Simon Keane-Cowell

Autore

Simon Keane-Cowell
Zürich   Svizzera

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology


In the grand, teleological narrative of design, things are developed to make our lives increasingly better. New forms, materials and technological innovations are introduced, self-justifying, attended by a clarity of function and value. But what happens when a new design typology comes into being for which there isn’t even a consensus on how to describe it? We give you the ‘In-Betweeners’ – a new series of office-furniture systems that are neither fish nor fowl.
 

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The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology
Designed for Loook Industries, and conceived specifically for open-plan and public spaces, Kevin Lahtinen and Ivar Gestranius’ ‘Box Sofa’ provides both partial privacy while functioning as a room-dividing device

Dock-In Bays. Workbays. Hubs. Touch Downs. Me Places. Think Tanks. Pods. There’s a new design typology on the block and it’s called… Well, that’s just it. What is it called? When it comes to the growing trend within the office-design sector for large-scale, free-standing, quasi-architectural elements that serve, beyond responding to the need of the individual worker, to the shape the landscape of the office in space-defining terms, rhetoric is working overtime as manufacturers figure out how to frame these new products linguistically.

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology
George Nelson and Robert Propst’s ‘Action Office’ for Herman Miller from the mid-1960s, which encouraged a freer movement of, and interaction between, workers. (Image taken from ‘George Nelson’ book, Vitra Design Museum, 2008)

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology
George Nelson’s free-standing conference-room element from his 1970s ‘Workspaces’ programme, which adumbrated the current trend for space-defining office systems. (Image taken from ‘George Nelson: The Design of Modern Design', MIT Press, 2008)

The dual drivers of an increased emphasis in the world of work on knowledge-sharing – it’s a knowledge economy that’s going to help us achieve competitive advantage in these tough economic times, we’re regularly told – and an allegedly growing desire on the part of workers for a greater degree of privacy or informality in terms of the physical arrangement of the office have led to the emergence in recent years of office-furniture programmes that invite users to step inside their free-standing, micro environments.

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology
The Bouroullecs’ ‘Joyn’ micro-architectural office system for Vitra, launched in 2002. Described by the manufacturer as a ‘management tool in a time of cultural change’, it takes a cue from George Nelson’s office programmes of the 60s and 70s

This year’s Orgatec fair in Cologne – the leading office-design and contract sector trade event internationally – testified to the continuing development of this typology, with a number of manufacturers presenting product families that promise, among other things, to ‘protect’, ‘anchor’ and ‘focus’ their users. Parachuted into an office’s open plan, they operate as spatial interventions, structurally independent spaces – rooms within rooms, if you will – in which staffers can either come together in an ad-hoc way to discuss ideas or, conversely, to which they can withdraw for undisturbed, high-concentration work.

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology
The DOCKLANDS furniture system, designed by PearsonLloyd for Bene, employs the discourse of urban planning in communicating its rationale. The city landscape, with its zoning, becomes a metaphor for the different areas of activity within the office

But what are they really responding to? And why now? Open-plan offices are nothing new, of course. Underpinned by Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific-management studies of the 1880s and 1890s, which analysed workflows with a view to rationalising them and thereby increasing productivity, office design began in the first part of the 20th century to be characterised more and more by large, visually uninterrupted spaces, inhabited by rows of workers. If your staff are easier to see, they’re easier to both calibrate and regulate. The modernist imperative for open, light-filled, machine-like spaces, in both domestic and public contexts, which drew heavily on the architectural language of the factory as building type, only served to accelerate this phenomenon.

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology
London design studio PearsonLloyd’s recent addition to their PARCS range of office-landscape-shaping furniture provides partial visual and acoustic screening and is described as ‘the smallest conference room in the world’

Recognised as one of the key figures in redrawing the material landscape of the post-war office, American architect and designer George Nelson is credited not only with conceiving of the L-shaped desk (which, in effect, created for the first time what would now be termed as a ‘workstation’), but also, through his collaboration with Robert Propst on the first iteration of the ‘Action Office’ programme for Herman Miller from the mid-1960s, of delivering an office environment based on a less restricted, more creative movement of, and interaction between, workers.

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology
Retreat is the name of the game with the Bouroullecs’ new ‘Workbays’ for Vitra, whose sound-absorbing shells heighten the sense of privacy their users are afforded. The panels’ ribbing is reminiscent of George Nelson’s Workspaces from the 1970s

The freely configurable, space-defining elements of the ‘Action Office’ system, which included high desks for standing while working, a separate telephone table, ‘Perch’ stools, and free-standing, room-dividing shelves, can be read as a rejection of the idea that keeping employees chained to their desks makes them more productive. In fact, it argues the opposite.

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology
The new ‘Alcove Cabin’ by the Bouroullec Brothers for Vitra forms part of the manufacturer’s ‘Net ‘n’ Nest’ take on the contemporary office – one characterised by both productive communication between workers and individual retreat

This, more flexible, approach to landscaping the office was revisited in Nelson’s mid-1970s Workspaces furniture system, which, with its emphasis on modularity, the configurability of individual workstations according to users’ preferences, and, in particular, its provision of a panelled, semi-private meeting space, adumbrates to an extent the work of the Bouroullec Brothers for Vitra in the form of their ‘Joyn’ office concept, launched in 2002. (The dilution of Nelson’s forward-thinking into the much-maligned cubicle, a commonplace in the open-plan offices of the 1970s and 80s, is a discussion for another day.)

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology
Dutch designer Ineke Hans’s ‘Smallroom’ sofa for Offecct is one part furniture, one part interior architecture, such is its emphasis on division and demarcation

So, there are a number of examples of systems for the office that predate the current new trend for semi-private, space-shaping furniture elements. Not a completely new typology perhaps? But what’s interesting is the timing. Both the ‘Action Office’ and ‘Workspaces’ programmes were commercially unsuccessful. It could be argued that they were too progressive, that they weren’t so much responding to a shift in organisational behaviour, but rather seeking to effect organisational-behavioural change through design.

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology
Two products from Lista Office LO’s ‘Mindport’ office-furnishing system (‘Touch Down’ and ‘Think Tank’, both designed by greutmann bolzern designstudio), which claim to offer a reduction of 25% in surface area required in the office

There’s clearly been a cultural shift in the interim in how we work or how we would like to work. In spite of all that heady dot.com talk of the late 1990s that heralded the arrival of the nomadic worker and, in doing so, declared the office in its traditional sense a relic, the office as a shared, quasi-public space is a concept to which we still subscribe. What’s changed, however, are our expectations of how the office should be facilitating our work – allowing us a more flexible, less prescriptive way of operating and, on a basic level, of using the physical space of the office. (Mobile technology has, of course, played a major role in loosening up the strictures of the where and when of work.)

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology
'Lodge', designed by Oguz Yalim and Ece Selamoglu for Nurus, takes a relaxed attitude to communication, encouraging its users to adopt a more supine position while meeting, working or socialising

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology
The clue is in the name with Michael Schmidt's 'MeetYou' free-standing, acoustically sound (no pun intended) partitioning for Haworth. Informal team meetings are encouraged by the product's enveloping form

While working hours have become less rigid, we now also expect the kind of diversity of encounter, exchange and stimulation that we have grown to enjoy in the ‘outside world’. Call it consumerism, if you like. It’s also in employers’ interests to provide such dynamic environments in the workplace, if they are going to obtain and retain the best people. Yet, if you’re a cynic, an ideological sleight of hand is being performed here as a discourse of personal liberty – which uses such words as ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ – is mobilised; office workers are given to believe that they are authors of their own work patterns. They’re still in the office, after all.

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology
Manufacturer EFG's 'My Space' sofa has a small footprint, allowing the possibility of private, informal meetings in the tightest of office spaces

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology
Alain Gilles' 'BuzziHub' for BuzziSpace strikes an emphatically architectural pose within the open-plan office, inviting workers to take up ad-hoc residence within its confines for quality conversation à deux or private working

And so a raft of the new office systems and furniture programmes have appeared that would seem to reflect the zeitgeist of contemporary office culture – one which ostensibly privileges both group intelligence and idea-generating communication between co-workers on the one hand and a sense of privacy bound up with notions of concentration and productivity on the other – at least for those companies who can afford them. There’s a not insignificant financial investment required to populate your office with bays, pods and hubs. And times are tough.

The In-Betweeners: the rise of a new office-furniture typology
Alexander Lervik’s space-defining and space-dividing, cellular ‘Reform’ seating for Johanson Design, which offers a seeming contradiction – proximity and isolation within a contract setting

But there’s a potential saving to be made for organisations that buy (and buy into) this way of configuring their offices. Increasing the possibility for informal, ad-hoc working, with a greater number of hotdesk-like work spaces, means a reduction in the amount of overall office space required and, by extension, a reduction in a company’s rental expenditure. Moreover, the fact that such furniture systems consist of free-standing, moveable elements, as opposed to being part of an office fit-out, means they can move with their users should the company change premises.

Only time will tell whether the born-again pod-filled office landscape that’s taking shape will stay the course this time. Let’s Touch Down at my Me Place soon, OK?

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