Landscape Forms

Scope: design and manufacturer of site furniture | City: Kalamazoo, MI
Date Visited: 10.30.12

Inter-City Transportation: Amtrak #1, #2 | Origin: Chicago, IL

Location: 431 Lawndale Ave. Kalamazoo, MI 49048
Firm Size: around 270 full-time and part-time employees
Founded: 1969

Landscape Forms is an industry leader in the design and manufacture of high-end outdoor site furniture, including everything from tables and chairs to light posts and bollards. Founded in 1969 by John Chipman, the firm’s work has been featured in numerous award-winning landscape architecture sites from Chicago’s Lurie Garden with Gustafson Guthrie Nichol to Oslund and Associates’ Target Field Plaza in Minneapolis. And, in 2008, it was even named one of the Top 15 Small Workplaces in the U.S. by the Wall Street Journal.

As a guest blogger for Landscape Forms’ blog Insite, it was pretty exciting for me to finally visit the firm’s headquarters in Kalamazoo, MI. Plus, since one of my old intern duties was to help spec site furniture, I’ve since become familiar with a couple of Landscape Forms’ furniture collections. It’s been fun being able to recognize their products in the various cities I’ve traveled through.

My correspondence with Landscape Forms has been primarily with Cheri Reeves, the company’s marketing communications specialist. After numerous emails back and forth, I really looked forward to meeting face-to-face; Cheri was not only kind enough to pick me up from the Kalamazoo Amtrak station, but she also toured me around Kalamazoo and Landscape Forms.

The start of Landscape Forms found its roots–not surprisingly–in landscape architecture. The founder, John Chipman, graduated with a landscape architecture degree from Michigan State University in 1953 and had initially started with his own practice based in Kalamazoo. As a way to keep his landscaping employees employed during Michigan’s long winters, he began making benches and chairs on the side. This side business gradually grew to become a full time endeavor, thus bringing about the birth of the company.

The company has since grown in size and now employs roughly 270 full-time and part-time employees with over twenty company representatives all over the U.S. and Canada. One of the aspects about the company that most appeals to me is their carry through of a design from concept to final delivery. The entire lifecycle of a product–from the initial client pitch to design process to assembly and delivery–can take place at the Kalamazoo headquarters.

As Cheri led me through the whole design process, from meeting marketing and design teams to seeing manufacturing and assembly in action, she also gave me some insight about the company’s philosophy and corporate structure. Landscape Forms’ follows the Scanlon Principles, a set of business practices that stresses continued education, profit-sharing, and open book management. The Scanlon Principles, which have been a part of the company’s corporate culture since 1982, help bring the firm’s diverse departments–from marketing to welding–together as a team by making the firm “employee-owned,” in that all employees benefit equally from the company’s success through profit-sharing. In addition, the firm believes strongly in facilitating a collaborative environment; openness and feedback from employees are valued.

Landscape Forms’ philosophy towards design takes the approach that “there is always a design problem to solve.” And as of late, the firm’s been fairly prolific. They plan to release around five to six new collections in the next year. And currently, there are between 13 to 14 collections underway; a design often follows a three-year cycle until completion, including production of full-sized prototypes. Though most clients order products from Landscape Forms’ catalogues, the company will also team up with other designers, from sculptors to landscape architects to create a new design line or product for a particular project site. Thus, company designers serve a double role: not only do they work towards representing Landscape Forms’ business side, but they must also work towards protecting the original designer’s design intent.

My favorite part of the tour was the visit to their massive 100,000 square foot onsite manufacturing facility, which houses all the processes from the welding, powdercoating, and assembly of the product to its final packaging and delivery.

There are around 150 different items in Landscape Forms’ furniture catalogue, however, all employees are cross-trained to learn how to build each product; there are no assembly lines and all employees are encouraged to not only understand the design and manufacturing process holistically, but to also become highly skilled in a variety of tasks. Every manufacturing employee is assigned to a group called a cell, such as the table cell or the chair cell, in which they often rotate on tasks and familiarize themselves with other furniture. Every morning, however, the cell leaders meet to talk about the orders that they need to fill–all furniture is made to order with no surplus parts or pieces–and if a particular cell is low on orders for the day, workers of that cell can rotate off to help fill orders of another cell.

Overall, it was a fantastic and informative visit out to Landscape Forms, with much thanks to Cheri for touring me around the facilities. With their work all around the world and growing–all bus benches in New York City will soon be replaced with those from Landscape Forms–the amount of information, management, and orders that flow through this company is far too much for me to absorb in just one visit. Still, this firm visit was the most comprehensive I’ve yet received on my trip and it’s helped me reflect and reassess just how important corporate structure and organization is in creating a successful and healthy work environment.

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