At present, there's no revolution in sight in the work environment or essential office systems, either in relation to open offices, the work culture or work spirit, whether modular, universal or individual. Admittedly, the office continues to evolve, although in a communications- rather than work routine-related direction, providing an opportunity to dust off a variety of ranges, if the customer is brave enough to do so.
We have already reported on the "Chassis" chair, developed for Wilkhahn by Stefan Diez, which is based on technology from the vehicle industry (see our article: A cowboy has to be able to sit on it without looking stupid). Bene continues to develop his signature range; Walter Knoll makes offices homelier and transforms the home into a lounge; Sedus upholsters a mobile storage unit with colleagues adding floral embellishment for fun and innumerable manufacturers present innumerable chairs and tables, which are almost impossible to distinguish from each other as far as the standard of post-modern ergonomic futurism is concerned. Even more distinctive are those manufacturers who combine concept and design to create an office culture without immediately claiming to have discovered the philosopher's stone.
For some time now, Vitra, among others, has been endeavouring to combine communication and concentration, networking and isolation in a single concept and, as a result, have come up with their ‘Net'n'Nest' formula. It was impressive to see the level of self-evidence and extent to which Vitra has extended the collage principle, which is totally relaxed in terms of humanity, to the open office (see our interview with Hanns-Peter Cohn, CEO of Vitra), whilst simultaneously providing new and specific office solutions and ranges. Of primary importance here is making the furniture more flexible in terms of enhancing communication potential. This sounds more demanding than it actually is.
For, in the case of both Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec's eloquently named Playns "Steh-Sitz-Tischsystem" [stand-up/seated desk system] and Alberto Medas's ArchiMeda executive desk, the purely horizontal work layout now flexibly develops vertically. One can sit or stand, be alone or talk to other people, plan, formulate or banter. Antonio Citterio sacrifices the up-and-down button, preferring to allow the boss to remain seated. Instead, his executive work station, ACE, combines elegance with high quality materials and flexibility. The desk, in particular, looks expensive but without risk of appearing flashy or ostentatious. Here, at least, the office is as approachable and friendly as one would like the boss to be. Another new product is Arik Levy's equally simple, successful WorKit system, which is based on a cube-shaped component.
So, here the net and there the nest. This is not just noticeable at Vitra, where Werner Aisslinger has even designed a swing hammock for the office. Flexible workbenches are everywhere, juxtaposed with islands of tranquillity or retreat, even if the design isn't always as consistent as that of Vitra's designers. Whether it's the length or depth of the communal desk, the decisive factors are ordered proportions and detail, irrespective of whether the balance between communication and isolation works in an open office. What looks chic and fancy isn't always productive. And nesting is already producing offshoots. Instead of using a powernap as a means of relaxation, these days one can ascend a high chair, climb into an isolation chamber or even lean back at one's desk in an office chair with a raised back, which resembles a protective hood. Everywhere we can see how a monadology of the permanently communicating office worker, schlepped around by the entire business world, is being tinkered with.
At Hermann Miller, we encounter a totally different world. His latest seating machine is called Embody and, given the overwhelming flexibility of this piece of office furniture, which no longer can be called a chair, one must question why functional products created more or less without design or for which design is pressed into service as the servant of function, still exist. One can only describe what has been created in this embodiment of ultra-flexible, ergonomic office seating as an American office monster, the ivory coloured, artificial backbone of which, could play the leading role in any David Cronenberg film. Surely the next generation could be fitted with a "Bioport", through which information can be fed directly into the nervous system. Embody definitely goes in the direction of XXL, reminding one, in its anachronism, of American-made, gas-guzzling pick-ups. Solid, functional but totally out of tune with the times.
But, this year, the booby prize for 100% design-less engineering doesn't go to a piece of furniture. No, top prize goes the articulated arm! Health and safety at work and ergonomic aspects are unquestionably important but must every workplace be overgrown with piles of techno-tentacles, from which not one but several flatscreens are suspended? They look about as stable as if they could carry a least one elephant in a bus. And what is one supposed to make of stand-up mobile desks, complete with PC, keyboard and flatscreen, which at best look like something from the medical supplies sector? Or maybe you'd prefer, for the sake of fresh air, a mini smokers' pavilion with stand-up tables?
Ancillary office accessories, in general, are currently proliferating at a frightening rate. Unintentional design used to be the province of the employees but now every second range includes a vase and a coloured partition, to ensure that those released into the wild can defend their territory, at least symbolically. Here a filing tray suspended from the partition and there floral upholstery on the mobile storage unit - which brings us back to communication. Maybe, one day a week, we would rather forego a touch-down zone full of cute accessories and spend the following day sitting outside in the sunshine again. We would only miss one thing there - the cable duct, which is definitely the most important part of the modern office. Not to be confused with the cable TV channel.