Do feel free to skip around
Fidgety Philipp or do skip around again!
The morning is still young and the halls are only just beginning to fill up. The young lady at the Aeris stand is in an infectiously good mood. She is wearing headphones and, lost to the world, is incessantly and cheerfully rocking, skipping and swaying to and fro on her “Swopper”. Aha, you think, so that’s what office work is like these days. There’s no one who can tell you to stop hopping around! When she finally demonstrates the “oyo”, (the slogan for which is “oyo rocks!”), a combination of saddle seat, shell seat, and rocking chair, which is likewise meant to encourage you to move about more and adopt different sitting positions, the penny drops: Things are the other way round now. Fidgety Philipp in Heinrich Hoffmann’s “Shockheaded Peter”, in the mid-19th century an example of a lack of discipline and the failure of all attempts at obedience, has (disregarding the disaster at the dining table) become a role model. Orchestrated by appeals for general good health and admonitory phrases such as “sitting is the new smoking” and “shall we stand or sit? Both. The main thing is, it’s good”, many manufacturers have long since no longer just had ergonomically optimized office chairs in their range, but an array of movable stools and standing aids as well. You can paint your own picture of what a meeting is like at which everyone attending is skipping around and swaying.
Burkhard Remmers from Wilkhahn, which has always placed great importance on ergonomics, sees the trend in a different light and, when it comes to movement, is if anything in favor of a “new break culture”: “Whereas previously breaks were intended to provide relief from hard physical work, in times of digitized office work they are for balancing out the comatose lack of movement that comes with screen work.” Means of escaping the coma include not only movers such as Wilkhahn’s colorful “Stand-up”, which strengthens your back and gets your circulation going, but also features such as communal jogging and company sport in the lunch break, office visits by a movement therapist, and lunchtime dancing. Whatever you intend getting involved in, the trend towards movement in the office has spread rapidly and it seems as if there is now no stopping it. The self-optimization and increased efficiency project has long since embraced office workers’ bodies. And as such it’s no longer a case, as in Shockheaded Peter, of “... and Mother looked silently around the entire table”.
Re-individualization or the return of the pot plant
The sector’s prospects are indeed looking good. This is not just because of the trend towards more fun, movement, and provisions for good health. Ever since real-estate developers and investors all over the world discovered the economic benefits of open-plan, flexibly designed office spaces and basically now only offer bare concrete surfaces together with universal-use wiring, flexible usage concepts and all the things that go with them have been running wild. On the one hand fixed workstations are being done away with completely, while the number of those available at all is shrinking all the time (as they are replaced by lounges, berths, booths, sharing places, lockers and trolleys). And on the other, employees these days are ever more frequently at least helping to design their working environment. All things considered (including urgently needed acoustic insulating elements, sofas and outdoor furniture for the terraces) this means the range of products available has expanded considerably. What offices lose in fixed partitioning is being replaced by, fitted out with, or altered by flexible furnishings.
Nowadays office furniture manufacturers, and indeed other furniture manufacturers as well, are not only offering overall concepts. The fact that every space and every workstation is now designed as part of a concept is also producing new buds however and effecting the return of something previously ousted. As such, less advanced concepts are already showing signs of a return to individualization. However, at the König + Neurath (“the values factory”) stand, but by no means only there, there are all sorts of desk-mounted acoustic elements, which anything you can think of can be put on or hung from – for example a hanger for your coat or jacket. And the corner of the rectangular privacy screen now features a small plant pot once more.
Using magnets, holiday postcards can also be attached to what was once the last residue of individuality (after screen-savers that is), namely stacked lockers. With the “K+N Balance Office” the natural habitat of pot plant and cuddly toy-loving employees will then perhaps celebrate its complete return, with the boss’s massive desk looking cocooned in a screen of acoustically effective green leaves. “The holistic workstation can be adapted to suit personal needs,” it is claimed of the system, which can be adjusted in four increments. The values that are currently meant to apply for working and living environments, and not just in the “values factory”, have already been printed on postcards to memorize: Future, Health, Substance, Aesthetics, Happiness and Homeland.
Co-working or just work as you want to!
In former times it was primarily literary figures who liked to work, chat, and drink in coffeehouses, bistros, hotel lobbies, and bars, be it in Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, or Paris. Nowadays, because, thanks to smartphones, tablets and laptops, we are all online and available everywhere, always out and about, phoning and sending mails, the need for places for co-working is growing. In the special show “The Smart Co-working Lobby” at the fair, Michael O. Schmutzer, founder and CEO of Design Offices (which has offices in Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Munich, among other places) combined the elements – from coffee bar to conference cube and corner seating to round table – to create an ensemble. Precisely because the approach adopted here is nothing if not eclectic, this office landscape prototype demonstrates how in future the co-working idea will grow together with lobbies as communicative places and the opportunities afforded by digitization. Here too it’s a case of: Whether you like it or not, contemporary work nomads, who are the networked version, so to speak, of migrant workers, will have to use places such as these more and more. Which will be interesting to observe inasmuch as it adds a further, semi-public version of tomorrow’s working world to the company office.
“Work” – the illuminated word is all there is at the entrance to the hall in which Vitra presents its own concepts, collections, and projects. Here, in an ensemble which is based on an urban space and boasts roads, plazas, a restaurant and various stands, the question is examined of what “dynamic spaces look like that satisfy our present-day concept of work and its significance in our life and culture”. It goes without saying that there is no intention whatever of hindering progress and putting the brakes on its momentum. At first sight it all looks bright and welcoming, like a fair in a fair, but it remains very much geared to Vitra and the rather unoriginal theme “Collage Office”, even if other manufacturers in that particular field such as Dinesen and Kvadrat, Laufen and Swisscom – and ultimately even Mercedes-Benz – are there as well. So in terms of appearance the hall is urban, but also somewhat abstract and meaningless. Just like a big Vitra hall.
Basing the presentation on the history of the office (this only happens in a newspaper on display) and recognizable delineation of competing concepts (a start is made on this in the latest brochure “Workspirit 14”) would not only have been desirable; it would have fitted in with the standards the company sets itself. Whether a stylized city suffices as an “inspirational environment for architects, designers, and decision-makers” and as a “platform for exchange and the discussion of new ideas” is another matter. But anybody who talks in general terms of a “present-day work concept” and purports to illustrate it, overlooks the fact that whether there is such a uniform concept at all needs to be discussed. Also and indeed precisely with regard to the ideology of Silicon Valley and its consequences for the working world. As such the hall-filling Vitra ensemble is ultimately neither captivating nor does it have cultural friction, which is why the platform remains what it by definition is: an over-sized fair stand.
As far as new products are concerned, Vitra more or less sticks to the tried-and-tested. With the “Pacific Chair” Barber & Osgerby present an office chair that is by all means elegant, but nothing out of the ordinary, and Antonio Citterio’s “CDS” desk system relies on the aesthetics of an industry dominated by durable mechanics, and with the mounting elements for the lamp, monitor, and USB, reveals what benefit the details offer, but it is still cumbersome. And if you examine the Bouroullec brothers’ “Cylinder” study, which was intended to be an alternative concept to the technoid office, you discover not only in the sofas a variation on the high-back version of their “Alcove”, but in the tables also the good old reading place – neither of which is a bad thing. Only Konstantin Grcic knows how to remain faithful to an experimental approach to work (after all, he demonstrated this with the “Hack”, which is now ready for series production), without becoming immediately set in his ways ideologically. He is continuing his investigations just as much into “superflexibility” as into the topic of “furniture as a place”. His stackable “Stool-Tool” is a multi-purpose furniture solution for the 21st-century office that unites desk and chair in a single object; and with the “Chair Table” he refreshes the idea in a totally different way. You could say: If work has to be done flexibly and in a completely different way, it has to be done properly.
Living in a box or Openness has its limits
Not only with Vitra, which among other things recreated its own offices in Birsfelden, which have already been tested in practice, but with other manufacturers as well there is an unmistakable tendency to add to the widely propagated openness not only lounges, armchairs, sofas with high backrests and individual areas of retreat, but also necessary self-contained boxes for conferences and concentrated working. The days of the cubicle office would appear to not yet be completely over. There is now an addition to keeping employees in small, medium-height shielded desk boxes in the form of a concept that could be referred to as temporary living in a box. Though here and there you still encounter high conical cylinders, cozy circle segments and yurt-like booths, in terms of numbers the cubic box, with or without a glass door, still clearly dominates.
Concepts instead of furnishings or how do we actually want to work?
Nowadays it is not just about fitting out offices, but about implementing new work concepts through furnishing open-plan spaces in a diverse, variable way. In addition to flexibility, provision for good health, acoustics, and efficiency, this also includes a locker, trolley and home office. Ever since the new concepts spelt the demise of the old office and its standardized procedures in favor of an extended place for social interaction, where although people still work to earn money, there is also an opportunity to eat, chat, relax, skip around and dance, more and more furniture manufacturers have been forcing their way into the market. If you also consider that in big cities personal living space is becoming more and more expensive, correspondingly pimped company office space, co-working space in cities, and home offices, which people heat, furnish and provide with electricity at their own expense, are becoming universal centers of their users’ lives. But in the long run will the healthy, cheerful, creative 21st-century drudges who, equipped with tablets and laptops, efficiently and precariously conduct project work be satisfied with a locker, trolley and desk? The bathroom and bedroom are still free – for the time being anyway.