Beyond the upholstered world

Konstantin Grcic

Konstantin Grcic in conversation with Thomas Wagner at this year's Orgatec in Cologne. Photo © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark

Not just the mind wanders where it wants, so does the new spirit of work. “Workspirit” is the name Vitra has given the newcomers to its office furniture program that were presented at the Orgatec in Cologne. They include the “Allstar” office chair and the “Hack” height-adjustable desk, both designed by Konstantin Grcic. Both are poignant and persuasive statements on the history of office furniture and attest to the profound changes undergoing the current world of work. At the Orgatec Thomas Wagner met Konstantin Grcic and talked with him about both products and how they arose.

Thomas Wagner: Konstantin, a desk and a chair, both for Vitra and meant for work. Let’s start with the office chair: How can it be that someone like Konstantin Grcic has designed an upholstered office chair? You never had any time for the upholstered world hitherto?

Konstantin Grcic: Oh, but I definitely did!

But working life remains hard, doesn’t it?

Grcic: Yes indeed. I must confess that I never asked the question as regards this chair. In fact back with the Artek chair that we made, and it was also meant to be a work chair, I said from the very beginning that it would only be made with upholstery. I don’t want discussions revolving around questions like: So why doesn’t it have any upholstery? – and if it doesn’t then: Can we add upholstery after all, please? I’ve got into such arguments over other chairs and I simply wanted to avoid the issue. It’s not like I am against soft seats and upholstery on principle.

So you kept your ground?

Grcic: Yep, I kept my ground. If you construe the project form the outset with upholstery, then fine. What’s bad is the idea of having to retrofit; I think that always results in unsatisfactory solutions. “Allstar” is without doubt not a typical office chair for a nine-to-five job. But it’s still a real office chair.

And why is Allstar not right for a nine-to-five office job?

Grcic: For all the sea-change in offices, nine-to-five still means a day in the office. But people no longer necessarily sit from nine in the morning till five in the afternoon at one and the same workstation. The world of work, and certain offices, large offices especially, have really changed. Now, I’m not talking about non-territorial offices but about offices where every staff member has a workstation. Which also includes having to go somewhere to phone, moving to this place or that place to perform specific tasks. Meaning office chairs have long since ceased to be things people are chained to all day. Our office chair was meant to be comfortable and can now do everything a checklist chair can, and I say now because that was not part of the original plan.

The „Allstar“ has it all: synchronizing mechanism, adjusting seat depth and lumbar support, and of course it swivels and the height can be adjusted. But it is not what you picture at the first glance. Photo: Eduardo Perez © Vitra

That’s what is so surprising. When you sit on it you notice how ingenious the support mechanism is, something you wouldn’t expect looking at it.

Grcic: There’s a synchronizing mechanism, adjusting seat depth and lumbar support, and of course it swivels and the height can be adjusted. In fact, you can adjust about everything bar the armrests. And what’s so cool is that all this evolved in the course of the project, starting with the wish to make an office chair that didn’t set out to meet such requirements and certainly didn’t wish to look like it could do everything. The reference model was not some typical office chair typology, and I’m talking here of the typology that has prevailed over the last two decades. The chair refers to other kinds of chairs, meaning real chairs, and definitely brings to mind old office chairs, or creates mental images of them. I didn’t like that at first, as it smacked of Retro-ism.

But you’re one of the few designers who very consciously address design history?

Grcic: Yes, because you can’t simply sidestep it. The moment the development starts generating well-known images and references, that’s when you ask yourself: Do I continue in this vein? Followed by: Am I doing this deliberately or shall we break things off at this point as it’s meaningless? I feel that when you look at the chair you don’t think of an old chair all the time. That said, the old and seemingly well-known is all part of the comfort which should definitely be the center of things when it comes to a chair. You’re meant to feel good when you use it.

The chair by no means looks old and also doesn’t seem to be a copy of some classic office chair. But as you said there are still references and intimations of what we still associated with office work, aren’t there?

Grcic: Yes, namely to all those things that are good about the old chairs. They aren’t so loved for nothing. Meaning you can consciously return to them as they exude quality, they’re so simple and have a clear face. They’re likeable and a little domesticated, and not cold machines such as have been propagated the last few years.

Did you find it interesting to consciously say: “Hey, we’ve presented the ergonomics and mechanical parts to the outside world for long enough, confusing them with design, and we know how to do it, so we’ll integrate all the necessary functions without rendering them visible. All that counts is for them to exist.”

Grcic: Yes, a nice cycle was set in motion. The more technology advances, the more we can return to something that is aligned to our intuition. Today, computers no longer need to be controlled by keyboards, you can suddenly leaf through things on a touchscreen...

Like through a stack of paper...

Grcic: Yes, and things are similar as regards office furniture. The world of work is currently characterized by the fact that offices create different worlds or scenarios or situations, because work is not just an activity, but diversity, leisure, etc.

The first prototypes of the chair in Konstantin Grcic's studio. Photo © Konstantin Grcic Industrial Design

Let’s move on to “Hack”. While “Allstar” plays with citations of historical office chairs, “Hack” is a completely different type of desk. “Hack” seems improvised and yet perfect. There’s a sense of the door-pane-on-trestles-table about it. Is it fair to say: The way people work is in flux, meaning that what they need to work has to be adjustable and mobile, too? Now I’m sitting, now I’m standing, and I can even pack the table up completely.

Grcic: Well, the chair and the table have little to do with each other. The fact that both are on show here simply happened, and I’m astonished and gratified that somehow they fit together. But the two were completely separate development briefs. The desk was preceded by a trip I undertook with Vitra to California. In May last year I traveled with Eckhard Meise, who’s Head of Development at Vitra, to Silicon Valley. So much is changing there, for Vitra, too, and we wanted to see it with our own eyes. The people you meet there have long since ceased to be the nerds working out of garages, but are entrepreneurs who are setting the pace, run companies with a payroll of 15,000, and who then say to Vitra: “Hmm, very nice the things you do. But much too elegant, much too refined, much too ‘corporate’” – and so on. Vitra is great because they say OK, we need to find out what this is about because we want to understand what’s actually happening. So we visited some companies – Google, Yahoo, Apple, and Facebook – to see what kind of places they are, who works there, how do they work, what is the work, how does it all function? And of course that was quite a shock, because they of course then said: “Vitra doesn’t really interest us for workstations. First of all, we don’t spend money on such things, and secondly we don’t care what the thing looks like. It simply has to be flexible, light, and keep pace with the dynamic changes in the office. When the teams split up, you have to find 50 new workstations overnight. Those are the sorts of things the chairs and desks have to be ready for.” – Now that’s the one side to it. On the other, we soon saw that in California, and this will soon be the case everywhere, employees and employers alike formulate clear standards as regards ergonomics, working seated and working standing.

But the list of requirements is not exactly new, is it?

Grcic: No, of course not, there are plenty of sitting/standing tables, but they’re just the tables and nothing else. What this then does to the office as a whole is the really horrific side to things. Precisely in America you can well imagine what happens: There’s some NBA-acolyte who wants to work standing at the desk. And opposite him a small girl of Taiwanese extraction at a desk that is only 650mm high, meaning she is staring straight at her neighbor’s table top and all the cables hanging from it all the time, or even at his bellybutton. We actually saw offices like that. And this prompted us to think: OK, we’ll make this box that then fosters one and the same architecture within large open-plan office spaces and means it doesn’t matter whose desktop is where. And we also saw that they all start building things up around their desk tops, creating barricades as it were, isolating themselves with earphones, because you need some form of concentration in order to work hard, which they do. That all gave rise to the key characteristics of “Hack”. A simple box as architecture and the option of being able to shift the tabletop within the box.

The chair „Allstar“ and the table „Hack“ have little to do with each other, but somehow they fit together. Foto: Eduardo Perez © Vitra

That’s just the beginning of all the ingenuity “Hack” offers. You can adjust the top height easily, can simply fold the entire table away, grab an additional 50 tables from the warehouse, etc...

Grcic: The key is to be able to assemble the tables quickly, as companies in Silicon Valley relocate quickly, and then possibly relocate again only a year later. Meaning no one invests in architecture. The table, and in our case it is the workstation, somehow creates the architecture for them, a microarchitecture. You need a space, and here you get one complete with the electrics, ready to go.

Why do you opt for a simple crank as the height adjuster?

Grcic: In Silicon Valley they said to Vitra: “Sure, you’ve got that desk with the press-a-button height adjustment, but that requires power, and we definitely don’t want that.” In that respect they’re all eco-fanatics! And what’s so great about these techy corporations is that they spend the whole time working away in their digital spheres, but are really happy surrounding themselves with very simple, analog things. And they all said to us: Hey, we don’t want plastic, we much prefer wood and natural materials.

You mean if the nerds develop a little more of a feel for aesthetics we’ll end up loving them?

Grcic: Then we’ll love them, yes. At least they have found a very leisurely way of moving between an analog and their digital world.

Would you agree to the statement: In the form of “Hack” you have kind of created the Eiermann frame for 21st century needs?

Grcic: That was certainly the idea. Although the height adjustment was quite an engineering feat, although of course Vitra was backing us up as the producer. Meaning “Hack” is a little more than just an Eiermann frame.

As I said, an Eiermann frame for the 21st century.

Grcic: Well, yes, I could certainly get used to that. The idea was to create furniture with a very practical thrust and a touch of the unfinished about it. The Eiermann frame is what it is, and what I as a user make of it, and how I make it into my table. That’s what we tried to do with “Hack”, as well. You make it available as a blank that can do a lot of different things, and then you make use of it, building from it the office you need, or the workstation that you want best to have.

So no upholstered world after all, but an object that can be handled intuitively and adjusted to your own requirements?

Grcic: Yes, definitely.

"Hack" is individually adjustable in height. Foto: Eduardo Perez © Vitra
The table can be folded as quickly as build up. Foto: Eduardo Perez © Vitra
The world of start-ups need no lounge Islands, it is rather a factory for think tanks. Drawing © Konstantin Grcic Industrial Design