Presidential Seal of Approval

Eventually, after the student unions, lobbies, common areas in residence halls and classrooms are up to snuff, college administrators decide to spiffy their own spaces.

That doesn’t mean these offices necessarily need to advertise a second-class citizen aura.

“Certainly, the students come first. They’re revenue-producing, and office furniture is not,” says Cindy Wessel, owner of E-Quip in Lowell, Mich., a full-service provider of furniture and equipment for educational spaces.“So we’re not as much into beauty as we are function, task and making the office practical.”

Of course, it’s not unheard of for institutions to select a tad more upscale furniture for their more public uses — think admissions offices — since that directly impacts students’ and their parents’ impressions. But for the most part, Wessel’s drill is to find out the tasks a person’s position demands, then blueprints based on such practical matters as storage needs and computer usage.

When Gary Grace, the vice president of Administration in the business office at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, wrestles with new furniture options, he says he prefers to see more dollars allotted toward quality furniture and carpeting. After all, these purchases usually need to hold up longer than other fittings on campus, designers admit.

Yet, it’s a given that the final price tag must remain reasonable, according to Wessel. Even college presidents’ domains rarely exceed the $6,000 to $8,000 range among private schools, although public universities have been known to budget between $15,000 and $20,000 on the president’s furnishings. The difference lies in the institution’s message, says Rick Amidon, president and CEO of Baker College in Muskegon, Mich. He, for instance, strives to convey professionalism at a glance.

“It’s a way of saying we are very conservatively run,” he points out.“We have a strong and stringent dress code for our employees, and our students are bound by rules and responsibilities of professional behavior on campus, in the classrooms and housing. So when you come into the offices, it’s very important that we convey permanence and an upbeat attitude.” So while gaudy won’t set right should he need to raise tuition nine percent, mismatched pieces and an overall shabbiness doesn’t engender trust, either.

The Case Goods

When Wessel tackles an administrative office, she likes to include plenty of closed storage, “what I call ‘flipper door’ overhead storage at the desk for items that are used on a frequent basis,” she describes. Drawers or systems for hanging file folders and personal belongings also need to be within arm’s reach. The goal, naturally, is to prevent the staffer from trotting all over the office to retrieve files and other work materials.

Whether the person depends on a desktop, laptop, flat screen monitor, etc. for their computer also plays into desk and credenza styles. If the person doesn’t use that keyboard often, she likes to slide it underneath the desk for cleaner lines and more surface work area.

“We put quite a bit of furniture in there because the jobs demand it,” she says, “ but we fill it efficiently.” As for Amidon, he wants the furniture to artfully disguise technology’s umbilical cords — no wires or cords crawling up walls or ineffectively covered up via floor runners at Baker College.

Color Follows Form

Once a consultant determines an office’s individual components, step two is to choose suitable fabrics and materials. Wessel often leans toward different textures and laminates that mimic a high-end wood grain without the price tag. “No matter what furniture you use, the colors are quite important,” she adds. Individual departments typically go with different color schemes.

So, say a college has an admissions area it wants to look prosperous. In that case, administrators might go with a cherry wood laminate because the price for this more luxurious option, Wessel assures, is the same as any other in this family of products. Yet over in the clerical department, the accountants may not enjoy working on a wood grain laminate because it’s too busy for their detail demands.

“Typically, the deans usually have quite a bit of say, or the vice presidents of the different academic areas,” Wessel says of the chain of command. “They usually ask for some input from their staff, but that becomes input only and everybody is dealt the same furniture and style.”

Count Baker College among those who elected to go with a standardized style format overall. “We used to have an amalgamation of every different furniture maker, color and style, so while it was all good quality furniture and we didn’t have any deficiencies in maintaining it, it didn’t reflect our image,” Amidon says. Today, he sets a budget to equip each office, and then the staffers within a department are given the flexibility to decide which specific tables, wrap-around desks, filing cabinets and chairs they would like to have from pre-selected categories. This way the offices don’t present a cookie-cutter look per se, but all of the corners, say, are rounded. “Or they all have the same style chair but with different fabric patterns,” he adds.

For those who crave a touch of personality, Amidon is willing to hear their case. That’s how the Information Services department at Baker College wound up with computer-symbol wallpaper throughout the division. “It works in their space, and it wasn’t a big deal. If anybody proposes something within reason, we would take a hard look at accommodating that staff member,” he notes.