2005 Annual Design Review Furniture Best of Category

Foamz—Furniture for Kids
Two years ago, Robin Delaere of the Belgian web and product design firm Disorder Collectiv started tinkering with ideas for beach chairs—something light, foldable, weather-resistant, maybe in foam on aluminum frames. But nothing tall enough for grown-ups, yet still easily portable, proved structurally stable. “So it evolved into furniture for kids,” explained Delaere, who founded his own company to produce it (with Vincent De Schaepmeester). And now European retail chains including Carrefour, HEMA, and Sommerlad have signed on to sell the patented eight-month-old Foamz line ($15-$25 per seat kit, and due to be cheaper as sales volume increases). It’s subtitled the Mathew Collection after Delaere’s nephew. A Belgian factory is pumping out miles of its polyethylene tubes, welded side by side—owners then slip in Chinese aluminum frames to create little stools, child-size seats, and other configurations.

Foamz appeals to kids not only when assembled into zoomorphic humps and elbows but also when still packed flat, the frames overlapping like Celtic loops. The sheaths don’t wobble in use, yet are loose enough for small hands to insert tubes. “Kids love that they can take it outside, inside, leave it out in the sun, throw it in the water, whatever,” Delaere said. “The foam is 90 percent air.” The padded edges are also kid-friendly, Somerson pointed out, as are the standard colors or combinations: Bee, Zebra, a shade of green called Froggy, a pink known as Piggy.

The collection barely beat out another flat-packing and slotted finalist, Kiru, with innovation and sheer charm. “I’ve never seen these materials used like this. It’s so impressive that no screws or hardware are needed. And children’s furniture is not something a lot of designers have focused on,” Somerson said. (Delaere has described his scheme as “so simple that it’s at high risk for copying—which is why we patented it right away.”) “I don’t think the design possibilities are exhausted yet,” McFadden predicted. Delaere is now testing versions with gas-injection-molded plastic tubes made in Europe, which would reduce delivery times and prices even further. He’s also exploring marker-board or laminate tabletops, and custom aluminum bends and tube colors, particularly for the American market. “If Target wanted all the models in red and white, that wouldn’t be a problem,” he said. Foamz may become the furniture equivalent of the Beetle: a ubiquitous, rounded European import.

Foamz—Furniture for Kids

Design Robin Delaere, designer, Disorder Collectiv (Kortrijk, Belgium)
Client Foamz (Kortrijk, Belgium)
Materials Aluminum tubes; PE foam
Software Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop; Ashlar-Vellum; Form-Z

Q+A with Robin Delaere
Disorder Collectiv

Where and how is your office set up?
We’re in Kortrijk, 15 minutes from the French border. It’s a town of 60,000 people that has a very nice, not-too-big furniture fair every two years. We have six people: two graphic designers, two people doing websites and marketing, I do product design, and there’s a guy in charge of sales. We have a really big loft in a 1960s apartment building. The outside is nothing special, so people are shocked to see our big, big space when they walk in.

How did the Foamz idea come about?
I was working on something to take to the beach: a mat that could also be folded into a backrest, something really compact and stretchable. At a certain moment I had the idea of using that kind of polyethylene foam; it’s something people are very familiar with—they use it in their gardens, for kneeling pads. I was intrigued by the material’s colors, shapes, possibilities. But I couldn’t solve the technical problems of making it into a beach mat for adults. That’s when we started thinking about how to use it for kids’ furniture.

How did you react when you heard you’d won Best of Category?
When I got the email I had to read it three or four times, I was a bit in shock. I’d won a Design Distinction award in 1998 in the student competition, for a foldable scooter with a luggage compartment. In 2002, as a freelancer, I won Best of Category for the Brani belt, tied with Apple’s design team for the Titanium PowerBook G4. For Foamz we were hoping for maybe an Honorable Mention. Best of Category—I thought that would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not twice.

How are sales going?
We’ve sold 10,000-15,000 so far. The pouf is the most popular; it’s cheap and it looks like a little animal. The product line is very specifically for a large distribution chain. The store executives love that it’s flat-pack; it’s so easy to transport and display. The test orders are for 3,000-4,000 pieces, which isn’t much for these stores. In Milan we had a special Foamz playground with 30 little poufs, and we met with some U.S. agents who are going to do some market research. We’re planning on doing large productions this year, in the hundreds of thousands.

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