Everywhere you look there are colorful little hubs, sheltered shoulder-height seating groups, small work cocoons and open conference arenas – all swathed in sky blue, grass green, orange-red and lemon fabrics. Be it a soft pastel or a bright neon color, they all give the impression that the designers and marketers at the furniture houses were aiming to transform the working world into a vivacious watercolor. The title of a since-famous art exhibition that was held at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in 1981 and invoked a “new spirit in painting” springs to mind here; looking at the new working worlds celebrated at Orgatec 2012 in Cologne one could definitely speak of a “new spirit in working”. How would this manifest itself? What is really new, what would actually be viable for everyday life? And which spirit is inherent to these working worlds?
The same applies here as it does in the art world: Not everything is as new as it is purported to be. Having already announced their arrival over the past six years, there are certain things that can now be found on almost every stand: a system that transforms the office into a miniature cityscape, an urban world made up of colorful islands, lounge areas and comfy cubbyholes, providing tailor-made spaces for teamwork or focused, individual tasks.
Has the age of long, conference tables and “workbenches” come to an end, like the times of individual items of furniture? Is everything a part of one or other system nowadays? Does a new, fresh uniformity even exist? Or are the pioneers in “work-life balance” and office aesthetics yet again one step ahead? One thing is clear: Concepts that were conceived by companies such as Vitra (the keywords here being “citizen office” and “net’n’nest”) to be systematically developed into coherent systems by others like Bene, have proved popular on all fronts. And thus a correspondingly optimistic and relaxed atmosphere prevails in the trade fair’s halls. But with everyone indulging in more or less the same typology, namely one based on the awareness that the clear-cut division of life, work and communication is now an obsolete paradigm, but that these realms nonetheless require zones and areas tailored to the task at hand, a number of new questions are thrown up: Have we really arrived in a future shaped by open-plan offices that adhere to urban models and are designed according to the interests of the user? And who will provide the most convincing model for the realization of this new paradigm aesthetically, materially and indeed holistically?
How to work better
Business mantras are not exactly difficult to come by. But Swiss artist duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss came up with one that does not take a view of work in terms of efficiency alone but adopts an approach that is affable and ironic in equal measure. Back in 1991 the twosome released a ten-point plan entitled “How to work better” providing recommendations on what one should do and how one should behave. We gratefully took the list as a guide when testing the newest office systems on how they might contribute to improving our working lives.
1. Do one thing at a time
Working on one thing at a time and ultimately being able to bring a process to its final conclusion – in times of email, meetings and multitasking, this has become a real problem for some. One way to tackle this is to create a spatial division between individual tasks. Now companies are beginning to dilute the multi-functional character of their open-plan offices, where every team member gets on with the next item on their to-do list disturbing their neighbor both optically and acoustically in the process, and eliminate their drawbacks. There is certainly progress to report here.
2. Know the problem
Looking around, you find yourself in a sea of “high-back islands”, wool-felt lounge areas in an array of spring colors and small meeting pavilions. In most cases they are a treat for the eye, despite some of them taking the “cocooning” concept a little too far. The fresh palettes provide visual appeal, banishing the last traces of mustiness. Even Cor has caught up with the kids, presenting Uwe Fischer’s sober yet elegant lounge system “Scope” (complimented by backrest elements and small adjoining tables) in new color variations – strawberry red and mustard yellow.
It bears pointing out here that quality has certainly improved, and not only at the top but across a broad swath of products. Nevertheless, two questions remain unanswered: What does it mean for leading manufacturers who invest a great deal in developing new ideas when these ideas are simply fed down to the less innovative among them, and at an increasingly rapid pace, at that? And how will we respond to the fact that these wonderful, new working worlds may no longer smack of work but in essence retain their function for just that, work. Here, and we must not forget this while surrounded by all these colorful temptations, it is above all down to those who plan these new offices. An open system with a focus on communication and creating a pleasant working environment alone will not suffice to transform a well-filled building block into an efficient office.
3. Learn to listen
So one can assume that it will soon depend on much more than the quality of the customer service and the sensitivity with which the exiting building elements are adapted to the respective needs and requirements. Consultation and planning could very well become a focal point over the coming years. After all, in the end technocratic solutions aren’t real solutions at all. Still, here and there you see manufacturers (e.g., Sedus) offering up prototypes for users to test out in an attempt to gauge their reactions. In the future, communication will play a major role, not only in the office but in its planning and furnishing too.
4. Learn to ask questions
Despite all of this progress, when it comes to those manufacturers who tend to rely on the imitation of a typology rather than developing their own formal design vocabulary, the tent-like enclosures and screens that lend structure to the space and delineate important areas from one another quickly reveal their semblance of elements found on a camping site or in an adventure theme park. Here a screen that absorbs sounds, there another that provides an optical shield; here a work retreat where users can withdraw with their laptops, there a barrel-shaped construct where users can communicate with one another. Even attempts to manage the atmosphere lead to their own kind of kitsch, whereby it is certainly more than the guiding metaphor that has come off track. An office is and will remain a complex system, the social, administrative and aesthetic configuration of which all requires a great deal of skill. Ultimately the same maxim applies here as always when talking about design: Look closely and pay as much attention to the quality of the details as to the coherence of the entire system. The office citizens will thank you for it.
5. Distinguish sense from nonsense
On Wilkhahn’s stand we get to see that there is certainly nothing wrong with concentrating on the virtues of individual items of furniture that are solid, durable and carefully considered down to the smallest detail rather than attempting to imitate an entire program that has already been exhausted by others. Whether, following the success of the “Chassis” by Stefan Diez and the ergonomic office chair “On”, it is the conference chair “Graph”, the accompanying “Graph Table” or the seating group “Asienta” (all designed by Jehs+Laub) that will capture your close attention, the high quality and value of these products is difficult to miss – as is the difference between them and their low-cost counterparts.
“Graph” is not just elegant, it has a light and, thanks to its skilled combination of armrests, seat shell and back rest, extremely sophisticated feel to it. When it comes to the accompanying table, the exposed legs and their light edges lend a touch of lightness to the overall piece, a rarity for such a large table. Finally, “Asienta” offers an alternative for those who prefer not to sink into a more or less amorphous sofa landscape, which seldom proves to be a smart addition to the boss’s office (yes, they do still exist). With a filigree aluminum base and austere upholstery, it would not be out of place in the living room at home either.
6. Accept change as inevitable
Things are changing. So there’s not much that can be done about it. And at every second trade-fair booth you find yourself tempted to declare “stop rocking!” If only because ergonomics may no longer be writ in capital letters but does remains important. Especially when it comes to office chairs. These really do offer all manner of motion nowadays. And anyone who sits on one of the new models will suddenly start rocking, leaning back or tilting sideways. And their spines will thank them for it.
7. Admit mistakes
There are many advantages to the new typology, or so we have ascertained. However, the idea of the office as an open, urban landscape is not without its dangers. Less for clients than for the manufacturers. If a paradigm has at long last won out, a system recognized and established, then the thinking about what should come next starts all over again. Capitalism does not tolerate a let-up. And the integration of novel electronic visualization systems could soon be changing the face of workstations once again.
8. Say it simple
Vitra is consistently continuing down the path on which it set out in 1991 with the “citizen office” and then advanced with programs such as “net’n’nest”. And it’s now presenting a whole swath of new products developed in the customary close cooperation with the Bouroullec Brothers, not to mention with Alberto Meda and Hella Jongerius.
In terms of the typology of screened-off work zones and meeting booths, the Bouroullecs have now developed a whole line of different workstations based on the unforeseen success of their “Alcove High-Back” and beyond. Instead of felt they have now elected polyester matting for the screens – as one might find in a car trunk. And it’s not just the synergies and low price that are pleasant surprises. The small cabins with their various layouts are called “Workbays” and the designs are as sensitive as they are subtle and definitely not as blunt and stolid as many of their rivals. There are three versions of the “Alcove Cabin”, whereby the height differs, and the one has a table whereas the other doesn’t.
Indeed, Vitra is really emphasizing “Workspirit”. And only if a design is created in the right spirit will it be right; and only if the spirit catches in the office’s atmosphere and among the staff will the entire organization be the right one. And so it was left to Alberto Meda to dream up the “Physix” office chair and thus a worthy successor to the Eames’ Alu Chair – not only is it excellent as a seat, but it looks and indeed is light.
Hella Jongerius provides a slightly ironic take on the trend for screened workstations with her “Sphere Table”, a nice small wooden worktop to which a slightly transparent, colored hemisphere is attached. Partially hidden behind bamboo and presented beneath the image of a bride in white, one cannot resist asking whether the table is only meant for brides.
That said, with their “Cork Table” the Bouroullecs dare cast a glance into the future (and are pretty much alone here). What we can sense here is a new, almost minimalist stringency that stands out pleasantly from the urban office landscapes – and aesthetically blocks the descent into office playgrounds. Both as regards the ingenious combination of views and closure, and with the focus on alternative materials. It’ll be exciting to see whether the system will be included in the current Vitra program.
Bene is also busy advancing its office concept and presents its office world under the label of “Smart Working” – as a vibrant cityscape that incorporates “Me and We Places”. New in the line are so-called “Docklands” (alternative workstations for temporary activity) and “Cube_s”, modular work stations complete with integrated storage units for stationary work. In recent years, hardly any other manufacturer has created such a differentiated program for changing needs and flexible work as has Bene. Solutions have been devised for each zone and each work area. With an open structure that can be flexibly adapted to the particular spatial setting, and being efficient in terms of the use of the available space. New additions to the series are “Docklands” – anchor and focal points for staff and visitors alike destined to promote meetings in a screened-off area. And power cabling, network connections, lights and even clothes hooks come as standard. By contrast, the modules named “Cube_s” function like cockpits. If you think the concept through and link it to the ideas by carmakers of how to evolve the auto interior into a mobile workstation, then this could be the basis for new future perspectives. The workstation as intelligent cockpit is an exciting notion.
Bene is also taking a new approach as regards the integration of new media features that make teamwork and meetings more effective, assisted in the attempt during a collaboration with university students. In the future everyone will be able to jot their ideas on an electronic wall during meetings, which not only allows everyone to follow them but which can be transposed to other places, stored, or sent as a file. You don’t need to be a prophet to predict that such systems will further change the way we work in offices. “Smart Technologies” offer similar “visual collaboration solutions” that, like all of these systems, still need to be made a little easier to use, but are already paving the way for new ways of working.
9. Be calm
“For the viewer,” writes sociologist and systems theorist Dirk Baecker, “systems structure the context of liberty, blindness and what is pending: Systems are free to decide how they will evolve; they are blind to the consequences; and as regards the success of the choice, depend on everything they exclude.” Translated into the now ubiquitous “office system” this means: the free decision to form the current office system as an urban landscape has been unequivocally taken. All those offering it are blind to the consequences to the extent that to date they have attached little importance to the alternatives or evolutionary stages. This in turn implies that their success depends on whether new work modes emerge that find no basis in the current system. At the moment, at any rate, open systems provide sufficient opportunities to integrate everything that promises success in the everyday 21st-century office world, including the growing social flexibility of staff members who are no longer shackled to one work location.
Or will even more movement soon prevail in the office? Vitra issued a small pace-counter by means of which everyone can document for themselves that they have not just sat around all day. The drive for motion and fitness has not pulled up short at the entrance to the office. We can already sense competitions on the horizon where several departments compete for the title of “most mobile employee of the month”. For the time being, let’s just side with Ringelnatz, whose poem “Everywhere” reads: “Everywhere is Wonderland. / Everywhere is thriving. / In my aunty’s garter band / and wherever else it’s hiding.” And in the office, too.