With Input from Alessi, Students Put a Modern Spin on the Standing Desk

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By William Lamb / Published by Dwell
Design students from the University of Pennsylvania traveled to Italy in January to present their winning prototype, Kabu, to Alessi President Alberto Alessi.

Three University of Pennsylvania design students recently traveled to Alessi’s factory in Italy to present their prototype for a new standing desk that they developed over a semester-long course, incorporating feedback that they received from an Alessi review panel along the way.

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A computerized rendering of Kabu, a standing desk prototype designed by three University of Pennsylvania design students with input from a panel of Alessi employees.

The winning prototype, dubbed Kabu, was designed by Alex Chin, Tom MacDonald, and Shai Gerner. The three presented their design to Alberto Alessi, the company’s president and a grandson of its founder, at the company’s factory in January.         

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An early hand-drawn sketch of what would become the Kabu standing desk.

The workshop was conceived and taught by Jordan Goldstein, a principal and managing director of Gensler, the architecture, design, and planning firm. He began with a question: What would a next-generation standing desk look like if it were made by Alessi? The lectures explored a range of related questions, including how new materials and fabrication methods influence the evolution of product design, and how ergonomic issues and sustainability concerns inform the process.

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Some of the materials that were used to build the model.

The students shared their design concepts and prototypes with members of a review panel composed of employees of Alessi, which has organized similar student workshops at the Ecole Cantonale d'Art de Lausanne in Switzerland and the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.

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The Kabu in model form.

"Over the last year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Alessi to study the workplace accessory market," Goldstein says. "We recognized a mutual interest in a few workplace product typologies that would benefit from some blue-ocean thinking, and my classroom at the University of Pennsylvania seemed like a great laboratory to experiment.

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Tom MacDonald poses with the full-scale prototype of the Kabu, which he designed with his fellow students Alex Chin and Shai Gerner.

"Alessi isn’t known for its workplace furniture," he adds, "but their fresh thinking, craftsmanship, and attention to detail make them an ideal partner to tackle a product category that is clearly in need of innovation."

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Alberto Alessi of Alessi, far left, and Jordan Goldstein of Gensler, fourth from right, with students and Alessi employees at the company's factory in Italy last month.

Paolo Cravedi, managing director of Alessi USA, said the company gets a lot out of working with students.

"We believe in the fresh perspective that young designers can bring to product design, especially in consideration of their different cultural backgrounds and their different curricular experiences," he says. "And many of these workshops have been behind quite successful and meaningful product introductions."