The Splashy New Student Union Furniture

Before Wright State renovated its student union in the mid-1990s, Director Bill Shepard looked out his office window one afternoon to witness a couch gliding by, headed to the nearby residence hall.

His goal today: to create that same desire for furniture, sans the accessibility.

He's in good company. According to Martha Blood, chief operating officer of ACUI Procure, a division of the Association of College Unions International, since 2000, higher education campuses have spent more than $1 billion on construction and renovating their unions. Chalk up much of that activity to the fact 21st-century students dismiss the 1950s standards the former gathering spots reflected. "In order to attract today's student, we have to have something he or she is familiar with. And today's student has hung out at the shopping mall," she says.

That's why Shepard's choices for the 192,000- sq.-ft. Student Union stick to a simple mantra: an optimal blend of form plus function.

Good Form

His counterpart at Illinois Wesleyan University adopted the same attitude for the student union furniture at this Bloomington, Ill., campus. Based on student feedback, Dean of Students Jim Matthews eschewed traditional for contemporary riots of bright colors scattered throughout the Hansen Student Center. "We envisioned three or four groupings like you might find in a living room organized around area rugs, each section featuring different color schemes and patterns so no two were alike," he describes.

Bold in this case meant soft, overstuffed couches with large arm rests on either end that sported burgundies, oranges, deep greens and yellows. Pair it with area rugs, a hardwood maple floor stained a deep burgundy and enormous windows dominating the west wall to allow sunlight play -- and the total picture presents something so different, architects failed to grasp it at first. Matthews and his team rejected their initial suggestions as "too conservative."

"We already had a campus center decorated in neutral, inoffensive colors, and the students were tired of that. They don't want something institutional," he explains.

He knows the current pieces appeal if only by the amount of use they get. "There's a real strong push among the student body now to have us buy more of that furniture. And I don't think I've ever been in there and seen them arranged in the same way twice," Matthews laughs.

Ditto the atrium in Wright State's student union, where students also requested a contemporary feel. "We've noticed a strong demand for pockets of lounge space," says Shepard. So although officials arranged seating for five to 10 people between the room's columns, students still manage to move the couches and chairs to customize these pockets to their needs. Shepard merely shrugs. "We regard ourselves as the living room to the campus, and we want the students to be as comfortable as possible," he notes.

Illinois Wesleyan students like to pull individual armchairs together around a big footstool, Matthews reports. They also gravitate toward the individual overstuffed chairs placed along the wall. As for couches, students typically plop themselves on one end to talk to a pal in the armchair - and the other half of the couch typically remains empty as people are reluctant to butt in on the conversation.

"If I were doing this again, I might buy fewer couches and more armchairs," he offers. "There's certainly a need for some of them, but we used a couch in each grouping and that was probably too much."

Solid Function

Shepard shoots to get 10 years out of most of the common area furnishings on the Wright State campus, but when it comes to the union's heavily used lounge pieces, he considers seven to eight years very acceptable. "We've had such good luck in specking some pieces, they go out of style before they wear out," he says. "That's a good problem to have." Especially considering student union furniture sees its share of spilled sodas, feet propped on the edge of the cushions and uneven weight distributions on the backs.

He starts by putting the furniture selections through rigorous testing. After students give their opinions, the physical plant weighs in on cleanability issues, and operations staff checks out how easily it can be moved, stored and reconfigured. Shepard pays close attention to technical details like double rub rates - a standardized test developed for the U.S. government that measures how well the fabric stands up to having a wire mesh rubbed over it. Typically, 3,000 double rubs equals one year's worth of use, so campuses want to see at least a 15,000 double rub rating, which lands the furniture in the heavy-duty category.

He's also experimenting with replaceable covers on the atrium pieces to extend their life. The Velcroed fabric simply detaches from the arm, back or seat cushion for a quick washing.

"The biggest help to us was bringing in all the samples to the union," says Matthews. "Initially when we saw the furniture in the catalog, we'd say 'That's too big.' Then when we got it into this enormous, cavernous space, we thought maybe we ought to think bigger still."

As for theft issues, Matthews finds that the heavier the furniture, the less likely it is to escape the building. To date, the Hansen Student Center hasn't lost a single piece. Unfortunately, Wright State can't say the same - a three-position study chair Shepard picked proved to be so popular, three of them disappeared their first day, but he cabled the replacements to the floor and claims good luck otherwise.

"Occasionally, you have to expect a call from the director of housing saying, 'Hey, I have a couch over here with a student union I.D. tag on it,'" he notes. "I guess I wouldn't count that as being stolen -- just borrowed for an extended period of time."