Within hours of the Fairfield Public Library's October opening in Richmond, Va., patrons were already typing away at a new type of workstation: Developed to ease the issues that face parents and caregivers balancing online work with childcare, “The Fairfield” family workstations—designed collaboratively by Shannon Wray out of Quinn Evans's Richmond office, the Ann Arbor, Mich.–based TMC Furniture, and officials from the Henrico Public Library—are the first of their kind, and already on their way to filling a need in public spaces around the country.
The concept for the custom workstations arose during the development of a new $29 million library facility designed by Quinn Evans and the Boston-based Tappé Associates, and stemmed from a simple need: accommodating parents or caregivers who need to complete online activities such as job applications, research, or tax forms, while easily keeping an eye on a young child.
“That can be a pretty hard thing to manage,” explains Wray, senior associate and senior interior designer at Quinn Evans. “Whether it's having a baby in a carrier that's taking up floor space, or maybe the baby gets fussy. It compromises their ability to get work done.”
Partnering with TMC, a furniture manufacturer with a background in crafting early learning designs, Wray and the design team brainstormed solutions. They first imagined workstations that could be arranged in a circle to create an open space where young children could play, but quickly nixed the idea due to its potential for noise and distraction. “Ultimately, we came to a solution where each parent or caregiver would have their own individual workstation with a desktop computer and an ergonomic task chair,” Wray says, “and directly adjacent to them would be a play space that was contained so that they don't have to worry about a six month to two year old wandering off.”
The design was straightforward, almost to the point where Blake Ratcliffe, co-owner of TMC with his wife, Sherri, couldn’t believe that it wasn’t available on the market. “When we heard Shannon present this, we were like: 'Someone must have thought of that already, that's too good an idea,'” Ratcliffe says. “But we couldn't find anything.”
TMC and Quinn Evans finessed the design, favoring soft, rounded edges that both nodded to the new library’s biomorphic aesthetic and emphasized each workstation’s natural feel. From there, they focused on materials, selecting smart, easily sanitized options like TMC’s sustainably stained, PVC- and phalate-free, low-VOC plywood, which provides added an element of natural warmth to the space, and healthcare-grade vinyl for the play space matting that is impermeable to liquid. Inside the child's play area—which is separated from the workstation by a gate with peek-a-boo holes that allow a child to interact with itscaregiver—the designers included a mirror and custom learning panels that both entertain and help develop motor skills.
From the moment TMC put the workstations into production, comments came rolling in, first from craftsman in its Grand Rapids, Mich., factory who were delighted by the practical and natural design, and later in glowing online reactions once the workstations debuted at the library’s opening and went viral on social media with over 35,000 likes, shares, and comments.
With the popularity evident, TMC decided to put the once-custom workstations into wider production, and put them on the market in both single and double carrel configurations. "When we first discussed the concept for the workstations with the library director, Barbara Weedman, she believed that that every public library would want one if it was designed successfully," Wray says. "So, while I wasn’t sure exactly how the workstation would be received, I had an inkling that it might be very popular." Wray and the team chose to partner with TMC because "we wanted a partner with a deep experience in, and understanding of, the technical requirements for safety, hygiene, durability, and fabrication methods," she says. "And ultimately the ability to mass-produce the workstation should that need come to fruition."
Though the profits from any sales will remain those of TMC, Wray says that "TMC has been very transparent in acknowledging me and the library director as co-creators of 'The Fairfield.' In the end, just knowing that I’ve helped to create something that might find a home in libraries across the country, and thus help numerous parents, caregivers, children, and librarians seems like reward enough."
In that sense, Wray's reward has already begun materializing. Ratcliffe noted a “huge response” to the workstations at the Public Library Association Conference in Nashville, Tenn., which he attended with Wray in February. Since then, the workstations have received continued interest from institutions around the country.
“We're right at the beginning, but people are saying: ‘Oh, I'm putting you in my budget for four right now. How quickly can you have them done?’,” Ratcliffe says. But there's more to TMC's desire to make these more widely available than just the bottom line. “As a parent, and I think most of our crew are," Ratcliffe says, "we all felt like this is a mission of the heart type of thing.”