Technocrats make the world a duller place
by Thomas Wagner | Jan 16, 2013

Thomas Wagner: Mr. Cohn, when you look around, you must feel a certain satisfaction at how successfully the high-back version of the Bouroullec brothers’ Alcove sofa has established itself in the office environment. It has practically founded a new typology. When will we have to reckon with a counter-movement, a kind of “counter-reformation”? When is the new Baroque set to arrive?

Hanns-Peter Cohn: The Alcove sofa fulfills a function – and this particular function was in fact unforeseeable in such a breadth of applications. Of course, the full story is somewhat longer because the changes to the office world (the shift away from cubicles, individual offices and toward open office landscapes) has naturally led to the emergence of new needs and requirements for the space, which even we had not planned for. But we had picked up on them. As a result, Alcove was ready for duty as an item of mobile furniture that gives users a place to hold informal conversations or to spend quiet time. Having tested the concept ourselves, over time we realized that when working in open plan offices, the availability of alternatives is of huge psychological importance. Alcove offers such an alternative. You can leave your workstation and do something else. This is the secret to the product’s success.

Is the sector currently overshooting the mark and going back to boxing up employees in small cubicles? Are values such as openness and transparency on the retreat again?

Cohn: No, I wouldn’t say that. In cubicles or group offices there was always a tendency towards isolation, while the open plan office offered few places of retreat. Both of these settings are now trying to strike a balance, creating quiet zones of different sizes and restructuring the overall space.

So you think concerns that open plan offices will soon be filled with too many small cubicles are unjustified?

Cohn: I don’t just think it, I know it. Of course it all depends on the planners, who know how to correctly assess the office or space people will be working in. But no, I don’t have any concerns in this matter.

When it comes to reflecting on the office space and its use, Vitra has always sought to respond to ongoing shifts. In retrospect, the 1991 “Citizen Office” project preempted many of the items on offer today, perhaps not in every detail, but certainly in its fundamental approach. How do you see the project today?

Cohn: I must disagree with you on one important point here. We aren’t pioneers, we are merely craftsmen in the background who allow creative professionals to structure and formulate their ideas, and it was the same back then too – with Ettore Sottsass, Andrea Branzi, Michele De Lucchi and James Irvine. They came up with this concept, not us. They were the ones who said the modern office would be like an urban landscape. We aren’t good enough to do something like that.

Your modesty is a credit to you. But it was Vitra and not another manufacturer who initiated and realized the project.

Cohn: Sure, of course…

But it was always important to you to continually work with accomplished designers, was it not?

Cohn: Yes. We give the designers free rein. Unfortunately our world is full of technocrats – and technocrats tend to stifle creativity. That’s not us. We want to provide inspiration, promote creativity.

Is that what makes a product likeable?

Cohn: It has to be innovative too. And who creates innovations? Scientists create innovations, creative minds create innovations, not technocrats or managers, and certainly not politicians. In this respect you have to leave those with this talent for innovation to do their work. Even journalists innovate with their work, they open minds to new ideas, new perspectives – and we respect that.

Let’s go back to “Citizen Office” for a moment. Has the office’s formation as a kind of urban landscape come to an end or it is only just coming into its own in all its potential variations?

Cohn: We are only just experiencing it as it truly should be experienced, but at the same time it is still subject to misinterpretation by technocrats who tend to divide up the space between cheap, unsustainable workstations and “public” spaces, in which they simply invest the money they save on the boss’s fancy office, which is no longer ascribed the same significance as in previous times. People have a feel for respect. So this misunderstanding also lies in the fact that although people may assess the quality of a design in different ways, they are certainly able to ascertain whether something is cheap, well or badly made.

So the “office citizen” knows what he wants?

Cohn: Indeed, the Citizen Office was made for the office citizen…

What effect will their needs and requirements have on their various activities in the office? Will the way we work continue to change? How many sectors today focus on an alternation between communication and retreat, conversation and concentration? Will this change at all over the coming years? Will there be technical innovations that will call for a rethink of the present-day typology?

Cohn: Well, the whole thing is based upon business technology, upon IT, and there are certainly still some radical changes to come in this area. Even now, we are already observing some shifts that were still completely unthinkable just a few years ago. For example: “Bring your own device”. This points to the emergence of so-called “digital natives”, people who have a keen grasp of technology from their privates lives and whose presence on and use of social networks is simply a matter of course. This has gone some way to disempowering the “IT mafia”, because people now come to companies with their own distinct ideas because they are now on a whole other level and are no longer prepared to be “domesticated” by means of laborious, fixed processes.

I think we all know very well what it means to have to adhere to guidelines laid down by IT consultants who themselves have no idea of the distinct working processes we use and so heedlessly tar everyone with the same “electronic” brush.

Cohn: That is one way of seeing it. A second, alternative point of view would be that more and more companies are becoming aware that payroll costs equal high fixed costs. This leads to the automation of processes, which in turn means that the number of administrative roles will continue to dwindle, or they will simply be outsourced. Conversely, knowledge-based work is receiving increasing encouragement and promotion. Whereby, as regards the promotion of knowledge work I could of course also say: I’ll outsource one or two jobs and bring in some new expertise to the company. That is to say, a good deal of offices will probably disappear over the coming years. On the one hand, modern business technology allows us to quite easily work from home; on the other hand an increasing number of companies are migrating to residential areas and in doing so taking some of the pressure off urban infrastructures. So, there are certainly more changes to come. The office will come to play an even greater role as a place of communication, where people meet just for some human interaction. Naturally, office equipment and furniture will have to take this into consideration to an even greater extent than it already does today.

How will you as an office furniture manufacturer come to terms with a significant decrease in the number of offices?

Cohn: Our share of the market is rather small. Even if the market were to shrink, there would still be enough ground for those companies that attach importance to sustainability, biomechanics and true inspiration. Whereby it must be said we too are pulling out all the stops in the so-called “residential market”. It is our aspiration to have our products accompany people throughout their everyday lives (save perhaps in bed and the kitchen) from morning to night, even on their travels.

So the trend toward nomadization shows no signs of slowing. Will we have to reckon with office citizens who are and must be even more mobile than has been the case up to now? What could their working world look like in ten or twenty years?

Cohn: That is an evolutionary process. “Citizen Office” was a research project that we happened to rediscover. To be perfectly honest, even we had forgotten all about it for a few years. But then we realized that things were indeed developing in the direction we had identified at the time. Furthermore, we were convinced that the office would continue to evolve into a place of communication and exchange. Why have we made this our mission? Because we sense that digital media are having a damaging effect on the art of communication. People are even getting married online nowadays.

… and breaking up on Twitter…

Cohn: … Yes, that’s the way things are today. I don’t think that there will be a reversion to past practices in this respect. But every movement results in a counter-movement. We will find a new way of encouraging interaction, be it in inspiring outdoor settings or in a restaurant or bistro.

Is the desire for direct communication really reinforced by the shortcomings we perceive in purely electronic/virtual communication? After all, electronic communication does have its advantages. Interacting with others in far-off countries has become a great deal easier. Is it not the case that we are not only losing something, but gaining something too?

Cohn: We work together with CISCO Systems and have installed tele/video conferencing devices in several different areas. But in the end whether people decide to make use of such options comes down to how easy they are to use. Owing to our current situation with the environment, we are all being forced to cut down on travel and thus find more efficient ways to communicate with one another across the continents. One decisive factor here is whether and how we can achieve an intelligent and practical combination of digital and face-to-face communication.

Is more technology really the answer to simplifying our work? When video conferencing was hailed as the ultimate solution the actual technology behind it was so bad that it didn’t even work. Today the technology has caught up and works well but we still remain somewhat skeptical. Are you hoping that new technologies such as cloud computing will free the office of its remaining burdens? Things have certainly progressed: First came the mainframe, then boxes on or beneath our desks; first we had to put up with huge CRT monitors, then came the flat-screens to free up even more space. Now we are left with just a laptop or an iPad. We are clearing our offices of visible technology, what does this mean?

Cohn: Here we can learn from the likes of Steve Jobs, Tim Cook and Jonathan Ive. Apple has revolutionized the world with products that are small and visually appealing, can be placed and used anywhere and are certainly not ugly boxes that you don’t even really like. People are virtually in love with their iPhones nowadays. Of course such things have a major influence on the office too.

So workplaces could become even smaller?

Cohn: Definitely. The existing standards will cease to apply. We can already witness this today: non-territorial workstations are not subject to existing norms because employees only spend two or three hours at their desks. In addition, for environmental reasons alone we all have to take more care in our treatment of the “space”. We also have to be more aware of our energy consumption, because power plants are being closed down. As a result, these areas in which people can rotate depending on the task at hand are also shrinking.

It works like a restaurant. I don’t buy a table. I sit at one for one or two hours, eat, drink and chat – and then I go on my way and someone else comes along and uses the table. This concept of sharing makes for an entirely different office culture. I have noticed that this mentality has a much stronger hold in cities such as Berlin where the values we have grown up with are suddenly being questioned. People play an active role in society and so they share with others. It’s a whole new philosophy. The world is changing in radical ways and that’s a really great thing! The closer attention we pay to such changes the better equipped we are to respond to them. But the fact of the matter is: We are simply following suit. We, as Vitra, aren’t the ones changing the world.

Is the “Cork Desk” design by the Bouroullec brothers a response to such small workplaces? Especially since in its formal qualities it points in a somewhat different direction?

Cohn: The creative community has responded to the design with great enthusiasm. But of course we are always up against the levelers who are quick to say: Can’t you make it height-adjustable? Can’t you make it in red? etc. We have to take such samples out onto the market to get a feel for whether they have a future or not. In this case, we have been working together with Amorim, a major cork manufacturer, to experiment with the material. Not every single project necessarily has to lead to a high-volume product.

So “Cork Desk” is something of a test balloon?

Cohn: We really like to experiment in our work. We make a profit in order to enable us to fund innovations. Many of our competitors are unfortunately no longer able to do this on the same scale because after two crises they are now dominated by the leveling mentality of technocrats who make this world a duller place. It really is terrible. Even if they are able to inspire a company’s management board, the resulting processes are often delegated two or three rungs down the company ladder – where they simply become ineffective. Despite all of this, we will continue to experiment, we will continue to gain experience and expertise, because we have a mission and that mission is: the aestheticization of everyday life. And we plan to continue in this vein.

Unfortunately, nowadays one hears little talk of aesthetics, even though each take on aesthetics also entails a certain ethic and aesthetic decisions determine our behavior and our relationship to the world. But we should talk about that another time. My last question is certainly easier to answer. Do you have a favorite among all of your new products?

Cohn: I must say I’m quite in love with the “Workbays”, these areas where you can work alone or with one, two or even three colleagues. I am also quite excited about their use of material: polyester in place of felt. Felt boasts the same sound-absorbing qualities but is much more expensive. And now we have a material we can use to build mobile areas which can be taken apart and put back together in an entirely new way at will. This allows users to structure the space as they wish and create areas where they feel truly at ease. That’s my favorite right now.

Joseph Beuys wouldn’t have liked you using polyester in place of felt.

Cohn: We did spend a great deal of time experimenting with felt; we even developed a product using felt, the “Workshelter”. But over time you come up with more streamlined methods – and that’s what we managed to do. Moreover, I think it’s a good thing that it was the Bouroullec brothers who developed Alcove and now the Workbays too. They complete each other – and I really like that.

Thank you very much for your time.