Tilt's Dermot Egan (left) and Oliver Marlow (right) Amorphous Fruit & Nut tables at Club Workspace's Chiswick space LeafDesk, also in situ at Chiswick, interconnects on a pivot for lots of flexibility Tilt's all new Suitcase Design desk at Club Workspace in Waterloo Wheelbarrow chairs at the Southbank's Festival of the World When not in use, the Fruit & Nut tables can be mounted on the wall Co-design workshops with end-users are a starting point for projects
21 Jan 2013

Tilt: Collaborate to accumulate

Words by  Photo by Bernd Ott and Jill Tate

Tilt wants to banish top-down architecture and replace it with a more fluid, participatory approach. Is its method the way to finally realise that most elusive of creatures – the fully adaptive, collaborative workplace?

“There are huge changes in the workplace and we need a new type of architect to meet them with a new type of knowledge base and skill-set,” said Professor Jeremy Myerson last December.

Many will recognise the rhetoric as more than a little familiar. Myerson heads up the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the RCA, an organisation known for reeling off investigative reports into the shifting sands of workplace design.

What is undeniable is that while wireless technology has revolutionised the way we can work, it has not – barring a handful of enlightened examples – yet impacted on the workplace at large. So who is this new type of architect, and more to the point, do they even exist outside the walls of academia?

Hackney-based design practice Tilt would answer this last question with an emphatic yes. Founded in 2010 by designer Oliver Marlow and social entrepreneur Dermot Egan, the studio’s co-design methodology resonates with the professor’s vision.

“The god-like approach to design has run its course,” announces Marlow. “With architecture there is too much focus on the architects at the top of the pyramid dictating their visions, which is fine if you are designing an apartment for a sheik, but I think it should be much more about engaging people through the use of space.” Whichever way you look at it, seven years at architecture school will ingrain all but the most conciliatory with a sense of “we know best”. Neither Marlow or Egan are trained architects, and do not come shackled by such thinking.

“There was no original dialogue with the people using the space”

When I arrive at Tilt’s Mare Street studio, its nine-strong team – designers, architects and graphic designers – are clustered around a modular, pivoting desk of their own making.

The scene immediately chimes with the studio’s inclusive sensibility. As we decamp to the workshop next door – a rough-and-ready cloister populated by prototypes of a similar ilk to the desk – Egan explains how the studio focuses on people’s emotional and practical responses to their environment and how to change people’s relationship to space.

Following a collaborative process that marries workshops with data analysis, the studio interprets these to create a fluid workplace that is adaptable rather than static. Tellingly, Tilt cites Olafur Eliasson – an artist concerned with audience interaction – as a key influence ahead of any architect.

Co-design sits easily in 21st-century Gladwellian lexicon. The concept is embedded in the work of American philosopher Charles West Churchman’s “systems thinking” theory, in which to fully understand the whole of something, you must analyse the interdependence of objects within it. Or to put it more simply, to see the world through someone else’s eyes. When applied to architecture it somewhat demolishes the mystique of the all-knowing patriarch. While co-design might not be a new idea, with the relentless talk of flattened-out hierarchies and new ways of working, it seems extremely timely.

At the time of writing, Tilt is putting the finishing touches to a brace of new workspaces for Club Workspace, one in Chiswick and one at Enterprise House near Waterloo.

Club Workspace offers co-working space with tiered membership according to how much time you want to spend there, and Tilt were collaborators, with Carmody Groarke, on the first two clubs that opened in 2011 (onoffice 57).

Typically, Tilt designs a new piece of furniture for each project; Club Workspace spawned a desk/locker hybrid with integrated lighting in the desk lid, for example.

Marlow is the former head of design for the Hub, a global network of sustainable co-workplaces aimed at start-ups, and for the Hub in King’s Cross, Tilt transformed a struggling space with the amoeba-like tables that fostered a more efficient use of the floorplate.

“I worked on many Hubs and this was the first one where you had an old-fashioned client-architect relationship with an anchor tenant,” Marlow explains. “The furniture and flow wasn’t working. Part of that was there was no original dialogue with the people who were using that space. It was a classic real-life brief that answered a problem that commercial furniture was not able to do.”

“Corporates want to replicate the energy of these spaces”

The fact that Tilt’s furniture is generated by live projects suggests a weakness on the furniture industry’s part where all research is inextricably linked to the commercial pressure to shift units. In addition there is without doubt an element of guesswork when you are trying to solve a problem preemptively. “A lot of the furniture companies are working out what exactly the need is, but some of this is because we have a lot of furniture designers sat in a room saying ‘what do we do now?’” The wave of meeting pods, cubes and suchlike unleashed on the market is indeed staggering, but as Tilt points out, what is often forgotten is how these pieces fit together to form a coherent whole.

The studio’s most high-profile work came last summer when it designed an events, dining and co-working space for the Southbank Centre’s Festival of the World.

Issuing a call to arms to London’s creative community, Tilt and Lyn Atelier galvanised 200 volunteers from across the city to design and build a 464sq m space under Queen Elizabeth Hall using more than five tonnes of landfill material.

The inventive space, complete with tables constructed from reclaimed timber and chairs made from wheelbarrows, was entertaining, imaginative and, above all, a storming success. “The extent to which we get to exercise the co-design methodology is dependant on the client,” says Egan. “With the Southbank Centre they were very open to it.”

Rather than attempting to strip down an organisation to its birthday suit, Tilt embraces the nuances and quirks.

This is most apparent in its reworking of the outpatient pharmacy at Whittington Hospital in north London in conjunction with the Design Council.

The project was a melting pot of cultures, generations and languages. Tilt listened intently to all the different voices, even going so far as to work with a patient to build a prototype – the Cocoon Chair – that helped calm her waiting room nerves. Other simple manoeuvres included opening up sightlines to the dispensary thereby connecting patients with the pharmacists (PearsonLloyd’s work in redesigning hospitals’ A&E departments showed that the general public are much less likely to “lose it” when they can see someone working hard on their behalf).

On the surface it sounds a little like design by committee. Marlow counters: “It is not about consensus building, it is about synthesising difference as a model. If you accept complexity and work with it, you come up with something more interesting than if you try and force it into a particular position.” On this point, Tilt is critical of established workplace architects. “I’ve seen co-design practised by people like Gensler who say ‘we do co-design, we painted all four walls different colours and then asked them which they preferred.’ That isn’t anything to do with anything,” says Marlow.

Aesthetically the results can be a mixed bag.

The wheelbarrows for the Festival of the World, for example, are endearingly eccentric and fitted in perfectly with the event’s ramshackle nature. When wheeled into Enterprise House for Club Workspace, however, their presence seems forced, harking back in a way to the “funky” furniture of the dot.com boom. In contrast, the pivoting, teardrop-shaped LeafDesk is fantastically versatile, as are the Fruit & Nut tables, which double as tranquil wall art when not in use.

Tilt is a collision of creative and pecuniary forces. Social entrepreneur Egan graduated from LSE with a masters in social psychology, before flirting with business thinktanks and academic research projects.

Frustrated with the slow-burning approach that often goes with large bureaucratic organisations, the Dubliner set out to create his own workplace that championed new ideas and entrepreneurship. It inevitably led him to the Hub in Islington, which inspired him to launch a sister operation at King’s Cross, where he met Marlow.

Marlow’s roots, meanwhile, are in the arts. He co-founded Forest, an arts and music cafe in Edinburgh – meeting the original Islington Hub founders in the process – before setting up audio/visual arts collective Kohoutek. A move to London reignited old ties with the Hub in Islington, and as numerous copycat spaces cropped up around the globe, Marlow, as its head of design, globetrotted with it.

There is no doubting the pair are a good match. Both favour a hands-on approach tempered by a streak of activism and their lingo is peppered by words like “reboot” and “synthesise”. The animated Egan verges on the messianic when he speaks about “shifting the paradigm” – a desire that gave Tilt its name. Though equally committed, Marlow is a calmer presence.

A large chunk of the co-working phenomenon is due to the unprecedented rise in freelance workers. In Europe, numbers have swelled by 80 per cent since 2000 while in the US 42 million class themselves as hired guns. They are not some aimless mass either.

Last May, some 80,000 of them pressured the German government to withdraw a so-called pension tax, which proposed a monthly flat rate of €350 a month on freelancers. With this in mind, it is not unrealistic to suppose that co-working spaces potentially lend structure to an otherwise nebulous entity.

“There is more capital going into the ideas now”

Tilt’s work has a craft-punk aesthetic that appeals to the Zuckerberg generation, and however hard it is to envision a head of facilities at some slick corporate operation buying into anything this edgy, what they cannot fail to have noticed is that noughties children will soon enter the workforce.

Egan reveals that management consultancies, media and even large financial institutions are courting Tilt.

“The corporates are starting to experience the energy of these spaces and they want to replicate that in their own office environments,” he says. So far what’s missing, according to Tilt, is the knowledge that for design to change the culture of a workplace you first have to change people’s relationship to the space. The point is hard to argue with in a world where moving a desk a couple of metres can land you in trouble with an overstretched FM. “From a corporate point of view there is a massive freak-out about how they engage the 18-30 generation because those people never have and don’t want to work in those environments,” says Marlow. “They thought all you needed to do was put in a couple of beanbags and pods and the rest would fall into place.”

The establishment is beginning to take notice. Late last year, Haworth’s Asia Pacific division bought the rights to produce Fruit & Nut, endorsing the feeling that the movement – for that is undoubtedly what it is – is poised to leap into the mainstream. Haworth’s move is a canny one. In workplace design terms, the region is a blank canvas, unhampered by Taylorism and its subsequent permutations. Co-design and its progeny are likely to gain the most traction where minds are open. Another strong sign came at the annual Co-Working Europe Conference in Paris in November. Tilt were guest speakers at the annual show. What previously felt like a get-together of like-minded hub-dwellers suddenly found itself with a corporate giant like Orange as a sponsor.

“This year it was twice the size and you had Citizen M talking about their co-working concept,” says Egan. “It felt like the industry had grown up and I think there is more capital going into the ideas now. Originally, the tactics were quite practical, as people needed workspaces that weren’t coffee shops or home. Now you are seeing the next wave coming on, there is a real need to make this work from a financial perspective.”

The co-design movement has a strong culture of shared knowledge, which is sure to be threatened should the big guns muscle in. For Marlow this financial reality will prompt some self-critique that has hitherto been lacking. “We need to examine where the movement is going and what it is for,” he says. While there is much to admire about Tilt, what is most affecting is its sincerity. If they can retain it then the studio will surely keep its head above water should the levees break.

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