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Kevin Groenke leaning against a CDesK.

Kevin Groenke with graduate student Della Hansmann at her CDesK.

Furnishing a solution

By Pauline Oo

From eNews, July 10, 2008

For several generations, architecture students at the University of Minnesota have put up with worn out and obsolete furniture at the design studios on campus. Some students even had to build their own desks. That all changed last summer when the College of Design replaced 250 mismatched desks with the CDesKs, workstations created specifically to address the unique needs of its students.

"The old tables were really worn out, and there wasn't enough storage space for all the materials [the students] needed in their studio coursework," says Kevin Groenke, who manages the W.L. Hall Workshop (student fabrication lab) in Rapson Hall. "Some of them were from 1960 when the building was first built, and about 150 had been cobbled together by students [between 1999 and 2001]."

When vendors' proposals for news desks turned up designs that were too expensive and didn't quite meet the needs of University architecture students, Groenke, a 1987 School of Journalism and Mass Communication alum, thought he could do better, so he decided to put his design skills to the test.

"Our college administrators didn't exactly discourage me from submitting a proposal, but they never asked me to do it either," says Groenke.

Groenke has been at W.L. Hall since 1995, mainly helping students use the shop's equipment to complete their architecture projects, and over the years, he has watched many of them make contraptions on the side to attach to their studio desk, which is assigned to them for an entire academic year. (Graduate students spend six semesters in the design studios.)

"Architecture students have different needs than most students," says Groenke. They're in their studios for 40, 50, 60 hours a week working on projects for their architecture classes. Their desk is their home away from home. It's where they draw, build models, use the computer, eat food, and have their entertainment systems. So, the table must accommodate a lot of different activities, effectively."

In fall 2006, Groenke spent about a month researching alternatives and sketching potential solutions to the problem. Then he moved to making full-scale prototypes.

"I tried not to be constrained by what a desk should be, but instead, looked at what the students needed spatially and functionally," he says. Students and faculty members offered feedback on the prototypes and suggested improvements along the way.

Groenke built four or five different desks in the fabrication lab before arriving at the hook-and-ladder design used in the CDesK. Unlike a regular table, the CDesK comes with 10 rails, akin to a ladder, that face the person using the table. This rail panel allows users to mount multiple shelves and accessories (for example, a bulletin board or extension cord) in any configuration they want--vertically, horizontally, above or below the desktop.

"We love the desks," says Della Hansmann, a third-year graduate student in architecture. "We have a lot more shelving space and drawers. It's easier to make things at this table."

The CDesK can be arranged in any number of ways, and can offer different degrees of privacy from neighboring workspaces. For example, if the desks were placed back to back, the students sitting across from each other could manipulate their shelves on the ladder-back system so they could see each other, or they could arrange the shelves to form a partition for some privacy.

Getting licensed

When Groenke started fiddling with a design for a studio desk, little did he realize it would yield a profit for him.

"A year ago Kevin contacted our office, and we evaluated the commercial potential of the desk design and then decided to make it available through a licensing agreement," says Leza Besemann, a technology strategy manager in the U's Office of Technology Commercialization. "We registered the designs with the U.S. Copyright Office, and now they're available for licensing."

When the architecture faculty and College of Design administration gave Groenke's desk the thumbs up, it was up to him to find a manufacturer. In July 2007, Michigan Maple Block was hired to produce the wooden tops for the 235 CDesKs that the college decided to order, and Twin Cities Metalfab got the contract to manufacture all of the other components. It took eight people at the college 10 days to assemble the desks for the students returning to or entering the architecture program in the fall semester.

The CDesK is not sold in retail stores yet, but costs approximately $1,000 each to build for a quantity of 250. Anyone who is interested in the desk can buy the license from the U and contract with a manufacturer to have it built.

According to University of Minnesota Regents policy, net income obtained from a licensing agreement is split evenly among the inventor, the U's Office of the Vice President for Research, and the resident college. In this case, one third each will go to Groenke and the College of Design.

"Never did I think I'd gain financially for it," says Groenke, who had originally named the desk Versa. "It wasn't until faculty members said, 'That's a great design; are you getting compensated?' that things started to change."

Groenke has spent the past six months working on a modular version of the desk, which has adjustable height and packs flat for easier shipping. The College of Design is is assembling 65 desks of the new design this summer for one of its interior design classrooms.

To learn more about the CDesK, download the flyer or licensing agreement at the Office for Technology Commercialization Web site.