+OnThatNote | By Adrian Thompson | Images courtesy of UNICEF
70 interiors+sources sepember2018 interiorsandsources.com
Providing a comfortable environment with reliable furniture and supplies is an essential part to any student’s learning. That is why UNICEF, the United Nations agency aimed
at improving the lives of children and their families in low-and middle-income countries, launched an international
tender to design ergonomically correct, child-friendly,
and sustainable classroom furniture for schools globally,
particularly in Sub-Saharan African communities—where
consistency, quality, and new design can be challenging.
Based on a competitive process, UNICEF selected
Mary Burnham and Jeff Murphy, partners at Murphy
Burnham & Buttrick Architects in New York as the architect firm. The team created prototypes of two new desks
and a chair that fully meet with UNICEF requirements, and
that could also be made by the region’s small-scale, local
manufactures. The designs were developed on an open-source platform and made available to all.
“We were attracted to UNICEF’s humanistic agenda
and [its] commitment to education and serving children,”
said Murphy of his inspiration for getting involved.
Burnham and Murphy started by surveying school
furniture use and common fabrication methods in
Rwanda and Malawi. They then presented their
research and design approaches to UNICEF’s Innovation
Unit in Copenhagen, where a team of external experts
provided feedback and helped them decide on the final
Made with wood, painted metal tubes, and simple
joinery, the new UNICEF furniture designs were tested in
Copenhagen and by field researchers (Malawi students).
After final tests and a few minor changes, prototypes
of the desks and chairs were sent eventually to Malawi,
where they serve as model pieces to be copied by local
fabricators. Since the project’s initial start in 2012, a total
of 4,186 sets of furniture have been or are in the process
of being installed across Rwanda, Malawi, and Ethiopia
in 10 schools and 32 classrooms.
UNICEF creates Target Product Profiles (TPPs) to
communicate requirements for products which
are currently not available on the market, but
which fulfill a priority need to be used in the
unique context in which UNICEF and its partners
operate. TPPs include information on how the
new product will be used, by or for whom, and
the minimum and ideal performance criteria.
The purpose of TPPs is to guide industry to
develop products that meet UNICEF’s needs,
however they do not act as the final procurement
specifications, but rather as a list of desired
requirements that combined describes the ideal
product considering the context. Learn more
about TPPs and sign up to receive updates at
Both students and their communities feel the positive effects of newly
designed, child-friendly, and sustainable classroom furniture.
ABOVE Local production
of the new furniture
will help reduce
reliance on importing
While boosting the
local economy, local
production also makes
maintenance a lot
easier and lengthens
the lifespan of the new
desks and chairs.