The perfect office
Anna Moldenhauer: Do you think it’s an optimistic time for work culture?
Jonathan Olivares: I think it’s a very optimistic time for work culture. Our whole society is being re-organised pretty quickly with an increase in freedom in terms of where and how people work and it’s all largely due to changes in social values and communication technologies. People are inventive and they generally have good intentions, so the future might be brighter than some of the darker predictions tell us. In this presentation for Vitra, you'll see a wide variety of surroundings that show how traditionally public spaces and offices are merging. I like to think of it as a fair about work, that’s why we call it Vitra Presents "Work" and not "Office." The office is just a tool that responds to how people work.
Is there no room for the classic table in the office of the future?
Jonathan Olivares: It has a place; it’s a just smaller because it’s becoming one of many options. What makes a great office today is the variety of options: the quiet library, the social hub, the café, the lounge, the park.
Why do you think that’s the case?
Jonathan Olivares: Collaboration was the buzzword of the last decade and it really affected the broader corporate mind-set in terms of how companies work together today. People need to have places where they can sit down informally and meet together, and there is a wide array of places where this can happen. The way we work with our laptops and smartphones — instead of sitting in front of a desktop — also changed the landscape. Freedom continues to increase in terms of where you choose to work. In the US, 20 percent of the workforce is now freelance. A lot of people have become accustomed to working from anywhere. What we're seeing in the world and showing at "Work" is the idea that the traditional office is becoming informed by all of these places that existed outside the office.
At Orgatec you and Pernilla Ohrstedt designed the stand concept for Vitra. The individual areas are only roughly defined, leaving plenty of room for movement and flexibility. Is the presentation of Vitra conceived as a kind of microcosm of today's working world?
Jonathan Olivares: Yes. We've asked three of Vitra’s designers to realise spaces, so you have one by Konstantin Grcic, one by Sevil Peach, another one by Jay Osgerby and Edward Barber, and each space was briefed very differently. Konstantin's space was intended to be a super-flexible workshop for a start-up, which avoids stagnant space by allowing everything to move all the time. Jay and Edward gave us what we think of as a shared space for a creative company, which brings the soft seating of a hotel lobby into the work environment. Sevil gave us what we call the company home, which is imagined as the home of an established company. This space is furnished with a collage of Vitra furniture and conceived of in a strong relationship to the architectural container, which was built in collaboration with the Austrian manufacturer Rieder. We wanted each of these spaces, and the lobby and hallways of the fair, to contain public spaces. So, Konstantin's space has a Spanish step and a cafe. Sevil's space has a restaurant and a garden. And Jay and Edward's space is informed by hotel lobbies. The entrance lobby has a piazza and a market place with kiosks. So the idea is really to show the variety of public spaces that should be brought into the corporate office and allow the visitor to walk between those spaces. It’s interesting, a lot of people now count their steps every day and they’re using the health apps on their phone.
Is the idea also to show how in one place many different office scenarios are possible and how you can connect them?
Jonathan Olivares: Yes. Vitra likes to call this idea "collage," where spaces are tied together through color and materials so that there is coherence and consistency.
It seems to me that you work a lot at the interfaces between industrial, space and communication design. How does this manifest itself in a concept for Vitra?
Jonathan Olivares: In fair architecture these disciplines are blended. This is the second time Pernilla and I have done this project for Vitra and the main concept remains the same. When you look at a large company, oftentimes you have the feeling of visiting a small town. And so the reference point we look at are small towns in the American West of the 18th and 19th century. The central corridor is like the main street and then you have the shops and businesses on the left and right. The containing wall is what we call "the horizon". This year we're really thinking about the fact that all these public spaces that we're referencing really come from the urban environment and so the horizon, and we also have introduced canopy ceiling, are made with a silver mesh that recalls the cladding of the urban fabric. Then we have a publication this year called where to work better, which I’m quite excited about and it has some strong messages there. It’s basically a ten-point list which tells Vitra’s customers what some of our ideas are on where people can do their best work.
You and Pernilla Ohrstedt have collaborated again for Vitra. What is your working relationship like?
Jonathan Olivares: Pernilla and I have a lot in common and have developed a really enjoyable working relationship and friendship. We have only ever worked for Vitra together, so it’s a special team and collaboration. The first project we did was in 2015 at Vitra's am Rhein campus, it’s called the Vitra Workspace. Then we did "Work", Vitra’s presentation at Orgatec in 2016 and two publications, An Office Perspective and Workspirit. This year, for "Work" and where to work better we met intensively at the very beginning of the project to set the concept but from then on we took our respective responsibilities. Sometimes we surprise each other and that’s good. But a lot of times we're in sync.
Which working methods do you prefer personally? Do you need a fixed place or do you like to work spontaneously and move a lot in your office?
Jonathan Olivares: I wrote the last essay in the publication for Vitra and it’s called Notes on working from anywhere. That’s a text about where I work and how I work. I work from a variety of places. I no longer have an office. I travel a third of the year so that means I work from airports, airplanes, hotels and cafés, and when I’m home I like to be home, and also work from libraries, research institutions, cafés, rented workshops, even skate parks.
What is the good side of this work concept for you?
Jonathan Olivares: At a certain point decided to not distinguish between my work and activities I do for pleasure, and so I view everything I do as part of the same activity. Sometimes I go to the skate park when I’m supposed to be working and I’ll actually work through issues there because it can be a very relaxing and fun environment to move in. I exercise a high degree of freedom in terms of where I work, but I also realise I work in a very particular way: I’m a designer, I don’t work for one big company. As a result I see things that the companies I work with don’t necessarily see.
Konstantin Grcic is one designer on the Vitra stage. You already worked with him at an early stage in your education. Is there anything you have adopted from him what you still do working?
Jonathan Olivares: I worked with Konstantin when I was 24 years old, and the experience imparted some big life lessons on me in terms of how rigorous and how committed you have to be to do good work. When I first started my own office in Boston I only had one reference point of what a design office looked like, and that was Konstantin’s. So I rented an office and went there from 8am to 8pm six days a week for a decade. After a decade of working that way I moved into my own rhythm of how I want to practice. I was able to do that in Los Angeles, where many of my friends are artists or architects, and the time difference to my clients is either three or nine hours. So I’m much more relaxed with my schedule than I used to be. I work when I want and where I want, but without the rigor and focus I learned in the decade where I worked like a monk it would be impossible to work so loosely.
One thing I read also in my research was that you take a critical view of the urge to constantly innovate. Do you think there's too much pressure in the industry?
Jonathan Olivares: I had once quoted Eames, when he said “innovate as a last resort.” There are so many proven and good solutions out there, sometimes design is about building on or editing what’s already been done, rather than starting from scratch. Within history there are exciting traditions to work with.
Is it important for you that you don’t forget the human and his need to create a good concept?
Jonathan Olivares: Yes. We make things for people at the end of the day. I think Vitra is extremely conscious about that, and about who their customers are, and that’s why it’s fun to work with them because they really question whether what we are doing is clear enough for their audience. We have to create an experience that is responsible, educational, and gives people pleasure. Life is short, so the experiences you work on had better the good ones.
You’ve lived in Los Angeles for some years now. How does the American idea of a workspace differ from the European idea?
Jonathan Olivares: The differences are more in architecture actually, in how office buildings are built. In the US there's been a huge movement towards urbanisation of companies. In the last half century Europe has been the leader in regulations around health and wellbeing at the workplace. There are differences between the US and EU, of course, but I think there are increasing similarities that come from the fact that all societies have had to adapt to radical changes in communication technology.