A couple of landscape architects. A few beers. A commitment to design for even the most pedestrian outdoor furniture and fixtures. Those are the elements that launched Landscape Forms 50 years ago. The Kalamazoo, Michigan, company celebrated its anniversary last week as a “thank you” to its customers, community and employees.
From its humble beginnings in 1969, when the company celebrated $160,000 in sales in its first year, to its continued success, Landscape Forms has grown into one of the preeminent outdoor furniture and fixture firms in the world. But it hasn't strayed far from its roots. It is still committed to landscape architects and believes design should drive everything. And, yes, at its anniversary party, there were a few beers.
Far from coasting into its golden anniversary, Landscape Forms is on a roll. July was the best month in the company's history, and its sales last year reached $118 million. Since its founding, Landscape Forms has sold more than $1 billion in outdoor furniture and fixtures along the way, said CEO Margorie Simmons, adding the company has created “lasting relationships and had fun along the way.”
At the 50th anniversary party at its headquarters in Kalamazoo, about an hour south of Grand Rapids, the company celebrated those who make Landscape Forms and its success possible: its founder, visionary landscape architect John Chipman; his successor as president and CEO, and current chairman of the board, Bill Main, who led three decades of exponential growth; and the generations of workers who have literally built the company.
Company founder and former CEO John Chipman died on April 2, 2011, but his wife, Patti Chipman, who Simmons introduced as the “other founder of Landscape Forms,” said her husband would be proud of how the company has grown and its direction into the future.
“There were a few things he loved,” she said. “He loved beer, he loved parties, he loved good jokes, and he loved hard work. He loved Landscape Forms, and Landscape Forms always knew it. He knew that people here were proud of what they were doing, and they wanted him to be proud of what they were doing, and he was.”
John Chipman's foray into furniture manufacturing is part of Landscape Forms lore. Loath to lay off his landscaping employees during the long Michigan winters, he began making benches and planters to keep them working year-round. He was good at it and in 1969 turned his attention full time to furniture, founding Landscape Forms. Under his leadership as CEO and chairman of the board, the company grew to become one of North America's leading designers and manufacturers of furniture for outdoor spaces.
Main came to Landscape Forms in 1985. At the time, the company had 40 employees and sales of $4 million a year. Today, the company employs more than 400 at three locations in the Kalamazoo area and one in Phoenix.
“Landscape Forms was very different and John (Chipman) relished those differences,” he said, adding the keys to the company's success included creative and unique marketing that used high quality photography, good design for even the most mundane products (such as trash receptacles) and the company's quality manufacturing process and commitment to great products.
From a small crew crafting benches in a backyard garage, the company is focused on design innovation for all the ways people spend time outdoors: living, working, playing, learning, caring and traveling. Landscape Forms was the first in the site furniture industry to introduce integrated collections for targeted sectors, such as the urban transit core. It has formed design partnerships with an international roster of renowned design professionals and collaborated with them on award-winning products and collections.
In addition to its Site Furniture division, the company has created three new business divisions: LED Lighting, which pioneers the design and development of environmentally responsive outdoor lighting; Studio 431, a custom solution division with major projects coast to coast, from parks and campuses to transportation facilities; and Structure, which provides adaptive structural solutions for creating outdoor destinations.
The company has expanded its production capabilities; acquired compatible companies, including Kornegay Design, the Phoenix-based maker of high-design, handcrafted concrete planters; and extended its global outreach in sales and design. In its active commitment to the landscape architecture profession and the cultivation of the next generation of leaders, Landscape Forms hosts roundtables on critical issues in the built environment, organizes and funds Xtreme LA charrettes for young practitioners and students and supports the Landscape Architecture Foundation as a Leadership Circle benefactor.
“At a time in human history when more people than ever are moving into urban areas and turning to technology, the connection to nature in outdoor spaces is increasingly important, for physical and mental health and for social exchange and cohesion,” said Kirt Martin, Landscape Forms' chief creative officer. “We believe in the landscape architecture profession and its ability to shape the future, and we believe that the solutions we provide really matter. For a current exhibit that envisions the streetscape of tomorrow, the Smithsonian Museum chose to include Landscape Forms' GO OutdoorTable, a combination communal meeting place, touch-down workspace and technology hub for outdoor environments. To me, our work is about creating new opportunities like this that encourage people to get outdoors, support them in a variety of activities when they're there and help landscape architects fulfill their promise of beautiful, high-functioning and sustainable outdoor environments. We're half a century old and, without question, our best work is yet to come.”
The company's roster of customers is a who's who of plum clients, far too many to name here. A current project includes creating custom furniture for the U.S. Open tennis facility, including seating for the judges and athletes along the court.
Landscape Forms believes in educating and developing its employees. It has a program for aspiring machinists where its workers can apprentice for 8,000 hours and become a journeyman machinist (with journeyman machinist wages). It also has the Landscape Forms Welding Academy where workers can learn this high-demand skill, which is so important to the company's success as well.