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An Integrated Palette for Evolving Design

by Suzanne VanGilder


In 1948, schoolteacher GW Haworth borrowed $10,000 from his parents with the intention of moving his woodworking business out of the family garage. Sixty-six years and many strategic acquisitions later, Haworth Inc., is truly a titan in the world of office interiors, with over $1 billion in global sales annually, 650 dealers and operations in 126 countries. Still family-owned and headquartered in Holland, Mich., Haworth continues to expand and refine its comprehensive product offering.

“In the past, we would have been referred to as one of the big three office furniture manufacturers here in Western Michigan. And for a long time that is what the industry was looking for – chairs, desks, cubicles, casegoods, things like that,” says Julie Smith, public relations manager for Haworth. “About 25 years ago, Dick Haworth (then CEO of the company) started making strategic acquisitions with the understanding that office furniture would not just be office furniture for eternity.” The global expansion plan spanned Europe, North America and Asia, resulting in a complete portfolio of products from raised-access flooring and modular walls to contract and transitional furniture. More recently in 2014, Haworth will complete the acquisition of a majority stake in the Italian furniture group Poltrona Frau, which includes iconic design brands Cappellini, Cassina and Alias.

Fueled by a global perspective, Haworth’s product lines are continually evolving. Creating continuity on such a grand scale for standard products in North America is a calculated effort of science and design. Workspace trends are combined with materials strategy and best practices in manufacturing to create customer-centric solutions.


Workspace Trends

Haworth’s internal Ideation group is dedicated to understanding what makes designs relevant and how workspace needs evolve. The company refers to this as Organic Workspace and it includes the understanding of market conditions, emerging needs, traditional concepts (which tend to be cyclical in office design), and contemporary expectations that respond to technology.

The working population ranges in age from roughly 18- to 65-years-old,and is drawn from a period in time that has undergone the fastest rate of technological advancements to date. In response, Haworth develops products that relate at different levels to offer design freedom, integration and future assurance.

“We certainly still work with more traditional panel systems, they are an important part of our Integrated Palette™, a kit-of-parts that allows us to accommodate work styles and culture. Classic storage, casegoods and systems are components of solutions,” says Smith. “But even reflected in that are improvements in design, raw materials and lean manufacturing. In fact, one of the biggest trends over the past 10-15 years is how those goods are specified and fulfilled. Today, the market demands JIT delivery because customers want special finishes. So even though panel systems can look traditional, how they are specified, produced and configured has been a big change in our industry. It is something we continually work on.”

Another contemporary work trend is commonly referred to in the industry as the “mobile and agile worker”. The demand for more temporary divisions of space means panels are more moveable and lightweight. Systems are designed for flexibility. Part and parcel with this is a cyclical return to a more classic concept. “We are moving into design applications for furniture and offices that were originally referred to as the ‘office landscape,’” says Diana Thorman, who does surface materials marketing for Haworth. “It was developed in the early 1960’s and marked by really organic spaces. Characteristics of the office landscape are light scale space division, both stand up and sit down work surfaces, and spaces for conferencing.”

The up-to-date iteration has its own unique drivers. Most notable is technology and its far-reaching affects. Many contemporary workers don’t necessarily have a dedicated physical space. Instead they work remotely or from home with mobile devices, coming into the office for meetings and events. “This blurs the line between residential and office furniture,” says Smith. “Which goes the whole length of design in office space from the kind of furniture chosen all the way through dealing with people who don’t have an assigned desk. Clients often ask us how to occupy less space.” The challenge then is how to create flexible, high-tech areas with products that last longer than the technology cycle.

Although sustainability is more of an expectation than a trend in the market, it is worth noting as it influences materials choices, supplier partners and manufacturing practices. Haworth exceeds the market’s expectations with seven sustainability objectives that lead the industry by example.


Materials Strategy

It takes a dedicated team to establish a standard material offering that encompasses Haworth’s expansive product line. In North America Liz Johnson, senior industrial designer-material finishes for Haworth, and Kris Pierce, color and material development engineer for Haworth, worked with Thorman to develop an overarching materials strategy for the bigger volume systemic products. “We put a lot of effort into developing an Integrated CMF Palette that is workable for clients,” says Johnson. “We offer a breadth of line and a color palette that will accommodate most office or mobile/residential environments. The materials and finishes on the systemic side have to last a long time. However, as we pioneer into the world of mobile and agile work environments, we can’t just do the same things. The material strategy also has to be ever-refreshing.”

Haworth’s standard surfaces are developed for products including systems, seating, freestanding and architectural walls. On the fabric side, the Haworth+ program is an alliance with multiple fabric suppliers for seating and panel solutions. Additionally, Haworth also has a robust Customer’s Own Material program for both fabrics and finishes, which includes pre-approved HPL designs from Formica, Nevamar, Pionite and Wilsonart.

“We do a lot of laminates in our furniture. Obviously HPL lends itself to horizontal surfaces. We work with companies like Wilsonart and Tafisa to have TFL that matches our higher-selling designs for vertical surfaces and wall systems,” says Pierce. “We also have other materials: cellulose-based, vinyl and ecologically-driven products for walls. Paint, glass, fabric, wood, and reconstituted veneer have been in our line for a long time.” The raised access flooring systems use vinyl and specialty HPL products. Conductive laminate flooring is available for computer- and clean-room applications; and a static-dissipative HPL is ideal for electronically-sensitive applications.

Much like trends in workspaces, trends in finishes also have a cyclical quality. “Texture is funny,” says Johnson. “I’ve been in the finish and fabrics business for almost 30 years. North America has really been more pattern-driven for the past 10-20 years, but the cycle is coming back to texture and plains – a simplified look to get back to the truth of materials and the truth of fiber, things that are nice to touch, that are more human-centric. Texture is important in all mediums, not just furniture, but also floors and walls – things that are highly bumpy, piano smooth or high gloss. From all extremes, texture is very current.”

The in-house team handles all of the design, testing and development for Haworth’s surfacing materials in North America. They continually look for new innovations in finishes and substrates that can improve quality while simplifying product engineering and construction.


Best Practices

Haworth operates 19 manufacturing facilities worldwide, and was the first company in any industry to gain zero waste-to-landfill status for its Asia Pacific, India and United States manufacturing facilities, as well as its world headquarters. It is also the only global company in the industry with 100 percent ownership of ISO-certified facilities in those regions. “Our sustainability team does amazing research on many fronts, from following the chain of custody of the materials we use, to logistics and energy efficiency,” says Thorman. “Most recently we just announced that we are eliminating 56 banned chemicals from our products. We are the first in the industry to do that, but we won’t be the last. We’re asking our vendors to join us in those efforts. It is a fantastic industry to be a part of, because the different players continually raise the bar to change the industry for the better. We’re all in this together.”

The company subscribes to a “design globally, produce locally” philosophy, and still produces for the North American market in several facilities, the majority of which are located in Western Michigan. A million square-foot casegoods plant in Holland, Mich. is the primary location for the panel processing, work surfaces and walls. Two other plants near Grand Rapids, Mich. produce flooring and storage compenents. “We are pretty vertically integrated, manufacturing-wise,” says Pierce. “We have metal fabrication and powdercoating lines, lamination, panel processing, wood finishing, assembly, seating and upholstery capabilities.” The plants are set up with flexible work cells, and company-wide Haworth’s manufacturing members are engaged in LEAN practices and continuous improvement.

As a privately held company, Haworth has the flexibility to focus on the future with continuous reinvestment. International scientists and designers come together to share best practices and workspace trends, resulting in truly innovative, customer-centric interior office solutions.




"Intuity" by bangdesign and Haworth design studios

"Suite," designed by Steffen Lipsky from Haworth’s Design Studio

"Openest," designed by Patricia Urquiola incorporates "bluescape" technology



“Texture is important in all mediums, not just furniture, but also floors and walls – things that are highly bumpy, piano smooth or high gloss. From all extremes, texture is very current.”

Liz Johnson, senior industrial designer-material finishes for Haworth