Orfield Labs is housed in a one-story building on the corner of 27th Avenue and 25th Street in Minneapolis. It’s an unassuming structure, all but obscured by ivy and arbor vitae, but it has a remarkable history. It was built in 1970 to house the Sound 80 recording studio. Most famous for recording portions of Bob Dylan’s landmark 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, Sound 80 also attracted artists such as Dave Brubeck, Prince, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and Lipps, Inc., whose hit “Funkytown” was recorded there. In 1977, the building earned another Guinness record: “World’s First Digital Recording Studio.”
Steve Orfield bought the building in 1990, transforming it from a sound studio to a federally certified product testing lab. In 1995, he put on an addition to accommodate an acoustic and lighting lab. His history as the creator of the business is as unusual as the building’s.
Orfield grew up near Lake Harriet and attended Washburn High School. “I was kind of a screw-off in school,” he recalls. “Everything came easily to me. I didn’t study, but I did well. Teachers didn’t like me because I was always bored.”
As a student at the University of Minnesota, he minored in psychology and majored in philosophy (he studied ways of determining whether a philosophical problem really is a problem, and how to approach its solution). In the last quarter of his senior year, he got married and quit school. “It was the ’60s,” Orfield says, “and I pretty much decided that though I loved my education, the degree meant nothing.”
Orfield turned down his new father-in-law’s offer of a partnership in his medical products business. “It would have made me millions of dollars,” he says. “But I just couldn’t do it. I thought it would be like going to prison.”
Orfield took a sales job at an office-furniture company—and quit before a year was out. (His employer wouldn’t pay him commissions on his sales, Orfield says.) He then started his own business in the basement of his duplex near Minnehaha Falls, taking with him his former employer’s biggest client; he moved in 1971 to a storefront at 46th and Bloomington. After a couple of years, he and his staff of five were representing about 12 manufacturers of high-end commercial furniture, two of which specialized in “open plan” systems for offices with elements including acoustical screens and electrified cubicles.
Orfield had no trouble selling the systems, but many users complained about acoustics, lighting, and, most of all, lack of privacy. So he persuaded the two open-plan manufacturers to fund a lab, bought his first measurement equipment, and began performing advanced measurement of speech privacy and lighting visibility for clients seeking to improve their products.