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Universal Design: How and Why to Buy Adaptable Furniture

Soma lift desk by BDI

Developed in the 1980’s, Universal Design is a movement that strives to make objects, processes, and environments easy to use for as many people as possible. Whether it means a ramp at a building entrance or the option to turn on closed captions for a show, the driving belief behind Universal Design is that accessible and adaptable features make life better for everyone. (For example, closed captions don’t just benefit people who are Deaf or hard of hearing, they can also help English language learners or people in noisy environments.)

Like anything else, furniture can be designed with accessibility in mind by including features that support diverse situations and user needs. Copenhagen offers a variety of pieces with adaptable elements, and you can look for these elements wherever you shop for furniture. Read on for features to be attentive to when shopping for tables, desks, seating, and more – plus our recommendations for contemporary, high-end pieces that are both elegant and adaptable.

Tables and Desks

Consider tables and desks with adjustable heights. Height adjustability is a feature that can be friendlier for those who use wheelchairs and power chairs by allowing them to customize the height to their needs and preferences. What’s more, contemporary height-adjustable pieces provide versatility for users who like to switch between sitting and standing while eating or working.

With tables and desks, also be aware of sharp corners or edges – rounded edges and shapes are less likely to injure the user.

For a modern table that melds versatility with bold design, consider the Karsten High Rise Dining Table. Electric motion technology allows this table to smoothly lift and lower so you can stand at this table for a quick bite, or lower it for a more formal seated dining experience. Karsten’s included extension leaves also let it adapt to seat as many as 10 guests.

BDI’s Soma Desks are full of intuitive features that enable the user to customize the position of their desktop and workspace. All Soma desks are height adjustable, letting their user work at a variety of levels, as well as having rounded edges and an ergonomic curved front for wrist support while typing. The Soma Compact Lift Desk is power-free and conveniently moveable, while the larger 60” Desk and 72” Desk offer smart features like a collision sensor, child lock, and hanging hook.

If you’re seeking a smaller multi-functional surface that can be maneuvered through a space with ease, consider an adjustable tray table. These pieces can be placed in front of a couch or chair as a workstation, over a bed as a serving surface, or next to other furnishings as a side table. BDI’s Serif Laptop Table has a slim profile with a height-adjustable top and a weight capacity of 25 pounds, while the Ekornes Ellipse Table has an adjustable top with a raised edge.

Chairs and Couches

When shopping for chairs and couches, consider these features: For people with limited mobility, couches and chairs with higher seats and shallower depths can make standing up easier. Chair and sofa arms can also be helpful if they are durable and high enough to be used as supports for raising or lowering the body.

Additionally, look for seating that’s both comfortable and supportive. Whenever possible, try out seating in person and pay attention to the amount of cushioning it offers, as well as the level of lumbar support. You may also want to look into power motion seating for easy-to-control, customizable positioning.

Stressless® by Ekornes is a premier brand best known for its comfortable and ergonomic recliners, though they also sell dining chairs, office chairs, and sofas. All Stressless® recliners are built on a specially designed frame that supports your lumbar region and head no matter your position. Manual recliners like the popular Mayfair respond to shifts in the sitter’s weight, while power recliners such as the Mike let you customize the angle of your back, legs, and head separately.

Stressless® also sells elevator rings that attach to the base of their recliners to raise them to a more accommodating height. If you prefer to work or eat from the comfort of your Stressless® recliner, you can even add on a tiltable arm table with two metal studs that help keep a laptop in place.

Made by Fjords, the Rome Power Motion Recliner is another highly adaptive piece. Its three motors not only let you adjust the recline function and headrest angle, but also let you customize how firm or soft you want your lumbar support to be.

Build and Upholstery

Durability is paramount, whether a piece will be getting heavy use from one person or residing in a large and lively household. It may be a good investment to splurge on well-built pieces that you plan to use frequently, as this will save you the cost of replacing a less durable piece. In addition to examining furniture in-person, gravitate toward brands that don’t just claim to be high-quality but are transparent about their design process. Ekornes (the maker of Stressless) and Luonto are two such brands Copenhagen is proud to carry.

If you’re shopping for leather furniture, consider pieces upholstered in protected leather, often specified as “semi-aniline” or “corrected.” These leathers have a finish that helps them resist wear and tear, while being easy to clean. Semi-aniline will be less protected but have more of a natural look and feel, while corrected leather offers maximal durability but decreased softness and breathability.

If it’s fabric upholstery you’re after, try to find the fabric’s Martindale or Wyzenbeek rating. These metrics measure how many times a fabric can be mechanically rubbed before tearing. A durable fabric for frequent home use should have a Wyzenbeek rating of at least 15,000 or a Martindale of at least 20,000. Luonto’s Fantasy Loveseat Sleeper has a Martindale of 40,000, meaning it will stand up to heavy wear and tear while also transitioning gracefully between a sofa and a bed.

In addition, you may want to seek out fabric samples or customizable upholstery options for furniture. For people with sensory sensitivities or who dislike the feel of certain materials, testing out samples before buying a piece can be a vital part of the process. Fortunately, Copenhagen carries a multitude of fabric and leather samples for various brands, allowing you to special order pieces in your upholstery of choice.

Ron Mace, one of the pioneers of Universal Design, said, “We can make anything more universally usable, but to do that, we must pay attention to details.” Though the features listed in this post are important to consider, they are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making our interiors and our world more accessible. Copenhagen is just one retailer among many carrying pieces with adaptable features, in the hope that anyone who enters your home can feel comfortable using your furniture.