out of juice. Our partners are asking us to incorporate those innovations into our furniture to provide the same connectivity for the tenants.”

From a design perspective, desks and tables are examples of items that developers and housing directors are opting not to spend money on when possible. “Cost-wise, I think that desks are shrinking, and more and more developers are not using nightstands, or a table and chairs,” Christian says. “Barstools and islands are taking their place as they are much more cost effective.”

And according to Director of Sales for Dickson Furniture Manufacturers Kris Benson, traditional two- and three-piece upholstered sets are disappearing in favor of standard sectionals and modular sectionals. “We see accent pieces like nightstands, dining tables, and headboards going away in favor of improving the designs — and features — on the other essential furniture pieces,” Benson says.

DeGeorge says more clients today are asking for trendy accent chairs. “In a typical student housing living room, you will see a large, heavy armchair identical to the sofa, but with units getting tighter, the need for a more space-saving airy statement piece has increased.”

Blockhouse Owner and Vice President Stephen Perko, Jr., agrees that statement pieces are an integral part of most installations. “We’re hearing from more and more clients that they need a modern lobby seating option that’s also highly durable,” he says. “Our new Astro seating line is our solution.” The Astro Line includes a chair, loveseat and sofa as well as coordinating occasional tables. “Each piece has the modern lines of contemporary lobby seating with the same highly durable, easy-to-clean, comfortable seating features that our partners expect.”

“For most clients cost is a big driver for design,” adds AUS’ Collins. “Naturally, a more minimalist aesthetic is becoming more popular. Less is more. The old oak furniture is now officially a relic. Our clients and potential clients are drawn to a modern aesthetic. Furniture styles that you would only see on off-campus properties five years ago are now on the college campus.”

D12’s DeGeorge adds that mid-century modern and modern farmhouse are two styles heavily in demand. “These two design styles bring warmth and texture to the overall unit, trending toward a Restoration Hardware, CB2 or Room and Board aesthetic, and less like the outdated institutional-looking furniture that once was seen in student housing.”

“We are starting to see a lot of earthy tones trending at the moment. Lots of terracotta, dark mint greens, soft and pastel marine blues. If we had to give a name for the most popular styles now, we would call it modern-bohemian,” adds InterSpace’s Ash. “I see a lot of designs that are statuesque. Any furniture piece that looks like it came out of an art gallery is in demand.”

Jeff Zeng, president of Blue Furniture Solutions, says that greater functionality and modern minimalism is where the industry has been headed for the past couple of years. “The furniture of minimalist styles can be easily deconstructed and rebuilt to save time and money during turn ordering,” says Zeng. “The versatility of the modern-minimalism style allows one piece of furniture to serve many purposes. For example, boards can be taken out of a closed chest to make an open shelving design and can be easily replaced in turn orders.” Zeng says one furnishing can often double as another, such as an extended desktop becoming storage or a coffee table and dining table being interchangeable. “The more functions a simple piece of furniture can have, the more a developer is excited to have this piece.”

Blue Furniture Solutions is about to complete a project in Winter Park, Florida, for Rollins College that was entirely designed around the UniSpace modular furniture line. Zeng says that the bed frame has racks above and beside the bed, with hanging chests that can also be used for nightstands. 

Savoy Contract Furniture Marketing Specialist Sarah Feaster agrees, saying that flexibility has been one of the main themes for the company’s projects in recent years. “Client partners want the ability to upgrade a look by offering multiple finishes to create a two-tone appearance, custom hardware options to dress up casegoods, and a wide range of fabrics to select from for their upholstered goods. We’ve even been providing alternative workspaces to replace desks and minimize the furniture footprint for smaller rooms.” 

One of Savoy’s newest products is the Geo Collection of upholstered occasional tables. “This is a fun addition we created based on the feedback of our customers,” Feaster says. “These pieces can add a fun pop of color and a modern look with the high-pressure laminate tops, while still providing extra functionality with optional power sources.”

Across the board, furniture companies say finding ways to furnish smaller spaces is a major trend. “We have recently been getting a lot of positive response surrounding our modular line,” Zeng says. “At trade shows, there have been a lot of talks about studio-style living, and building to save ground space by using airspace instead. This is especially popular in densely populated cities such as New York and Chicago.”

According to Laurie Provin, senior director of marketing and communications for University Furnishings, which just furnished its first student housing project outside North America, size and space are definitely an issue developers are paying attention to. She says today’s students want furniture that reflects their design savvy and appreciation for quality while also allowing them to do more with less. “They don’t want three pieces of furniture crowding a space if one multifunctional piece — that also happens to look amazing — can meet the same needs,” she says. “We are actively engaged with students and designers to identify innovative ways to open space while also providing furniture that makes day-to-day apartment life more efficient and comfortable.”

Provin adds that as space continues to be at a premium, University Furnishings is being asked to deliver pieces that do more in less space or that serves dual purposes. “We created a de facto room divider, for instance, from a desk with a hutch that has a whiteboard on the back, so each student has a place to work and capture their ideas while also gaining a sense of privacy and ‘owned’ space.”

 “Murphy beds were initially slow to catch on, but those are gaining traction as well,” adds Provin. “We are also seeing a growing demand for furniture pieces that do it all, integrating work and study surfaces, a bed and storage all in one.”

The Pandemic’s Effects

Since the onset of COVID-19, furniture companies have dealt with challenges such as installation delays and staying on schedule with developers and contractors while confronting mandatory quarantines and shutdowns. “The pandemic delayed some production at the factory, as all overseas factory and supply chains went under lockdown for months,” explains Zeng. “The production delay caused a back-up in shipping as well, which really impacted our turn orders for this year, but not so much our bigger projects because we started production on those very early.” 

Some furniture companies are utilizing their deep connections in Asian markets to get out in front of any delays. “Since we knew about the pandemic from our employees in Asia back in January, we began production on all of our products earlier than ever,” says Christian. “We also started receiving products earlier than ever knowing that the supply chains were going to be strained, and they certainly have been.”

A domestic manufacturing presence was advantageous for Savoy. “We are a ‘Made in the USA’ company, and our furniture is manufactured from responsibly sourced lumber less than 200 miles from our plant, which means we don’t rely too heavily on imported goods,” says Frantz. “This has helped to minimize difficulties sourcing raw materials throughout these challenging times.”

Dickson’s domestic manufacturing capabilities proved beneficial as well. “The pandemic has caused an economic ripple impacting everything from raw materials, transportation, and labor,” Benson says. “We’re fortunate to have a quality team at our facility in Houston. Despite the challenges, delivery timelines have not been affected, and we’re on track with delivery dates.”

As furniture is inextricably tied to developers’ timelines, the industry has had to be as flexible as possible. “The pandemic has changed the way we work, travel, learn, shop and socialize,” says DeGeorge. “The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone in some form or fashion, not excluding the construction industry, even though it was deemed essential. We are working with several developers who did a great job of taking precautionary measures to protect their employees while continuing progress on their developments. Adaptability in these times is crucial, and as a furniture provider to the student housing industry, it is our job to be versatile and adapt to the specific needs of each developer.”    

Planning ahead has proven just as important as flexibility. “We’ve increased production and increased the number of units warehoused over the past 90 days,” Perko says. “When COVID hit, we immediately recognized the bottleneck that was headed for the student housing industry. As clients waited to make purchasing decisions ahead of the new semester, there was more and more risk that furniture wouldn’t be installed and ready to go once students returned to campus. As a result, we built a substantial amount of our most popular student desks, chairs and beds to make sure we were ready and ahead of the bottleneck. Today, we can dramatically decrease the time between when a client places their order and the time their furniture is delivered.”

Lynn Peisner

This article was originally published in the July/August 2020 issue of Student Housing Business magazine. To subscribe, please click here

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