Form, function and furniture | Behavioral Healthcare Executive Skip to content Skip to navigation

Form, function and furniture

March 1, 2011
by Nick Zubko, Associate Editor
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Manufacturers balance aesthetic appeal, safety and durability.
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Physical environment has long been tied to mental health. In fact, industry guidelines advise behavioral health organizations to strive for decor that appears “comfortable, attractive, and as residential in character as possible.” 

As facilities continue to shift away from elements deemed “institutional” in appearance, demand has grown considerably for furniture that is not only built with safety and durability in mind, but also with a sense of style.

“Over the last year or two, we've seen a move away from the cold, institutional look that many facilities have had for so long,” notes Janet Costin, director at This End Up Furniture Co. “They realized that it can cause angst for their patients, so now they're moving toward a much more homelike atmosphere.”

Of course, safety is still the top priority. So while manufacturers are designing furniture with greater visual appeal, the structural requirements of institutional furniture remain. Essentially, according to Keith Voigt, president of Furniture Concepts, the trend is for furniture that “looks like it belongs in a home, but is built to take a beating.” 


While the design of mental health facilities continues to evolve, their focus on safety never changes. Furniture manufacturers are continually challenged rebalance form and function.

“It's a fine line to walk, which makes it a difficult challenge,” notes Mike Heintzelman, factory representative for Blockhouse Contract Furniture. “But improving aesthetic appeal doesn't mean you compromise durability, because durability equates to safety in a behavioral health environment.”

For Blockhouse, that equation translates into features such as dressers and desks with cubbies instead of drawers, and cabinets and closets with either sliding doors or none at all. “We also added supports and beefed up the construction of each piece,” Heintzelman explains, “because we know how this furniture is going to be used.”

This End Up's “Safe and Tough” line includes features with similar goals in mind, such as rounded corners and edges, slope-top wardrobes, recessed drawers, and floor anchors.

“It's designed for critically ill patients who also may be violent,” notes Costin. “The pieces don't have any open areas they can get into, on top of or behind-the design allows items to be secured to the floor, preventing patients from harming themselves or members of the staff.”

According to Mike McLean, U.S. marketing and sales for Spec Furniture, pieces should be “indestructible, weighted, constructed with tamperproof fasteners, without grab points or large edges, and built on a sled base or soft bottom.”

“Essentially, you're combining institutional attributes that are still required in these areas, but still moving toward new design criteria-softer, warmer and more like home,” notes McLean. “Finding the right balance can be difficult.”

Introduced in 2010, Spec Furniture's “Dignity” line features solid, one-piece molds around each arm. And while soft to the touch, McLean notes that each piece is still tough enough to prevent materials from being peeled off or ripped apart. They have tamperproof fasteners throughout, so nothing can be taken apart, weigh over 90 pounds (made heavier on request), and also can be fastened to the floor.


While the shift toward greater aesthetic appeal has required some “out of the box” thinking, traditional considerations like material selection are still critical. According to Voigt, solid wood (as opposed to particle board or MDF), plus the right kind of joinery, makes furniture more durable and joints less prone to coming loose.

“Any joint is going to be subjected to lots of movement, pressure and potential for failure, so the more they are beefed up with traditional joinery, glue, L-brackets and other reinforcements, the better,” explains Voigt. “Age-old techniques like dovetails and mortise and tenon may not create much of a visual, they definitely help make furniture more durable.” 

Wood finishes also have come a long way. Today, most lacquered finishes are low-maintenance, fairly impervious to damage, and beautiful. In most behavioral health settings, Heintzelman says lighter stains and finishes are typically preferred.

“They tend to hide marks-whether it's a scratch, a scrape, a bump or a bruise,” he explains. “Obviously when you scratch a piece of dark-stained furniture, you're going to expose bare wood. With a lighter stain, those sorts of things aren't going to be as noticeable.”

Another “incredibly important” consideration, McLean points out, is cleanability, which is essential to infectious disease control. “That's why features like side-panels and wood grain laminates have become popular. They look soft, warm and visually appealing, but they also are easy to clean.”


When furniture gets extensive use, usually nothing shows that more than the upholstery. To handle incontinence, spills, and destructive behaviors, vinyl upholstery has been the standard for years. But with the relatively recent advent of “cryptonized” fabric, a new standard is emerging.

In fact, the fabric treatment is widely regarded as one of the industry's most significant developments. “Crypton makes fabrics almost impervious to moisture and staining, but you get a much more aesthetically pleasing look,” notes Heintzelman. “You get the same results as vinyl, but it looks and feels like fabric.”

Even with “cryptonized” fabrics, experts agree that it's still important to select fabrics that are woven to hold up to group living environments. According to Voigt, checking a fabric's rub count (determined in tests simulating wear and tear) will help you predict how well a fabric will hold up.