Excerpts from René Clair`s movie “À Nous la Liberté” (1931), illustration © Sabrina Spee, Stylepark
Excerpt from Billy Wilder´s movie “The Apartment ” (1960), illustration © Sabrina Spee, Stylepark
Excerpt from Jacques Tati´s movie “Playtime” (1967), illustration © Sabrina Spee, Stylepark
Excerpts from Alan J. Pakula´s movie “All the President´s Men” (1976), illustration © Sabrina Spee, Stylepark
Excerpt from the US-American TV-series “Mad Men” (since 2007), illustration © Sabrina Spee, Stylepark
“M”, Head of Secret Intelligence Service MI6, in her office in the new James Bond movie “Skyfall” (2012), illustration © Sabrina Spee, Stylepark
Forecasting offices
by Thomas Edelmann
Nov 14, 2012

As both a place and a way of living, the office is something that occupies us far more than it is intended to. Film discovered the office as versatile subject matter rather early on. For example in the jailbird musical “À nous la Liberté” (“Freedom for us”) by René Clair (1931), whose set design (created by Lazare Meerson) is a determining factor in the film. A manager’s office placed at the heart of a functionalist factory that is as sparse as it is luxurious becomes a key part of the plot. The film irreverently satirizes places and institutions that at the time were only just asserting themselves in their “modern” form: prisons, schools, factories and offices. In doing so, René Clair takes a significantly more playful approach than Michel Foucault would decades later in his analytical writings.

Our present-day perception of open-plan offices is not least influenced by films such as Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” (1960). Wilder’s office of nightmares was the brainchild of set designer Alexandre Traumer, who had previously worked with Meerson in Paris. Thereupon, Jacques Tati and his set designer Eugène Roman reconstructed office areas and even entire buildings for the movie, specimens of sublime perfectionism that (as in the real urban environment) prove to be fanciful, inflated constructs and are reduced to absurdity in their simplicity of use. In our everyday dealings with modern design products it is precisely this amalgamation of grandeur and dysfunction, which is almost impossible to extricate, that sometimes evokes a laugh, and sometimes amazed silence.

Alan J. Pakula’s political thriller “All the President’s Men” (1976), set decoration by George P. Gaines, provides a different take on the matter. Here the open-plan office occupies a significant proportion of the space. In this case, the office is an environment accommodating a tense, modern existence. It is a place of reflection, research and communication. There may be many a rolled-up sleeve and loosened necktie, but barely a single place to retreat, barely a single area for repose or relaxation. But what do you need that for?

In the popular retro series “Mad Men” by Matthew Weiner, which has been on air since 2007 and is now in its fifth series, we are confronted with an image of a historical office setting as anything but non-hierarchical and emancipated, rather one that holds many advantages that appear to have since disappeared once and for all. Or have we just misplaced the lounger, hat rack, clothes press and whiskey stash? Nonetheless, art director Christopher Brown and set decorator Amy Wells have succeeded in conjuring them up once again for the 63 episodes that have been filmed to date.

And even “Skyfall”, the latest in the James Bond franchise (which in addition to many other things provides a good serving of product placement), depicts the destruction and reconstruction of office environments. The audience gasps as M’s office in the postmodern MI6 building designed by Terry Farrell and John Laing is blown sky high – and with it the “AirPad” office chair by Interstuhl, transparent mesh back and all. Another theme addressed in the film is whether “field work” still holds any relevance for today’s agents, whether they wouldn’t be better in an office, leaning back in their light desk chairs. At any rate, in the provisional office that enters the plot thereafter, supposedly a repurposed section of Churchill’s war bunker, glazed partitioning and colossal flat screens seem to be the latest trend – as do luminaires by Tobias Grau. Finally, the team moves to its new premises, which in turn take us back to the old, the traditional.

Past comfort

With such images from film and cultural history in mind, what impression might one get while strolling around a “themed” trade fair such as the recently concluded Orgatec 2012 in Cologne? “Mad Men” fans will soon stumble across the first retro projects. How do re-editions of items of furniture that have remained in obscurity for decades actually come about? Well, this can often be ascribed to connections between teachers and students. Architect Adolf Krischanitz, for example, was charged with the task of remodeling a building by his teacher Karl Schwanzer (1918-1975). In Germany, Schwanzer is above all known for his BMW tower, the company’s Munich headquarters, which was built in 1972 and is reminiscent of a four-cylinder engine. Schwanzer had also designed the Austrian pavilion for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, which was later transferred to Vienna. Now Krischanitz has remodeled the pavilion and transformed it into the “21er Haus” (“House 21”) for Austria’s Belvedere Gallery. Incidentally, this is where the idea originated to create a re-edition of Schwanzer’s waiting room furniture complete with the conical lines and contours typical of the time. “Kollektion 1958” is now part of the product range at multi-brand company Schneeweiss AG (established in 2010) and has been supplemented by a matching conference table and leather sofas. The wingback chair and table both tell of a time gone by, a time of pure materials, solid workmanship and durable design.

Another re-edition is also the work of a student. Designer Fritz Močnik studied under architect, photographer and publicist Werner Blaser (born 1924) in Vienna. Manufacturer Löffler based in Reichenschwand near Nuremberg last attended Orgatec a decade ago. This time round the company dedicated an entire, and indeed large, wall of its trade fair presentation to Blaser’s black-and-white photography as well as introducing their re-edition of his “developments” (Blaser rejected the term “design”). The product range includes an ensemble of armchairs and stools with solid oak, mortise frames and hide covers, which is joined by a matching table with a black-stained, oak veneer tabletop. They date back to the 1950s and 1970s and owing to their technical perfection and handcrafted quality appear somewhat strange from a present-day perspective. Blaser traveled first to Finland (to see Alvar Aalto) in 1949, then to Chicago in 1951 (to see Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), and to Japan in 1953. Since the release of his first book “Japanese Temples and Teahouses”, he has published a total of 108 books, and there are more in the pipeline. Here, he juxtaposes Modernist buildings and furniture with historical buildings in Asia or Switzerland, shining a light on their at times anonymous design qualities. Löffler and Blaser have heralded the beginning of an extensive collaboration that should bear a wealth of new exhibitions and publications.

Awakening in the central zone

Orgatec works wonderfully as a “themed” trade fair, and the new, rather fine “cubicle” designs provide ideal focal points. They are not only photogenic with a friendly, welcoming appearance; they also boast integrated acoustic installation features, new lighting concepts (LED luminaires by Belux, Nimbus and Tobias Grau), video-conferencing technology as well as ideas for color schemes and textiles in the office environment. However, these are all solutions to problems that have only arisen as a result of the leveling of existing structures in the office environment. And because even this innovation is yet to be implemented in the majority of offices even on a rudimentary level, primarily these cubicles continue to play a pioneering role in the development of the office inventory.

“Will it even make sense to keep an office?” asked Herbert Muschamp in a 1994 edition of The New York Times, reporting on the then revolutionary Manhattan office designed for advertising agency Chiat/Day by Gaetano Pesce. Even back then it was all a matter of the virtual office and the transfer of office work to other places. Admittedly, the iconic project with cast PVC flooring and fabric-covered metal structures housing the computers only survived a short while. Yet the question as to why offices are still not taking a greater step away from traditional standards is presumably largely linked to the fact that the manufacturers want to design and sell tabletops and cupboard panels, metal rails, pillows and seat mechanisms.

In addition to these cubicles, there are a number of other iconic objects that serve to break up the repetitive processes that characterize the office environment and dispel the mundane monotony. To this tune, Werner Aisslinger and Nicole Losos designed the “Swing Chair” for Vitra, a Hollywood swing that uses a purpose-built mechanism to control the angle of the swing and thus adheres to strict office norms and simultaneously offers a communal place of retreat and regeneration.

Distinctions in the core segment

It was not only the manufacturers’ perspectives that proved noteworthy at Orgatec; now and again those of the designers also proved interesting. Markus Jehs and Jürgen Laub have been working together since their university days in Schwäbisch Gmünd. At Orgatec their designs were presented by no less than three different manufacturers. How can one work for several manufacturers without coming into conflict with one’s own designs? The designer duo put it down to the fact that they work in the manufacturers’ core segments. Their approach to design does not aim to invent new, spectacular forms but to provide their own interpretation that allows new qualities to shine through. As a result, their designs often only reveal their true charms on closer inspection.

They designed the “A Chair” for Brunner, which is principally conceived for rowed seating. Its silhouette alludes to the letter A, while the decoupling of the seat shell and the frame makes for another interesting feature. It also offers near infinite possibilities in the combination of the various frames, e.g., in aluminum die-cast or molded wood, and seat shells in a range of colors and materials, e.g., plastic or molded wood.

Furthermore, two years back Jehs+Laub created the “Graph” conference chair for Wilkhahn – an emblematic object that with three-point support and a steel leaf spring facilitates a soft rocking movement. This has now been joined by the matching “Graph Table” and the new lounge furniture system “Asienta” complete with armchair and sofa. Once again here they opted for the development of familiar elements.

Extrusion profiles are used to connect the aluminum structure with beautifully crafted node elements made of die-cast aluminum. Invisible to the user, the synthetic textile cover on the side and backrest allows for a great deal of flexibility and stability. Only a few seams are visible on the cushions (available in fabric or leather), which are folded inward. Not only does this make for a more elegant aesthetic finish, it also allows the user to assume a variety of seated positions, ensuring maximum comfort.

Jehs+Laub have also developed a new seating furniture system for Cor. “Mell” boasts a filigree steel construction that supports the seats. The system comprises an individual armchair (also available in a corner version), a two or three-seater, benches and tables. Freestanding, the elements that make up the “Mell” system also work as an expansive seating landscape.

Hay has now established itself as more than just an office furniture manufacturer; it has also proven its worth as a high-selling brand with an outstanding presence both online and in the showroom. The “New Order” shelving system by Stefan Diez and Dominik Hammer has been conceived as an expansive system. It was initially included in Established & Sons’ range, but was not able to leverage all of its qualities there. “New Order” consists of aluminum elements and a series of additional structural components. Its grid construction allows for the most diverse configurations – from simple shelving to an end table and a sideboard to a room divider. An eight-centimeter-deep tray has been designed as a place to hold everyday odds and ends in the office or the home; then there are regular aluminum shelves for books, newspapers and folders. Its makers consider “New Order” to be a standard item of furniture. It doesn’t have a front or a back and can be assembled without the need for tools; the user can even add to it at a later point with doors or side panels made of thin plywood. These are “clipped” onto the main metal structure with the help of polypropylene fittings. In this way, just a few elements can be transformed into a comparatively inexpensive storage system.

Orgatec 2012 certainly had a few new varieties and objects to offer its visitors. But will these objects for the “central zone” change our everyday lives in the future? In the first instance that is now up to the planners, buyers, building owners and commissioners. We shouldn’t lose sight of them.