Decoding Design

Keen Footwear's founder redesigns the office seat, inspired by tractors

Keen Footwear's founder redesigns the office seat, inspired by tractors

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Martin Keen, founder of Keen Footwear, is now branching into furniture. He's focusing on seats and desks--inspired by antique tractors--that aim to appeal to health-conscious, active office workers.

"I refer to it as a seat, but not a chair. It's not a 'sit down' device," Martin Keen, founder of a popular footwear company that bears his last name, said in a call on his mobile phone as he rushed around New York City. He was describing his newest products: furniture, and definitely not shoes. The Locus seat and desk, pictured above, launched on May 19 at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, a leading design trade show taking place at the Jacob K. Javits Center in Manhattan through May 22.

"Think of the saying 'by the seat of your pants," Keen told me as I could hear sirens wailing in the background.

The phrase that Keen used is appropriate; the contraption that he designed is inspired by a do-it-yourself version of a seat and desk that Keen improvised back in 1994, using an antique tractor part as a starting point. A product designer who has held positions at sneaker makers K-Swiss and Saucony, he had wanted to find a more comfortable way of working at the time. And he had long admired the simple and ergonomic shape of tractor seats.

"They were made of cast steel, and farmers rode tractors for hours," he explained. "They'd be riding behind horses, plowing fields--it probably wasn't easy. But these old seats have the contour of human posteriors; they're simple--there's no superfluous design to them." So he purchased one, and then created a stool to use with a tall table in his workspace, using the tractor part as the substitute for a chair. Back then, as well as now, he liked to design in positions that weren't sitting or standing, exactly. Instead, he would lean back and forth, doing both, as he described his work style to me.

"GOOFY" PROTOTYPES, ENTREPRENEURIAL SUCCESS

In the years between 1994 and 2003, when Keen launched his shoe company, Keen Footwear, he also wished he could also start a furniture company to share his seating invention with the world. Keen Footwear took off, and didn't provide him with time to pursue that vision.

Keen's shoe business is best known for making practical sandals made with a proprietary breathable, yet waterproof, material that allows "vapors" to escape (as the company describes the fabric's abilities, wink wink). The brand has a wide variety of fans, from active pre-schoolers to outdoorsy adults.

Keen recently sold his stake in the company--which is privately held--to his business partner, to focus on his long-held dream of becoming a furniture designer. About a year ago, he created a new company, Focal Upright Furniture, and devoted himself to creating a version of his tractor-seat-inspired work gear for the masses.

The company's first offering is the Locus seat, an un-chair, if you follow Keen's reasoning, that features a pivoting leg. It adjusts as the sitter moves to support a natural center of balance. The design has a patent pending. The main concept of the chair's benefits seems similar to that of sitting on a giant, inflated ball at one's desk (you know, that office trend that seems to scream "I am fit!"). Both promote the act of making many micro-movements throughout the workday, to keep muscles moving and blood flowing instead of being still in front of a computer screen.

Keen told me that he drew upon two decades' worth of research on the human body, which he engaged in as a footwear designer, and applied it to the development of the Locus seat. He also consulted with ergonomics experts. He built 17 prototypes, tested by volunteers of various physical types over the years.

He doesn't have quantitative data yet to illustrate the product's health benefits, but told me that his new company is working on gathering statistics and he plans to share them next month.

Yet he did offer as anecdotal reference his own career as an entrepreneur, developed while working at the very first tractor-seat prototype of his new products, as evidence that the Locus line is a comfortable option to traditional desks. He said that potential users shouldn't raise their eyebrows at the unusual design.

"When I'd first wear prototypes of my goofy sandals sailing, I didn't care what I looked like," Keen said, referring to the shoes he developed, which led to the company declared "2003 Launch of the Year" by trade publication Footwear News. Today, Keen Footwear--whose annual revenues were estimated at $240 million in 2011--also sells bags and socks, as well as various types of rugged shoes. He believes that his unusual new designs for a seat and desk may have similar impact in the furniture world, and his own story could be a selling point. "This type of seat allowed me to be creative...and build Keen Footwear," he said.

PREMIUM PRICES, A PARTICULAR AESTHETIC

The Locus seat will be available at a discounted introductory price of $480 (or $680 for a luxury version, with leather and carbon details), until August 1; the seat combined with a desk will be discounted at $780 for the same period. After that, prices will go up to a suggested price of $650-850 for the seat (depending on materials) and $950 for the desk. They will be available for shipment in September.

Yes, the prices of the Locus seat and desk are premium, and the look could be described as, well, a tractor seat/school desk/stationary bike, with a footrest that slightly recalls a skateboard. The furniture will likely appeal to people with a very particular outdoorsy aesthetic. But that might be an advantage in terms of building an audience, rather than a limitation. One can imagine sporty fans of Keen Footwear perched on Locus seats, appreciative of the chance at creating a more active and healthy work environment for themselves.

While launching an office-furniture company might seem a stretch for a well-established footwear designer, it may make sense as a calculated risk for Keen, specifically. As a designer who was unafraid to remake outdoor shoes in a practical yet experimental way, he might be able to apply savvy lessons learned in marketing and manufacturing from his experience at Keen Footwear. These lessons could be powerful elements in building his new brand.

Images: Focal Upright Furniture; Alexander Muse/Flickr

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure