Waiting room furniture has a fairly traditional design aesthetic.
Typically, it consists of identical chairs chosen and configured to maximise space, with small coffee-type tables serving as a home to dated magazines. Generally, it's a fairly uninspiring space where the furniture can lack both comfort and privacy.
Italian architect Maurizio Bernabei has begun to challenge this concept, unveiling a waiting room furniture collection prompted by his observation of people in waiting rooms and spaces.
Entitled #waitingfor, the collection uses a patchwork/quilted approach to construct the pieces. Various materials, textures and colours make up the pieces, which cater to people seeking a private seating space, a large bench seat to share and various chair-backs - even backless chairs for those who prefer to lean against the wall.
#waitingfor decontextualizes waiting and offers a visual interpretation of human diversity in waiting room spaces, with a special focus on "our gestures while we wait," according to Bernabei.
"In place(s) of waiting, we are all equal, as we reflect, we analyse, we plan, we dream...time, space and behaviours translate into shapes, materials, colours and patterns," he said.
The collection features three bench-style options with cushions that can easily be reconfigured. Each features a light wooden base and angled legs carved in a geometric format. The chair, seating cushions and headrests vary in terms of materials and textures. They offer primarily rectangular chair and cushion shapes, but that is balanced out with a circular armrest on one bench and sculptural dishes (for magazines and items) on another. There are also dividers between some chairs to offer a little privacy.
The colour palette is neutral and earthy to match to the warm wood, but yellow and turquoise highlights counterbalances the muted tones.
Bernabei's collection is also visually engaging. showcasing the opportunity for furniture to complement artwork, flooring and other design features in a room. He is one of several thoughtful designers considering a move away from the practicality of the waiting room to one that can improve the experience for the person using the space.
Looking specifically at furniture in hospitals and or health practices, the waiting room is following closely behind the healthcare design movement where patients are becoming a key focus of the design.
This is being driven by mounting research that continues to link considered design to improved patient experience, mood and recovery. In terms of the waiting room, furniture is being reinterpreted to keep patients and their families who might be waiting, comfortable and engaged.
"Everyone wants to have this Starbucks look and feel with a variety of table and seating options," Amy Mees, senior medical planner, interior design at GBBN Architects told Health Care Magazine.
While the look and feel of this furniture is appealing, it is also practical, serving a multitude of people with various health conditions. Many seniors find it difficult to get up from a low sofa without assistance, while patients with back problems may appreciate a softened backrest or cushioning. InStyle Seating always suggests armchairs for older people as they make chairs easier to get in and out of.
Australian contract furniture supplier KE-ZU recommends stable and ergonomic seating for a doctor's waiting room, aged care facility or hospital. The firm also said "a higher seat height and chairs with arms is often preferred to facilitate access and egress."
KE-ZU has supplied many of these environments with the Eina chair by Barcelona designer Josep Lluscà. Eina comes in a stackable chair or bench format with a range of sustainable finish options. The pieces are made using recyclable materials. KE-ZU's pharmacy clients describe it as a "prescription waiting chair" due to its stability and ergonomics.
Then there is the question of how to configure the furniture in waiting rooms.
Mees' colleague, GBBN interior designer Steph Shroyer, noted that the firm is "zoning" areas to improve the waiting experience.
"We're trying to have different areas and activity zones so that your wait doesn't feel like a wait anymore," she said.
This is particularly useful when wait times can be longer than anticipated, for example in emergency rooms of medical practices. This flexibility allows people to change their seat as they wait, moving to different areas for example, to make a phone call or allow children to use a play zone.
Another welcome and innovative addition to waiting room furniture comes in the form of "Smart Chairs."
In September, Information Week revealed that the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is preparing to roll out "The Vitals Chair" to waiting rooms at a small group of hospitals and clinics. This follows the implementation of 6,000 kiosks at 1,000 sites across the US.
The kiosks offer a self-service touchscreen where patients can perform tasks including checking in for appointments, updating details and so on. The maker of the kiosks, Vecna, is also behind The Vitals Chair.
The chair "includes an antimicrobial touchscreen with magnetic strip, blood pressure cuff, anti-bacterial wipes, thermometer, printer, sensor, and scale," according to Information Week.
The chairs are designed to give veterans more control and allow clinicians to spend time performing more more valuable tasks.
"A business mantra we have is to change wait time into service time," Mike Davis, director of Veterans Point of Service (VPS) said. "The chairs create an opportunity to utilise some of that wait time."
With all that in mind, it looks like the future might include a more comfortable and engaging waits in healthcare environments. And if smart chairs were to take off globally, patients could easily become part of the process in reducing their own wait time.