The Quietest Place in the World
The sound of innovation has a special resonance for Steve Orfield.
Shhhh. Stop for a moment and listen. That’s what Steve Orfield, founder and president of Orfield Laboratories, wants his clients to do.
For 53 years, Orfield and his small team of auditory wizards have consulted with a staggering array of companies that range from roaring Harley Davidson to the whisper-quiet mattress maker Select Comfort. The goal? To improve how products sound and how buildings affect people.
Orfield, who studied philosophy at the U of M from 1966 to 1969, uses the specially designed sound studio at his company to help companies innovate. Along the way, he’s learned that engineers and marketers at world-famous companies don’t know what consumers like and dislike about their products.
“If you want to design something, it’s not for you. It’s for the user,” says Orfield. “The user has very different feelings than you do. It’s your job to measure their feelings and satisfy [them], independent of anything that relates to your own taste and desires. You need to do the science of their world, not the science of your world.”
When Whirlpool told him homeowners wanted its dishwashers’ wash cycles to be quieter, Orfield conducted his own research. He learned the appliance maker wasn’t hearing what really irked consumers. What they hated was the crunching transitional noise between cycles.
“When you’re listening to a sound, no matter what it is, eventually you get used to it and forget about it, but the transitional sound calls your attention to it. After Whirlpool made those transitions dead silent, everybody copied them,” he says.
From dishwashers to motorcycles
Harley Davidson wanted to tweak the rude rumblings of its bikes for the more genteel European market. So Orfield went to Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, where he strapped a headphone-wearing mannequin to the back of a motorcycle for high-speed testing. He broke down the engine and muffler noises into various components. “We defined the sounds of power, of excitement, and of quality, keeping the good ones and editing out the bad ones,” he says.
Most product testing happens in the company’s headquarters, a nondescript concrete building in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood where Orfield runs what he calls “the world’s only multisensory design research lab.” The building came with its own sonic ancestry: it formerly housed the acclaimed Sound 80 Studios where Bob Dylan recorded Blood on the Tracks and Prince made demos for his debut album.
Today the site has won acclaim for housing the world’s quietest room. Orfield has tested car parts, cell phones, fans, medical gear, and much more in this anechoic chamber, which has double walls of steel and concrete and an interior with walls peppered with spiky acoustic wedges more than a yard long. There is no place for sound to reflect. Once inside, “you become the noise,” Orfield says.
Thanks to a lurid Smithsonian Magazine headline in 2013—“Earth’s Quietest Place Will Drive You Crazy in 45 Minutes”—a parade of journalists and curiosity seekers have flocked to the room. (The company’s website invites all comers to take “The Orfield Challenge” for $600 per hour per person.) A New York Times reporter wrote that when she flexed her eyebrows there, she could hear the frontalis muscles in her forehead. The current record for time inside is two hours.
For seven years, Orfield found himself disputing the Guinness Book of World Records over the sounds of silence. In 2004 it certified his chamber as the quietest place on Earth—a record Microsoft broke in 2015 with its own quiet room. Incensed about what he saw as a dubious decision, Orfield submitted another new record of -29 decibels. (A whisper is 30 dB.) He says Guinness has told him by email his room has regained its lost record.
Better sensory experiences
Besides product consulting, Orfield helps architects design with sensory pleasures in mind. His company created the lighting and acoustics for the Mariucci Arena. “It was the first and only hockey arena with a task ambient lighting system designed to take all the glare away from spectators,” says Orfield. According to him, for years the arena bragged that thanks to his lighting, pucks became highly contrasting against the ice, making them easier to see. He also redesigned the lighting in Amundson Hall to rid it of bright beams of light that targeted podiums and distracted professors.
During the Great Recession, Orfield spent $2 million to develop disability design standards for buildings whose primary users were those with dementia and autism. “I’m as proud of that as anything I’ve done. I knew it was my job to do something nobody else knew how to do,” he says.
He then designed 16-person cottages for dementia patients in Cedar Falls, Iowa. They have soft interior lighting, warm color schemes, wide hallways, and bedrooms near kitchens so residents can smell cooking odors. “People who never talked were starting to talk. People who didn’t eat well were starting to eat well. People who were never social were becoming social. Miracles were happening,” says Orfield.
“Steve created a wonderful environment for people to be as successful as possible for as long as possible,” says Kris Hansen, CEO of Western Home Communities, which runs the homes. In 2015, the U.K.-based International Dementia Awards honored the sites with the Dementia Design Innovation of the Year honor.
The philosophy major left the U of M during his last semester to get married, but he’s grateful to have studied at what he believes was one of the world’s best philosophy departments. “I learned that a question doesn’t imply an answer. It implies a suspicious-looking question,” he says. “It isn’t solving problems that we need skill at—it’s defining them, because once you define them correctly, solutions jump at you. What I’ve spent my life doing is redefining everybody’s problems.”
Orfield calls himself as a polymath and autodidact because he taught himself the wide array of scientific theories and applications his company’s research demands. “I feel blessed I’ve lived a life of serendipity where I keep bumping into new things. I keep discovering ways of dealing with them. Fifty years after college, my life is so much more complex than it was when I was younger that it thrills me.”