Landscape Forms proves what’s possible Outside

Architects spend years designing buildings. Interior designers spend months and months creating the perfect interior. Landscape Forms hopes it can nudge the trades into putting the same thought and design into outdoor space.

So the Kalamazoo, Mich., company is helping them by creating a series of thought starters — prompts for the design community to show them what’s possible in an outdoor space. From outdoor classrooms for the college and university markets to lounge areas for corporate campuses to thoughtful transportation hubs, Landscape Forms is proving outdoor spaces are about more than plants, park benches and bike racks.

“Right now there is no one resource for creating and laying out outdoor space,” said Kirt Martin, vice president of design and marketing. “We work with a lot with landscape architects, but there is not a lot of study about furniture and what it can mean for an outdoor space. They have to worry about things like water runoff. Furniture is often the last thing on their lists.”

Indeed, the outdoor space can sometimes fall through the cracks when it comes to design. Landscape architects have to worry about plantings, water and other issues. Interior designers feel their job is done at the building’s perimeter. Yet outdoor spaces are becoming much more important for corporate campuses, universities and health care facilities. The problem is: No one is fully embracing what is possible there. Landscape Forms is setting out to change that at the same time they are changing opinions about what is possible outside.

The outdoor furniture and fixtures market is a bit like Landscape Forms itself: Very important, but on the edges of what happens when a project comes together. That does not diminish the importance of the company or the market. Chances are you’ve used its furniture while waiting for a light rail train in Portland, Ore., sitting in a New York City park or tossing some trash into a bin on countless college campuses. Though you probably didn’t bid against the company, Landscape Forms likely worked on the same projects. It counts many Fortune 500 companies as it clients.

Landscape Forms’ new marketing push to the design community isn’t designed to be prescriptive. Instead, Martin said it is merely “setting the table” to let the designers’ creativity shine through. “Sometimes there is this thought out there that we are just giving them benches, bike racks and litter (cans),” he said.

Marketing Manager John Scott said Landscape Forms has a passion for outdoor space, and if they can get in front of architects and designers earlier with ideas it will improve the project and, of course, help the company.

The company is making it easier for architects and designers through its newly revamped website, which is broken into the categories Landscape Forms serves: live, learn, work, care, play and travel. The categories correspond to home, education, work, health care, recreation and transit. By clicking on any one of the categories, designers are taken through thought starters with detailed plans for how to use the company’s products for those spaces. The company continues to add new elements to its portfolio.

Power is being added to products as more people bring work tools like laptops and tablets outside with them. The company is working with Legrand, a French company, on posts that elegantly bring power outside. Landscape Forms is also working on a post and beam system to create outdoor spaces that are open, but a bit more structured.

Opportunities exist in each one of the market segments for both dealers and Landscape Forms.

The new marketing effort isn’t a hard sell. Instead, it is meant to spark a designer’s creativity and to prove how important the space outside the building is to those working inside it. To drive this point home, Martin often starts talking to designers about where they would like to retire or go on vacation. Almost always, it is a place where outdoor space is important. “Think of the fondest memory you have as a child,” he said. “It is usually time spent at the beach or on a picnic or on vacation somewhere like the Grand Canyon. No one says, ‘I want to spend a week at the Mall of America.’ It is always somewhere outside. Outdoor experiences shape who we are.”

Landscape Forms is kicking off its marketing effort this week by sending out a short video to its customers. The company also hired a vertical market manager to help guide its expansion.

Opportunities exist in each one of the market segments for both dealers and Landscape Forms. And although the company has been around a long time, executives feel there is room for a lot of growth, especially as the design of outdoor space is becoming more important.

The company was founded in 1969 in Comstock, Mich., by a kindhearted landscape architect who did not want to lay off his crews during the harsh Michigan winters. So he decided to build outdoor furniture. At the time, outdoor furniture was often built on site from wood. The business started small in Comstock, a burg just outside Kalamazoo about an hour’s drive from Grand Rapids (The town actually has a more famous business — Bell’s Brewery — one of the original and best craft beer brewers in the country).

The uninformed might mistake what Landscape Forms does with uninspired umbrellas and patio furniture found behind homes across North America. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The firm was founded on design and holds to that focus today. Its headquarters is tucked into a residential neighborhood near a pond — the site of the landscape architect’s original plant nursery. Its employees fill out the contemporary office, which is filled with top-of-the-line Herman Miller furniture, and adjoining plant.

The company started with $141,000 in sales that first year. Sales have doubled about every six or seven years since. Landscape Forms President Richard Heriford hopes to hit sales of $160 million by 2020. You might know Heriford from his office furniture days at Allsteel and Sunar Houserman.

Executives at Landscape Forms want to capitalize on the added emphasis on outdoor spaces. At tech companies like Google, the outdoors has become an addition to the office space. At universities across the country, outdoor areas have become a recruiting tool for students, staff and faculty.

Even in climates where outdoor spaces can’t be used all year because of inclement weather, Landscape Forms is finding demand on the rise. “The reality is that if you only have six months, less time to be outdoors, we find that people use it even more,” Martin said. “When you compare outdoor spaces in Florida to Michigan, for example, we find that people are using them about the same.” BoF

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