The Architect of Objects

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Larry Vollum ’74’s creative thinking has revolutionized the OR

As medicine has changed with technology, hospital operating rooms have become crowded with carts, cables, cameras, and computer monitors. Doctors and nurses have been tripping over wires, hemmed in by proliferating electronics.

This was the scenario recently presented to industrial designer Larry Vollum ’74 by a company called CompView Medical. They had developed a system in which operating room monitors could be switched between many different sources, so you didn’t need as many monitors and they could be taken off their carts. Larry’s problem to solve: where and how do you place the monitors for maximum efficiency?

Larry Vollum’s invention, the NuBoom

Larry was the ideal person for the job. A curious, award-winning designer, he loves challenges. His elegant solution, now called NuBoom, unites all the equipment on a central tower with two boom arms. The electronics live on shelves in the tower, and the monitors hang from the booms, with adjustable arms so that doctors and nurses can position them exactly where they need them. With Larry’s system, hospitals don’t have to rebuild their entire operating rooms and lose their function for weeks or months. The boom system can be installed in two days, a simple retrofit that has already improved the quality of medical care throughout the country.

Of all the designing Larry has done since his twenties, this project has been the most satisfying for him. He first encountered industrial designers in his father’s company, Tektronix, where he interned with the corporate design group. There he discovered the beauty of the discipline, a delicate balance between art and engineering that he calls “an architecture of everything but buildings.”

“An industrial designer has to have a sense of creative perspective and enough engineering knowledge to know what’s possible,” Larry says. “Someone has to care about the big picture and all the tiny details simultaneously. Consumers sense when something is beautifully done, even if they can’t articulate why. And it’s very complicated to make something seem simple, but not simplistic.”

At Cal State Long Beach, his thesis project, an electronic sheet music display and stand, won the first Burroughs Design Prize and was included in Time magazine’s 10 best designs of 1984. Later, Larry’s design work on monitors and cabinets for E-Machines, a company founded by his brother Steve ’72, also won awards. Larry went on to design other computer products and consult for other companies.

As his career developed, Larry became aware that he was contributing to the torrent of consumer goods, and for years he wished for ethically grounded work with a greater purpose. Now, with his notable contribution to the medical field, Larry feels that his work finally unites what’s important to him: intellectual satisfaction, brisk challenges in both aesthetics and engineering, and a livelihood that does good for the world.