Built for Comfort - Vinyl Furniture with a Difference

  Subscribe to FREE newsletter  Sep 17, 2007

Upscale PVC furniture that looks like wood and is molded into classic styles helps long-term care facilities seem less institutional and still meet the special requirements of the residents. Kwalu—a South Carolina company with South African roots and a Zulu name—is a leader in this niche market. Their manufacturing process begins by going against Rule One of extrusion—not to mix the material properly.

The different colored resins are purposely not mixed thoroughly in the extrusion process, and the result is 33 shades and colors with the look of wood grain. "It's 10 percent experience and 90 percent black art," James Kidwell, vice president for development, explained.

Anatomy of a Chair

To make a chair frame, the extruded pipe is cut to size, and the pieces are molded into individual components, such as Queen Anne legs. Steel reinforcing rods are set at the joints. A thermoset resin foam is injected into the legs until it fills the entire hollow interior, clinging to the inside of the PVC and becoming a solid mass. Now the chair is rigid. Its measurements are checked to ensure it is identical to all other chairs of that type.

Washed and trimmed, this raw frame can now be upholstered just like a wooden chair. The company generally upholsters with Crypton fabric, which is completely waterproof. The finished chair is impervious to moisture contamination and bacterial problems associated with the incontinence that is prevalent at nursing/long-term care facilities. These easily cleaned chairs and Kwalu's tables mean that dining room furniture does not have to look like it belongs on a patio, Kidwell said. "People can dine with dignity."

Further, the chairs have a patented joint system that absorbs the stress of constant pushing and pulling as nurses' aides help residents sit down at and leave the table. The design also includes overhangs that allow the residents to lean forward and stand up without tipping over the chair. There is no overcoating or lacquer, so, unlike wood varnishes, Kwalu chairs give off no VOCs (volatile organic compounds). The chairs are naturally flame-retardant and meet the California open-flame test, which has been called the most severe fire test in the world for upholstered furniture.

Kwalu's other furnishings—case goods including chests and storage units—are made of vinyl sheeting laminated to particleboard, and they match the wood grain of the chairs. The case goods are made according to regulations in the Americans With Disabilities Act, e.g., no sharp edges and drawer pulls at angles readily available to arthritic hands. Kwalu's products also include matching lines of handrails to assist unsteady walkers and wall sheeting to protect against dents and scrapes from wheelchairs and other equipment

A Buff's Enough

Marketing manager Roy Krummeck is proudest of Kwalu's repairability. While wood repair requires stripping and revarnishing, any scratches and scrapes on Kwalu chairs come out with a buffing pad.

"The wood grain goes down three mm (millimeters), so the chairs can take a lot of sanding down and still retain their appearance," Krummeck said. Kwalu chairs keep their good looks for years -- a plus for long-term care facilities and other hard-use customers, such as military bases and schools. Some customers—such as mental facilities—appreciate the fact that the furnishings can literally take a beating.

The company was founded in South Africa in 1984, and the first PVC pipe they made was molded to look like bamboo—or "kwalu" in Zulu. As the years passed, much of Kwalu's product was exported to the U.S., but the lead-time of 10 to 12 weeks was too long for customers here, Kidwell explained. About seven years ago, the company moved from Cape Town to Ridgeland, South Carolina, cutting the lead-time to eight weeks.

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