Meet Martin Keen

Martin Keen On Designing the Locus Workstation

After more than a decade in development, the Locus Workstation was unveiled in 2012. It immediately won awards and praise from the ergonomics community. But that was just the warm up. If Martin Keen has his way, his workstation is going to help you work better and live better.

Martin Keen’s Focal Upright Launch Interview With INC.

Martin Keen thinks some things are just meant to be. He grew up in a family that liked to make stuff—groovy 70’s style furniture, custom clothing and conceptual art featuring found objects. He could macramé a nifty plant hanger, operate his dad’s power tools, and run his mother’s sewing machine all by the age of twelve.

A childhood of making things with his hands helped point Martin to Ohio State University, where he figured he’d study to be an engineer and build really cool things. One year of advanced math and physics taught Martin one thing: he did not want to be an engineer. So he shifted his focus to product design, a serendipitous choice since Ohio State already boasted one of the top industrial design programs in the country. There, his German instructors taught him about design semantics, the Bauhaus movement and the unification of art, craft and technology. They taught him a design philosophy he has adhered to since: form follows function. Martin loved the education. Still, with the distractions of the university’s Sailing Team (yes, OSU has a sailing team), Martin was hardly a model student. But graduate he did, and promptly landed a job…as a sailing instructor.

Martin didn’t intend to become a shoe designer, but a family connection got him an interview, and ultimately a job, in the industry. He was good at shoe design but his heart was never in it; he was unceremoniously fired from his second job when this became obvious. After five years and two footwear companies, Martin knew it was futile to keep pursuing a place in the corporate world where he would be participating in the slow death of his creativity. With a pregnant wife and little money, he decided to move to Rhode Island, one of the sailing capitals of the world, and return to what he did best: designing for function. He opened his own industrial design office in the red barn behind his house.

Keen Shoe Design by Martin Keen
KEEN Footwear became the fastest growing outdoor brand in the world.

KEEN Design Studio was very successful, but Martin continued to be frustrated by the footwear industry’s emphasis on disposable fashion and quick profit. In his mind, he was still spending all his time designing things that didn’t matter. Who really cared if the hot new colors were eggplant and sea foam? Worse, he was horrified by the working conditions he witnessed in manufacturing facilities in Asia—young pregnant women using hazardous solvents, child labor and blatant worker exploitation. His new ambition was to find a way to mix corporate responsibility with the production of an enduring, functional product; Martin figured there had to be a better way.

What Martin did care about was designing practical things, things that were useful and solved a problem that he perceived. Realizing a personal need, Martin designed for himself a pair of hybrid sandals that would protect his feet when he went sailboat racing. For two years, he wore them everywhere, and endured his friends laughing at his ugly sandals.  In 2003 he patented the idea and launched KEEN® Footwear. With its innovative product and unique corporate philosophy of consciousness and sustainability, KEEN quickly became the fastest-growing outdoor brand in the world. By this point, his friends weren’t laughing anymore.

All this shoe design was happening in Martin’s barn studio, where he had been struggling to get comfortable at his old adjustable-height drafting table. He had been sitting on a high stool at the desk, which made him feel like a slumped-over slug. He tried standing, which was better, but found it was tiring after an hour or two. Finally, from a corner of the barn, Martin dug out an old, rusting stool made with a metal tractor seat. He tipped the stool forward and began leaning against the seat. Within moments he realized he was on to something. That place between sitting and standing seemed an ideal solution.

The rusted tractor stool was the inspiration for the Locus Standing Seat
A rusting stool with a tractor seat provided early inspiration for the Focal Upright Seat.

The new work configuration increased Martin’s focus and productivity, but now more and more of his design time was spent sketching the ideal adjustable standing desk and seat that were taking shape in his mind. Twelve years, four hundred and fifty-six drawings, forty-two scale models and twenty working prototypes later, his next company was ready to change the way we work. “The guiding thought for me was that humans evolved to be upright,” explains Martin. “Why did we even begin sitting in the first place? Why do we continue to impose this unhealthy posture on ourselves in our work environments where we spend the bulk of our waking hours? As I considered these questions, and coaxed what would become the Locus Workstation into being, I realized I wanted my work to focus on designs that encourage this upright lifestyle.”

To that end Martin and his wife Mary incorporated the business Focal Upright Furniture, and introduced the Locus Workstation, an ergonomic standing desk and seat, at the May 2012 International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City. By December 2012, the Locus Workstation had won the ErgoExpo award for best new product. From there, the Upright Revolution has ignited across the country and beyond, receiving rave reviews from users and media outlets alike. Most recently, Inc. Magazine awarded Focal with their Best in Class Design Award.

Martin is a kettle of ideas, always on low simmer. He doesn’t sleep enough. His room is a mess. And he was supposed to call his mother yesterday. But he’s doing what he loves to do: observing how we interact with our environment, and using his intuitive sense of what is needed with a designer’s instinct for utility, material and form to improve how we do what we do. He doesn’t dwell too much on what already is, but rather spends his time thinking about what isn’t.

Martin Keen lives in Jamestown, Rhode Island with Mary, his wife of twenty years, their two teenagers and a pair of old Labrador retrievers. He can be found most days tinkering with new product innovations in his red barn.


Q&A with Martin Keen

Locus Workstation Early PrototypeThe Locus Workstation was introduced to the market in 2012
Left: An early prototype of the upright Locus Workstation takes shape in the Rhode Island studio of Keen Design.
Right: The Workstation was introduced to the market in the spring of 2012.
In December 2012 the Workstation won the ErgoExpo award for best new product. 2013 brought the Grand Prize in Product Innovation from Buildings Magazine.

What came first conceptually, the height adjustable desk or the Locus Seat?
The seat. That’s where I saw the greatest need for design improvement, just based on my own experience with trying to be comfortable working in my own studio in a sitting position. As I honed the design for the upright seat, it became obvious that I needed an adjustable upright desk that would not only complement the aesthetic of the seat in both material and form but was equally as functional. I was also disappointed with the lack of robustness and stability of most standing height desks. And, as a designer, I wanted the desk to be very functional, so the desk top is designed to be used flat, or it can be inclined up to 15 degrees to be used as a drafting table

Today’s office chairs have very sophisticated ergonomic designs that include lumbar support, adjustable seat tilt, arm rests and height. But the Locus Seat is stripped of what consumers have come to expect of ergonomic design. In fact you went retro, using a seat pan in the shape of a tractor seat. Are you saying a seat designed over a century ago got it right?
First, it’s important to clarify the difference between a seat and a chair.  A chair has a back and often arms. It can also have all those other features you mention, but the chair’s historical primary function is as a place of rest that commanded respect and denoted authority. Think about the throne, or just the word chairman, or how it is rude to not offer someone  a chair when they visit you. Deeply embedded in our culture is the idea that sitting in a chair is better. Sitting was for the rulers rather than workers. And yet, humans evolved to be upright beings. In my research, I came across early tractors on which the farmer was supported in a triangulated position with his feet braced. The Locus Seat pan is based on those tractor seats, so yes, that shape is good. But the real key is that the seat pan is lifted up and tilted forward. This allows for the leaning posture, which is ergonomically superior to sitting. Lumbar support, arm rests and all that are fine, so long as you still want to sit.  But just Google the phrase “sitting disease” and you’ll understand why I prefer Locus’ leaning position.

You already have a tremendously successful track record as the designer of KEEN Footwear, shoe designs that went in a radically new direction. Did that experience emboldened you to trust that consumers would follow your lead as you re-imagined how a workstation should look and work?
I am very grateful for the success of my first company. That gave me the freedom to leave the footwear industry and work on products I’d been thinking about for years. I designed the Locus Workstation to solve a problem I saw, to address a need I had in my own studio. And I guess I figured I couldn’t possibly be the only one frustrated by the options that were out there. My first prototypes of the Locus Seat predate KEEN Footwear, though. The Keen Newport sandal was designed at a Locus Workstation, where I felt uninhibited enough to design a shoe that was so radical.

Are you going to continue designing ergonomic office furniture or is there another design area you want to explore?
I am fascinated by the concept of “body-conscious” design. Re-imagining the work place is a great place to start because we all spend so much time there, but I look around me and see so many objects that could be improved ergonomically. “Body-conscious” design can apply to almost any product. I am interested in designing products that support the “upright lifestyle.” Dr. Galen Cranz, author of The Chair: Rethinking Culture Body and Design, and a pioneer in the field of body conscious design, has recently joined our Board of Advisors. I look forward to collaborating with her.

Who is the Focal Customer?
Well, me, for a start. In the same way I designed the first KEEN shoe to meet a need I perceived, the Locus Adjustable Workstation and seat were built to solve the challenge I had in finding a comfortable way to work. In the process I had faith I was also building a solution that other people would want. So far a wide variety of people have adopted our new way of working. There is the obvious appeal to architects, designers and others in the creative fields who have the option to use the desk as a drafting table, but our clients also include professors, medical doctors, physical therapists, scientists, ergonomists, lawyers, yoga instructors and CEOs. Our customers include people who are thoughtful about how they work and are trying to live a healthier life.

Where is the desk made?
Focal products are designed and assembled here in our Rhode Island headquarters from domestically and internationally sourced components. Our parts come from the United States, Canada, Germany, and China. Whenever possible, we source components domestically. We continually review our vendors with the goal of sourcing as much as possible domestically.

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