While this office in Darmstadt, Germany is no spectacle, it is nonetheless a space that shows how an everyday workplace can be transformed with thoughtful planning and a simple design feature to tie it all together.
Created by Vitra for German gas and electricity supplier VNB, together with VNB’s in-house architect Gert Bock, the new office brings together 50 employees from several different departments in separate offices. A key aim was for the space to be open plan and fluid, but its location in a former factory building meant the architecture had its restrictions. “There are five arches within firewalls that we had to keep, but they are quite narrow,” says Vitra’s Miriam Vogel, who led the interior design together with colleague Pirjo Kiefer, “but we still wanted an open space to link the departments.” The team therefore devised the idea of the yellow line, which runs through the main office space as a suspended partial roof supported by yellow partition walls. Made in lacquered wood, the shape is not regimented but asymmetrical, like a freehand drawing, which breaks up the uniformity of the office and introduces a vibrant design element to join the spaces.
“We wanted to emphasise the importance of this corridor and we had the room height for it so we came up with this idea, which covers all the space as a unifying element,” says Vogel. She explains that, in Germany, the colour yellow is used as a universal symbol for gas, which is one of quite a few design elements that were included so the employees could identify with the company they are working for. Across one wall is a graphic designed and installed by German design studio 22quadrat, which depicts a map of interweaving lines representing a network of pipes, and a map of a small town, to “show where the gas ends up,” says Vogel. To the same effect, Vitra chose to leave the air ducts and pipes exposed on the ceilings, a reminder of the building’s former use, but also – according to Vogel – a reaffirmation of the employees’ responsibility.
Perhaps a subtler link to the company’s identity is the use of natural materials, which according to Vogel is a reference to the natural gas VNB uses. What it does achieve is a welcome softener to the lines of white desks and grey floors, creating a warmer atmosphere. Oak is used for some meeting-room floors, thick-pile rugs are used to delineate smaller breakout spaces, and olive trees and plants are dotted around the whole interior. The Mouette light by Artemide that hangs throughout was even chosen for its bird’s-wing shape.
Though the “yellow ribbon”, as it has been penned, has become the signature detail of this project, it was actually an afterthought that arrived after the meticulous and thorough planning of the layout. Before embarking on any design work, Vitra carried out a two-day workshop with some employees and department managers, looking into how they worked and how they wanted to work in the future. “We asked – what do you need? What is bad in the old office? Where would you like the printers, what type of coffee area do you want? Everything you need to design a good office. At the end, we had a concept for what it should be.”
The 1,100sq m space was planned for 50 people, a fairly generous space-to-person ratio, and included a few individual offices for managers. Where space was left over, it was filled with think tanks, meeting rooms and breakout spaces. Some of these are just two of Vitra’s Alcove high-back sofas put together, while others are big boardrooms. “At the workshop we asked, do you really need all these meeting rooms – what do you use them for?” says Vogel. “You don’t need much space for most of the meeting areas, and each one can do different things. You can meet there and be creative without disturbing your colleagues.”
Like most of Vitra’s workplace projects, the office is based on a raised floor built from 60x60cm sections, enclosing all the wires. This, together with the easily adaptable workstations and breakout spaces, makes the space more flexible to accommodate new layouts in the future. “This is a sustainable office because they won’t need to move out very soon!” says Vogel.
It seemed a silly question to ask if all the furniture was Vitra, which it is, but Vogel says this is not always the case with their commissions. Sometimes, once the space is designed, the client decides not to specify Vitra furniture, but in this case Vogel and the Vitra team were in charge of the fit out from beginning to end. “This project is a complete work – in German we would say it is ‘round’,” she says. “We get the perfect result.”
National School of Furniture (NSF) MA graduate Ashish Shakuniya has designed a chair that allows people to work when space is limited. The chair is part of Shakuniya’s Space Saving Furniture project and is on display at the NSF’s graduate show at the Vitra showroom in Clerkenwell, London. By using simple CNC cut wood panels that slot together the chair can be easily converted into a desk while books and papers can be stored underneath the seat.
Some ten years ago, Sevil Peach redesigned Vitra’s offices on its Weil am Rhein campus, in the process changing the rules of the game for good. Until then, corporate office space wasn’t thought of as interesting or creative or, God forbid, sexy. The story back then has become a familiar one. Vitra’s staff had been trapped in an anti-social, cubicle-stricken space the size of a football pitch; a ludicrous rolling ceiling gobbled up the former showroom’s high ceilings, amplifying the sense of claustrophobia. Peach ensured that the last vestiges of Taylorism were vanquished in tasteful fashion just in time for the new century. She ripped everything out, exposing the concrete beams, opening up the layout and creating a variety of work and social areas. This was way back in 1998, and when the project was finished in 2000, it was such a success that the office receives an estimated 30,000 visitors a year hoping to inject some dynamism into their own workplaces. Since then Weil am Rhein has undergone a series of mainly cosmetic makeovers to reinvigorate the space and to provide a promotional vehicle for the company’s new products. It wasn’t until summer last year that more serious interventions were called for. The arrival of an architecture department meant a densification of desk-space in an area that was formerly a mixture of library and informal meeting space. Housing extra manpower, however, was a small segment of a wider brief. Many areas had originally been devoted to post, photocopying and large archives, but in Vitra’s quest to become that most mythical of beasts, the paperless office, the majority of these functions had been rendered obsolete. More relevant now was space for quiet individual work areas, contrasting informal meeting and project spaces, plus a media room. Because of the original plan’s far-sightedness, the new changes proved to be deceptively straightforward. When Peach was initially approached in 1998, it was made clear that the building, designed by Nicholas Grimshaw, should be left unmolested. Her solution was to pre-fabricate a birch plywood platform and simply drop it into the space, hardly touching the building at all. The benefits of this system are threefold: firstly it meant the inhabitants could stroll around the workspace perimeter, animating the office with its own streetlife; secondly, the raised platform acts as a plenium; and thirdly, any further work need not involve sledgehammering through partition walls. To fulfil her new brief, Peach reconfigured the central section of the floor, rearranging the original cafe and introducing a greater number of informal spaces to create a communal heart for the office known as the ‘club’. A bank of mailboxes was done away with, replaced by banquette seating, and the ‘strategic purchasing quality management’ department became the aforementioned meeting and project areas. Meanwhile, private workrooms were converted into a constellation of plywood boxes lined with coloured felt. “They wanted other types of concentration spaces to do individual work, so we created these boxes with different coloured acoustic fabrics inside,” Peach explains. “We wanted to eliminate visual noise as well as acoustic.” Architecturally, they equate a do-not-disturb sign and, according to Peach, have proved very popular. Opposite is a lounge area raised on a platform occupying what was previously a large photocopying area. And at the far end is the boardroom-style project room, which has been twisted 90 degrees to free up space so that the library can now become part of the new club area. Around the perimeter of Peach’s original pre-fabricated platform, further changes have taken place. An archive area has been freed up for work and meeting “boxes”, which explore the same themes as the individually coloured workstations. Here, they’re sized up to create colour-saturated, felt-lined rooms. The larger alcoves hold up to four people, while a yellow single person box encourages more solitary pursuits. Finally, an additional meeting room in one corner has been converted into a multimedia facility, while another redundant archive is now a high-bench working area. Elsewhere more enduring details have wisely been kept. Canvas-wrapped wall panels dangling from the concrete beams are still being used to create intimacy in the otherwise expansive layout, and coffee points are abundant. The two patio areas from the pre-2000 layout are still here, albeit with extra seating. Indeed, the quantity of original detailing is a strong testament to project’s flexibility. In particular, the building’s longevity again queries the wisdom and validity of Cat A suspended ceilings: given that a project’s sustainability hinges on its ability to adapt, fitting suspended ceilings as a default only to have them ripped out by a new occupier makes little environmental or financial sense. Fitting then, given her well-documented disdain for them, that Peach and her team’s greatest contribution to their industry was to popularise the exposed method. Perhaps one day the suspended ceiling will go the same way as Taylorism. The Vitra Office shows what a workplace could be, given some thought and some moments of inspiration, and no doubt it will evolve further in the years to come. The project stirs fond memories for Peach, cementing a relationship with Vitra that continues today, mainly thanks to the adaptability of that first plan.“Its been an amazing journey really,” she says. “Because of the way the architectural armature was conceived it will remain the base platform from which ideas can be added or subtracted. Maybe in five years time there will be another intervention.” No prizes for guessing who will seize that commission.
An office desk surface is compared to an island of ice, another to an object in space while a conference table leg is inspired by antlers. Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the world of the signature designer. But do these esoteric ways of working really belong in an industry that normally speaks the language of mechanisms and widgets – gas lifts, castor wheels, pedestals, extrusions etc? Does the office furniture industry need more signature design?Well Italian office furniture manufacture Della Rovere certainly thinks so. The firm recently enlisted the services of Karim Rashid, best known for his love of pink and suggestive organic shapes, which is where the ice and the spacecraft come in, obviously. As the designer himself immodestly puts it, “An inspiring object will always increase productivity. My desks inspire individuals who sit behind them to think in possibilities rather than limitations.” An initial meeting at trade show NeoCon in 2007 resulted in Rashid designing the Uno and Zero desks or “techno organic objects”, as he describes them, which launched last year at the Milan furniture fair. Della Rovere’s UK business manager Mike Stanton says: “They completely bought into what he had designed. It moved away from their core materials, veneer and laminates, instead using polypropylene and glass fibre. About nine years ago, Della Rovere made a business decision to move away from the lower to mid-level market towards the mid to high end and Zero and Uno have helped raise the firm’s profile among architect and design practices in that marketplace.”The products not only gained column inches, but translated into all-important revenue too, with over 100 units snapped up at the show alone. “In the UK, the products have gone down well and worldwide sales have been high,” Stanton adds. The plaudits just keep coming for New York-based Rashid with his latest foray into the office sector coming courtesy of South East Asian company Office Planner, which launched a new collection this year at the Singapore Furniture Fair, including upholstered sofas and chairs, tables and desks. Managing director Gavin Woo says: “We met Karim last year after communicating via email. We wanted to develop a range of funky and functional furniture. The Pinker brand name was chosen and in addition Karim redesigned some elements of our desking system Itaca. Being a manufacturer of systems in a small country like Singapore, which is not particularly known for office furniture, our collaboration brings new opportunities and has helped us reach a new level in terms of design.”Of course, this idea of signature design in the office isn’t necessarily a new one. Vitra chairman Rolf Fehlbaum says: “Our encounters with George Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames in the late 50s and 60s had a formative effect – designers are not only creators of products but participate in the creation of the company, its values and its orientation. This not only applies to the giants of the past who have gone on to become classics of our time. It is equally valid for the contemporary designers who work for Vitra today.”But just like every fashion retailer on the high street is keen to get a top designer endorsement these days – think Giles Deacon at New Look, Karl Lagerfeld at H&M, or Stella McCartney at adidas – it seems that now everyone’s at it in the office world too. Even a manufacturer like Koenig and Neurath, which has staunchly stuck to using its own in-house design team until now, has unveiled plans for 2010 that include a new office chair range with an as-yet-unnamed international design studio. Bene has just lined up the UK’s go-to design duo for contemporary design, PearsonLloyd, for a launch this autumn. This is after the company launched the Filo table by Austrian design practice Eoos at Orgatec last year, which was designed to complement Eoos’ 2004 Filo chair. Having seen Eoos in action, it’s clear why Bene wanted to work with them. Gernot Bohmann, one third of the design studio, demonstrates the product enthusiastically: “The important thing to remember is it is a system you can build in different shapes and sizes, you can create a clean, white surface while underneath this ‘antler’ here branches out to rails on the underside of the length of the table, giving maximum stability.” Signature designers don’t just lend their name to a firm of course, they lend their whole way of thinking, or as Fehlbaum puts it: “They have the antennae to perceive the shape of things to come.”They question the norms of office furniture - why should the ephemera for today’s technology impinge on the interaction between its users across a table top, when it can be stored in the Filo’s special media boxes, hung from the underside. “You also get to know new materials and new technology that you wouldn’t if you just worked for one company,” explains Christian Horner, who, along with Johannes Scherr and Kai Stania, form Bene’s ironically monickered ‘in-house design team’. “This is obviously expressed in the P2 Management programme, where we introduced high-gloss surfaces. The kitchen industry is always interesting to consider. Because the numbers are greater it’s much more advanced in terms of mechanisms. In my work, it’s very important to have close cooperation with the company. On the other hand, if we get too involved, it’s just as important from time to time to be doing projects other than office furniture.” To this end, when not designing office systems, Horner is involved in a number of domestic furniture and transport projects, while Stania, for instance, designs products as varied as watches, wine glasses and pens.While Horner typically dedicates one to three days a week to Bene, signature designers’ involvement can vary dramatically, as Jonathan Reed-Lethbridge of Ergonom, part of the Unifor group explains: “Designers come in at very different levels, from the cliché of an idea jotted on the back of a cigarette packet to being heavily involved at every stage of the design process. Unifor has worked with designers such as Richard Sapper, Michele de Lucchi and Aldo Rossi, but always three quarters of the design development is done in-house.”Many of those questioned believe it’s a matter of the right person for the right manufacturer. John Fogarty, design director for storage specialists Bisley, is among them. He explains: “It’s got to be a marriage of minds between the designer and the engineering detail of the product, so that the original design doesn’t get diluted. I feel strongly that there’s place for both in-house and signature designers with mutual trust coming out of experience.”Another consideration manufacturers need to address is that by taking a risk with a signature designer, you’re never going to please all of the people all of the time. Joyn, for instance, the Bouroullec brothers’ bench system, inspired by their grandmother’s kitchen table and launched by Vitra in 2002, has practically become a contemporary workplace staple. Flicking through past copies of onoffice, it can be spotted everywhere from Freud Communications London base (November 08), fashion emporium Reiss’s headquarters (October 08), and the Penguin offices on the Strand (February 08). On the other hand, signature products such as Philippe Starck’s BaObab desk – a boomerang shaped polyethylene number, also for Vitra, does not enjoy the same ubiquity. Karim Rashid’s work also polarises opinion, and not everyone is going to want the bold shapes and loud colours of the Pinker collection. It’s a calculated risk.But, finally, what do those who are involved in specifying furniture think of the signature designers’ involvement in the office sector? Tim Murray, director with former onoffice cover stars Moxon strikes a distinct note of caution: “While designer names carry a degree of kudos and will often finish off a space with the sophistication that the client requires, I think specifiers have become lazy and rely too much on the name instead of the product. Manufacturing and design quality coupled with the items’ compliance to the project brief should ultimately be the overriding factors.“Also, don’t assume that designer names translate into quality service from the supplier. I have been caught out before when main factories are unable to cope and orders are sub-contracted out to smaller local workshops that are unable to deliver on the quality of finish or construction.” Joe Morris, director of Duggan Morris, which has completed workplace projects including the offices of Browns design agency in London Bridge, also has his reservations: “A brand name bringing in a signature designer to reposition itself is a little like setting off an incendiary device, those near it can’t escape and the repercussions can be wide-ranging. These products often have inflated price tags, but if nothing else, it gives the specifier the opportunity to reacquaint themselves with the back catalogue of quality in-house designed products.”Meanwhile Steve McConnell, project director with Cartwright Pickard, which is currently working on projects including council offices in Doncaster and Wakefield, says that for clients who are keen to be seen to be prudent with public funds, placing an Eames chair in the reception wouldn’t be right, but “we are trying to drive change in the sector, so we would maybe look at products by the growing crop of young British designers.”Office furniture manufacturers thinking of employing the services of a signature designers take note: “Ultimately,” he adds “it’s about value for money: a good quality product that still looks good ten years later.”
Sevil Peach, the founder of Sevil Peach Gence Associates, holds the key to unorthodox office design. Kerstin Zumstein talks to the media-shy interior designer to reveal the secret of her silent successSevil Peach was right there at the beginning as one of the first interior designers to shake up the conventions of office design, injecting life into the workplace. It all began in 1994, when she was commissioned by Barclays Bank to redesign one of its offices in Birmingham, and as a result created one of the first flexible, non-territorial workspaces. Since then her company SPGA has continued to challenge office design conventions for many a blue chip: the groundbreaking workplace for pharmaceuticals giant Novartis in Switzerland (May 2005), Deloitte headquarters in Prague (January 2006) and Microsoft’s new headquarters in Amsterdam, due to be completed in spring 2007. But dedicated industry insiders will know the London-based designer best from her strong link to Vitra.
However, Sevil Peach is not a Vitra story. Yes, the company’s legendary CEO Rolf Feldbaum is indeed a big fan of hers – he commissioned SPGA to do his own office in the Frank Gehry building next door to the Vitra headquarters, its showrooms in Los Angeles, Barcelona and Amsterdam, the Vitra shop’s relaunch and exhibition space in Düsseldorf, and Vitra’s Orgatec stands in both 2004 and 2006, as well as consultation sessions on new product ranges – but Peach is ultimately a story of experimental design.
“Workplaces are living spaces,” says Peach, turning down the music as I enter her office in London’s Butler’s Wharf. “Nowadays it’s common knowledge that offices function as a social hub. But I always felt that you can’t apply a formula to designing spaces, especially not if their success is based on human interaction.” We sit down at a large inviting table, and she looks me straight in the eye. “So, how does this work, what do you want to know?”
What I’m curious about is how Peach has remained in the background for so long, why SPGA has shunned the limelight despite working on prestigious projects for over a decade. Born in Turkey in 1949, Peach moved to Swinging London in the Sixties, “for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones”, later studying Interior Design at Brighton University and becoming design director at London-based design practice YRM in 1988. “As a design director you suddenly become more a manager than a hands-on designer,” recalls Peach, so in 1994 she established SPGA with architect Gary Turnbull – to do real design on a human scale.
SPGA’s workplace focus came through the nature of their first clients and their projects since convey an ethos preached by most workplaces designers today: anti-hierarchical open plan with break-out areas and home aesthetics. But Peach has been producing these spaces for years now. “We don’t have a PR agency, don’t really have time for marketing either,” she says. “We delve from one project to the next and because we swore from the start always to remain between six to eight people – and eight is already too many – our priorities lie elsewhere.” These priorities lie in challenging design.
Peach is not in the business for glory. In fact, she feels uncomfortable that the interview is focusing on her. “We’re a team here, everything is a group effort. Gary Turnbull is partner and then there’s Fiona Kelly who breathes inspiration.” Her workspace has a family feel to it – they all bring each other things from the shop, take turns in cooking lunch for each other, and no one is spared buying the toilet paper. SPGA lives the work model it teaches – collaborations without limits, a work flow without decree.
We start going through the models of Peach’s past and current projects that frame her office’s walls. “When designing open-plan areas, we tend to break the vistas down into well-digestible sizes,” she explains. “And that size is often modelled on our own offices here, a dimension that feels right to a human being: big enough to breathe while small enough to convey a comfortable sense of intimacy.” She always looks for an architectural solution to interiors: “We do architecture inside a building.”
Peach has often been asked if SPGA would consider product design, especially since she is known to have consulted Vitra on many a product. “In the process of our work we often come across needs for products, like a good coat hanger or simply a good executive desk. If the money’s there we’ll design a customer specific piece. I have at least ten product ideas in my head that the industry is missing. But if you turn each need into a product, you will end up with an office space that looks and – worse even – feels like a showroom. Not to mention the environmental aspects.”
It is the feel of SPGA’s designs that makes them successful. Peach remembers the company’s first hit – sketching plans for Barclays’ headquarters executive floor in Lombard Street from a balcony in Turkey and faxing it back to London. “We won the contract and worked from home, sitting at a big family table, exchanging ideas and energy. We thought it was a fantastic way of working.” And that work ethic of fusing energies is felt not only in the end product but continues in her current work style. The first pioneering project to follow was Barclays’ Property Holding Limited at the Kennedy Tower in Birmingham. While at YRM, Peach had worked on airports, retail and residential, but always feared an office commission due to the sheer monotony of office layouts at the time. However, this particular project struck a cord with Vitra’s Rolf Feldbaum. When Feldbaum saw the images he exclaimed: “This is the first time I’ve seen a great office.” What he was really seeing for the first time was a flexible workplace, encouraging dynamic work styles and breaking down office convention into a humanly palatable form. As a result, Feldbaum approached Peach to design Vitra’s headquarters in Weil am Rhein, Germany.
“First I thought he was joking but then he followed up and gave me a simple brief: he wanted a ‘breathing’ office. We had proper stage fright but then surpassed not only his but our own expectations.”
“I always call the Vitra HQ a room with a view,” Peach says, smiling. And indeed the design enables a view of the scenic Rhein Valley landscape from all areas of the previously dark and enclosed building. SPGA experimented with various ideas, such as incorporating a sleep room, which has since been taken out because no one really used it. Other elements, such as the bare bones of the layout, have stuck with many new projects since. Peach sees the office as a city, describing the corridors as streets, where people naturally move through the space.
She introduces platforms into an open-plan space to create a sense of action through areas rising from the floor. Canvas walls support interaction by functioning as white boards, inviting people to express their thoughts. “But ultimately,” Peach says, “we are asked to design spaces that will facilitate a transit from one work culture to another.”
One of SPGA’s key features is a sense of movement. It’s achieved firstly through visually flowing design elements, like variations of heights and strong curves, and secondly by the way people are encouraged to move within the space. This motion really comes to life on her floor plans. They work like a Swiss Army knife, with functions flipping out of each joint, something happening everywhere and at the same time visually tucked away to prevent a sensory overkill. SPGA’s relocation of fashion brand Mexx in Holland is a good example of creating this sense of movement within a building. “We manipulate height and colour to create motion,” Peach explains. For instance, a long table flows through the room with seating options in a variety of heights, sizes, materials and colours, visually bringing it to life. Movement is also created by people’s interaction with objects, for example when choosing how and where to sit. This coming together, this fusion of people is Peach’s trademark. She proudly points out the people in the project pictures: “These aren’t staged, it just shows how the employees are using the space.” Various work styles are demonstrated on this one photo. “It’s all about the end-user, they have to like working in the space. I’m not saying ‘we love end-users’ but we embrace them,” Peach laughs, but immediately returns to her passionate presentation. “It stems from the genuine empathy we have with people.”
“We also would never tell a client, ‘oh you are a nomadic worker’. We don’t preach the going terminology, but we are on a mission, a mission to create environments that support the human side of work,” Peach states. “What I don’t get, though, is if everyone is acknowledging that future work styles imply knowledge workers sharing knowledge, why are most office builds still the same? Why are new-built office blocks still complying with old standards? There’s only so much you can do as an interior designer going into a rectangular building with lift shafts and tight corridors. I guess it is a lack of visionary developers! But if anyone fancies taking on the challenge of redefining the layout of an office new build they can feel free to get in contact with us.”
The architecture that SPGA creates within the buildings is drawn from a set of tricks. Like a roadmap, the workspaces have posts along the way, signifiers to guide through the floors. “We use these signifiers to trigger associations, like the colourful rug at Deloitte or the rocking chair at Novartis,” Peach explains. “There’s a psychology behind it. Sometimes we like to use furniture as a sculpture, as with the Zanotta coat hanger, that we’ve used in various projects in different ways.” At the root of each floor plan is the aim to break monotony. “Not for the simple sake of it – each element has a purpose. In a vertical building it is crucial to create a heart. I’d say we are good at understanding the potential of a building.”
The knack for playing tricks was especially well demonstrated at Vitra’s Orgatec stand in 2004, where products and classic items were placed either larger than life or in miniature format on the walls, like Alice in Wonderland. “Work has got to be fun,” Peach exclaims, with a twinkle in her eye. “For instance, we’re currently designing an executive office for a client in Istanbul, who most of the team haven’t met. So we blew up a photo of him to life size, stuck it on cardboard and cut it out. Now it circulates the office, sitting on the desk of whoever is currently working on it as a reference point – why not?” Introducing an element of a project that’s work in progress into SPGA’s London workplace is common practice for the company. “When working on Vitra’s LA showroom, I fell for the pink bougainvillea and decided to make them the colour motif of the project, so throughout the duration of that job we had bougainvilleas in our office here in London.”
So that’s how Peach works – sharing inspiration, thinking aloud, inviting people to explore her thoughts. How did she stay so down to earth in this notoriously attitude-filled industry? “You know, in the beginning of my career, I used to get really nervous, feel a certain stage fright. My father gave me a tip, an old theatre trick I still apply today. He said: ‘When you’re confronted with a client or designer, simply imagine them naked, then you’ll remember that we’re all just humans and that will ease the nerves’. So, in essence, I have undressed every single one of my clients, male or female, at some point or another. But don’t write that …” she laughs. But besides revealing her technique for keeping her cool, the story discloses the basics of her work. For Peach, there is a certain equality, a human dimension that everyone relates to, and that’s what she puts at the heart of her designs. It’s a truly holistic approach, and it’s a wonder it hasn’t caught on sooner.
Words by Michael WilloughbyLaw firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain had a radical overhaul, primarily fitted out by Vitra. Michael Willoughby spoke to CEO Adrian Martin about the ins and outs
A life-size reindeer hovers on a bridge over the foyer of Tower Bridge House, the sole Christmas decoration in the home of London-based law firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain.
The simple seasonal gesture encapsulates the remarkable minimalism of RPC’s offices. On all four floors of the building, designed by Richard Rogers, there are rows and rows of clean, white desks facing banks of white filing cabinets. There is hardly any clutter anywhere.
By all accounts this set up is very different from how RPC used its previous offices in Holborn and Leadenhall Market, where it had resided for 35 years. Files from large, important, closed cases were everywhere. Senior lawyers had their own offices. Juniors and trainees shared rooms. This set up – the cellular offices and the “trophy files” of victories bagged – spoke of hierarchies and a type of display that CEO Adrian Martin wished to do away with.
It is one of the paradoxes of modern life that the business of making money – often seen as conservative and narrow-minded – has often brought about changes in society unachievable by decades of political egalitarianism. And Martin, who has piloted this move from what he admits was a “crusty” and “embarrassing” workspace to the largest open-plan office for a London law firm (with space for 500 at present), is not a tradition-loving lawyer but an accountant. He is aware that community, team work, visibility and a flat structure may be buzz words, but they are also highly effective tools for productivity if done right. He himself is to be found in the exact same desk as everyone else, albeit at the end of a row with a nice view of the Tower of London through Rogers’ sparkling glass walls.
RPC employees and clients have ample space to meet and move around, including closed meeting rooms on each identical floor, perching points, high seating at work tables and low seating at leisure tables. Most meetings, however, are carried out at each other’s “homes” on the Vitra Freeform desks. The peripheral offices are hardly used. The open-plan critics have lost the argument.
It took Martin six months to plan and carry out the move. Great care was taken to get it right, to keep people happy and ensure that business went on as usual. “You only get one chance,” he says. Not that there were any complaints about the old way of doing things. “Some people liked being buried,” he adds. He was taking a huge risk, so campaigns and secret ballots were carried out – moving opinion from 70% to 95% approval. He and facilities manager Mayur Patel saw buildings at home and abroad and noted their strengths and weaknesses.
Key to the success was convincing people that open plan could provide privacy and effective working conditions if done right. The problem is, Martin says, that too many have only experienced it done wrong. For example, he travelled to another “top London firm” where open plan was being trialled. The experiment consisted of miles of cellular office space. After complaints about noise levels, the screens were made higher, somewhat missing the point of open plan.
It was their traditional experience of open plan – noisy and grey and exposed – that made some RPC lawyers fear it. So the firm took care of that by carefully arranging lines of sight and sound. A £70,000 white noise machine was installed and the seating is staggered so no employee has another one directly in his or her sights.
The white noise is a high hiss broadcast from hundreds of tiny speakers implanted into the ceiling. You could think it was the sound of the air-conditioning if the pitch wasn’t different in each room. Engineers arrive to fine-tune it every month, and employees say it makes a huge difference since, when it’s switched off in the evening, a phone call can be heard from the other end of the room. The rest of the time, even neighbours are happy yabbering away into phones next to each other. It also makes possible the desk-side meetings that other designers go out of their way to discourage for fear of disturbing nearby residents. Though the system was expensive, it is key to the success of the plan.
Martin is so enthusiastic about what has been done here that it is hard to remember he’s the CEO of the company and not a workplace expert. Like any recent convert he is a keen evangelist, but if he eloquently articulated the problems and needs, Vitra found the solutions. And the company was amply rewarded for its success: the space is filled with Vitra furniture, from the Freestyle desks to the Coconut lounging chairs to the Eames tables. To cap it all, the firm kitted out the place with Bellini Headline chairs (onoffice issue 2) for secretaries and lawyers alike, based on a pre-production prototype. There’s even a cluster of miniature Vitra chairs and tables. “Tim [Oldman, associate director at Vitra] said he wanted to show people around the space and I said, ‘Fine, if you bring us a miniature chair every time you do’,” says Martin. Fourteen pieces sit on top of the filing system. “We are something of a Vitra showroom.”
And that’s even more remarkable when you consider that Vitra was not at first responsible for the overall styling. London-based HOK Architecture, which still provided the category B styling, was originally charged with the whole job, but Vitra convinced RPC it could do better and that HOK had made some mistakes. For instance, desks were originally slated to be next to the huge glass expanse of Rogers’ windows. This would make the place look untidy both across the sparkling ravine at the heart of the block and from the outside. Vitra ensured that clear space surrounds everyone and everything.
“The architect created the infrastructure but work style and design was largely contributed by Vitra’s in-house team,” says Martin. It seems that Martin, Oldman and Patel were better able to bond over business and operational matters, such as filing: “I know it’s not very exciting,” says Martin, opening up a cabinet and taking out a plastic box, “but these boxes save up to 23% storage on traditional file folders.” More interesting was the two and a half miles of filing space that RPC and Vitra worked to rid the company of – that’s down from four and a half miles in six months. £250,000 worth of equipment didn’t need to be purchased as a result, and £300,000 worth of floor rental space was freed up.
True to his accountancy background, “Adrian had a mini-business case for everything,” says Oldman. The meeting rooms and lounge (with free salads, biscuits and drinks) on the ground floor, which are used to entertain clients and pitch new business, were a considerable outlay. But Martin worked out that they were a better investment over two to three years than hiring seminar rooms in the surrounding area.
So, what of the staff? Intellectual property veteran Gemma Cullis, who thought she knew open plan and hated it, is keen. “A lot of thought has gone into the equipment,” she says. Trainee solicitor Matthew Dando said it was time to move on from the old space, which was “dated”. He was impressed with the process of consultation and the move. “People were at their desks and working on the first day of the move,” he says. “Everyone who was sceptical has been proven wrong.” If there’s any complaint, it’s that you sometimes feel a slight inhibition when interacting socially with colleagues, says Cullis. “But I suppose that’s a good thing.” She says she’s also forgotten to do a few things as a result of the clean desk policy. This means that cleaners place everything on employees’ chairs at the end of the day. Her pile of papers was her to do list, she says.
Secretaries and floor managers will have a word with repeat offenders on the clean desk front. “We’ve gone to great lengths to provide enough storage,” says Martin. His benevolent dictatorship of order and tidiness shows itself in colourful toys and sweets on the top of the filing cabinets; there to provide a spot of colour, but also to stop people dumping clobber all around. His desire to keep his new space looking as good as possible is understandable given the investment of time and money that was made. And underneath all the egalitarianism and idealism, there’s the accountant’s bottom line. The month preceding our tour – November – demonstrated the highest ever productivity level for the firm. Enthusiastic emails from former sceptics have poured in and no one has left as a result of the move. Martin says the project went so well that everyone’s wondering: “What shall we do next?”