It’s not the era of Leonardo, nowadays you need specialists!
Dec 22, 2008
Antonio Citterio

During the recent Cologne Orgatec, Claudia Beckmann and Thomas Wagner talked with Antonio Citterio about the office of tomorrow, the relevance of research for the design process, and design's social responsibility.

Is Vitra's "Net ‘n' Nest" office concept something of a universal idea for our time? And as a designer are you in a position to interpret this idea?
Antonio Citterio: Interpreter? It is extremely difficult to define the role. Who is the designer - and who is the inventor? Working with Vitra means working in a team, and design is part of this process. When you talk and talk and talk ... you create this tendency in the group. Afterwards every designer has a different approach and comes up with different solutions. What is happening in the world of office product design? First of all space is an office project. Only the interior is to do with cabinets, chairs, tables. Sometimes space has already been interpreted by another architect. What we do is make suggestions. For example: As an architect designing an office building for a client, I want to create the space myself. I don't want to "buy" something from others... That is exactly what happens. When I'm the designer, I try to create and articulate entire sentences, not just isolated words.

What kind of sentences...
Citterio: Ultimately every sentence is different - because everybody does what he wants to do. That is what happens in evolution. When you observe something year in, year out you don't see evolution. Ten years down the road, however, you discover there has been major evolution.
When, for example, I started working on the ‘Ad Hoc' office system for Vitra back in the nineties I went around the world, from America to Europe, to London, to Chicago, to Frankfurt, looking at different offices. I really wanted to understand what goes on in the real world. We researched a whole year and then I started designing ‘Ad Hoc'. In the meantime the idea of big benches has become more and more self-evident. Shortly before it was a dream for some architects, and nowadays it is available in the market. Sometimes the role of the designer is exactly the same: You take a little step in the typology and at the end of the process the product is something real in the market.

In the eighties and nineties we had any number of discussions about new offices solutions... What do you think will be the next step?
Citterio: What becomes clear to me going to offices and buildings is that is everybody wants flexibility, wants to cut costs, and to save energy. And controlling the cost of a product also means creating something is timeless. If we have a classic product the structure has to be timeless, meaning it is not an expression of anything... People spend a lot of money and they want to keep the product for many years, so they spend money on a table they are going to be looking at for many years to come. Ten years ago the approach was different. You could see pictures of people at work, sitting on a chair with their feet on the table. All this has disappeared. Jobs are becoming precisely that again. And now, for example, if you look at what is happening on the back of the major crisis - the perception of value, the idea of keeping products for a long time is becoming ever more important.

Is your new table "ACE" for Vitra this type of product? A long-lasting product?
Citterio: This table is more than just a table, it is an office concept, because increasingly the idea is to work together. It is teamwork. The table on which we are sitting here is a table with no front or back, at which you can sit alone if you are working, and you can sit around the table to talk. The deal is saving space. This room is not my room, it's a room for meetings. I think this is part and parcel of this trend. Is not only a table for an executive office, it's also in my meeting room. And that is the future.

So is your table a contribution to what in sociology is called "post heroic management"?
Citterio: In a way, you are right. Whatever, dealing with this challenge was a touch complicated. The main question you might well ask on entering an office with a table like this, and possibly different chairs around it, is where is the manager?

Is this an expression of a democratic spirit and a new office concept? You see ten people in a room and you ask yourself: who is the manager?
Citterio: Exactly, that is the idea. If you ask about a tendency this is possibly it!

Is it difficult to convince people in different branches of the industry to work in such an open, democratic space? Or, put the other way round: Is your design and your way of dealing with design the best way to bring a new idea of working together to other industries?
Citterio: People are increasingly working in teams. I'm talking about design: Design is part of an industrial culture. Design is not something you can do alone at home or in your office. You are working with entrepreneurs, with manufacturers, with a large number of specialists. Not only design, our culture as a whole has become more and more complex ... And therefore bringing all these different things together is a challenge. There are 40 different individuals working in my office. One of them just has to come up with products and materials, another is a IT expert, then you need someone who is a specialist in international law and agreements, you need somebody for PR work, ten people are just involved in service, fourteen are architects... an so on. That is the complexity of the job. If you want to know everything - forget it, this is not the era of Leonardo, nowadays you need specialists!

Do you think it's realistic to reach social change not only but also through design? Can design really change something?
Citterio: It's important what you think about design. If you think design is stupid and is just to do with elegance and tests - you don't need to care. But if design is a part of an industrial culture, it means research, than I have to say ‘yes'. As designers we are working for quality of life. I am working for comfort, to reduce costs, to enable a better life. When we started the current work for Vitra we decided to have products which can be recycled and disassembled. When the products' life is over you can re-use it. With regard to this it is really important to understand the difference between research and design. I'm not a doctor. But I am interested in avoiding mistakes.

Design is based on well-founded knowledge...
Citterio: Exactly, design is research. If you have no research, you have nothing. I'm sorry, but you see a lot of design products which are really stupid. There is no research behind them, they try to do something strange: totally uncomfortable and expensive - just stupid.

Antonio Citterio
Ad Hoc by Antonio Citterio for Vitra
ACE by Antonio Citterio for Vitra
Ad Usum by Antonio Citterio for Vitra