America invented the cubicle 50 years ago, and is still rather attached to it. Now, its big furniture firms are finally embracing collaborative working – and surprisingly, it starts with the desk
“We find ourselves now with office forms created for a way of life substantially dead and gone,” wrote Herman Miller designer Robert Propst in his seminal 1968 dissection of working life The Office: A Facility Based on Change. That the author had no background in furniture design did not really matter, for Propst pierced the heart of an issue that rings true today.
The office is changing, or so we are constantly told. Collaboration is the watchword, and if designers are to be believed, the success or failure of a company appears to hinge on how well a building promotes this.
So far, answers from the furniture industry have included variations on the cubicle, or curvy pods landed in the office like an upholstered UN aid drop; the desk itself has been overlooked as an aid to collaboration. Europe has been at the forefront of this new wave of furniture, with the US still wrestling with the prospect of open-plan workspace. There are signs, however, that certain companies Stateside are appraising what a progressive office might be.
US furniture giant Herman Miller thinks it may have unravelled this conundrum with a range launched under the umbrella of its ongoing Living Office project. That the company has taken it on has a pleasing symmetry to it, for nearly 50 years ago it unleashed a genie that architects have spent the past decades trying to coax back into the bottle.
The spirit in question was the office cubicle – the unwitting result of the Action Office series, designed by Propst and George Nelson and launched in 1968 as the first office system designed specifically for open-plan spaces. Though Nelson later criticised what he saw as the dehumanising effect of the cubicle, managers up and down the US did not share his misgivings.
Paradoxically, this most vilified of products became one of the company’s bestsellers. Indeed, to many it seemed a logical weapon with which to fend off the twin challenges of noise pollution and a lack of privacy within open-plan workplaces.
So Herman Miller is back with the Living Office, unquestionably the company’s most comprehensive reappraisal of the office since then. To galvanise such a major overhaul of workplace machinery, the company has assembled a design supergroup – Yves Béhar’s Fuseproject, Industrial Facility and Studio 7.5 – and set them a brief distilled from a body of research gathered over sixteen years. It was deceptively simple – design a system that would support and encourage collaboration.
“People are working in spaces that were designed 15 years ago,” says Herman Miller’s head of marketing for EMEA Andrew Duncomb. “The nature of work has changed significantly in that time and the physical office cannot keep pace with the rate of change. People were choosing to work pretty much anywhere except the office.”
Naturally, this poses something of a problem for companies investing vast portions of their budgets into places people would rather avoid. Furthermore, Herman Miller’s investigations showed that, when staff were collaborating, nearly three-quarters of the time it was at a desk.
“A rectangular desk is not conducive to sharing,” explains Sam Hecht, one half of design studio Industrial Facility. “It is closed and has a particular direction to it. We wanted to think about everyone’s desk as a meeting table rather than a working desk just for yourself.”
Industrial Facility’s response was Locale, an ovoid cantilevering ‘desk’ with a razor-thin worksurface anchored by a monumental base. Its remit, however, goes beyond workstation owing to an array of attachments – bookshelves, storage, whiteboards and pinboards that flesh out the collaborative ethos.
Industrial Facility’s Sam Hecht on Locale
“Locale was developed over two years, with new prototypes every three months. Traditional bench systems have obstacles like legs and cabinets because desks have just moved into open plan, rather than taking open plan as a starting point.
With Locale, people have what they need to hand, from refreshment units to bookshelves and whiteboards. To collaborate properly you need spontaneity; it doesn’t happen in a meeting. With Locale, collaboration is not dependent on the architecture – it can happen around the cluster.”
What is most noticeable is what you don’t see. With a compulsive desire for neatness, Industrial Facility has eradicated legs from its product, which the studio viewed as a hindrance to people gathering around. Also missing is the messy business of cabling, which is fed up through the base unit.
This redefinition of a desk placed tremendous demands on Herman Miller’s engineering department, to the point that when the firm unveiled the prototypes at last year’s NeoCon, few believed they would make it to production. “No one believed they were real,” says Industrial Facility’s other half, Kim Colin.
Meanwhile, Fuseproject picked up on similar themes. Described by designer Yves Béhar as a system that ‘listens’, Public allows for a degree of micro-curation through a concentrated series of configurable elements – storage, worksurfaces – held together by a central piece called the Social Chair. Whereas Action Office became endless multiples of grids, Public acknowledges that different tasks demand different scenery.
There is an immediacy to the design that targets the nebulous moment when a casual discussion between colleagues becomes ‘collaboration’. Desks are seamlessly interspersed with little clusters of seating so that small teams can converse more easily. Elsewhere, detachable panels can be attached to the Social Chair to create more private workspace.
Living Office is a revised answer to some of the questions raised by Propst’s Facility Based on Change. While the cubicle was an unforeseen condition, the new range presents its own set of pitfalls, the most obvious being that handing departments a greater degree of autonomy could result in the entrenchment of little fiefdoms.
It is also hard to see how the system will compete with its forerunner in terms of sheer density. “Living Office is not just a product solution,” says Duncomb. “The furniture might be the end result, but what is actually more important is understanding how it needs to be used.”
Whether it succeeds in the same way that Action Office did only time will tell. While Herman Miller is starting from scratch, its rival Haworth, purveyors of chunkily ergonomic office furniture, is getting in touch with its feminine side courtesy of an unlikely partnership with Patricia Urquiola. The Spanish superstar is better associated with the domestic or hospitality realms, which chimed with the US giant’s new direction.
“We are trying to incorporate more warmth and humanity into spaces that can be corporate or techno-centric,” says Haworth’s global design director Jeff Reuschel. Accordingly, Urquiola translated her conversation with Haworth into a softer design language with a collection called Openest, consisting of tessellating panels, adaptable poufs and diminutive tables.
It is far from unusual for manufacturers wishing to reinvent themselves to grope blindly for a superstar to sprinkle their fairy dust on to a new range, but Haworth and Urquiola’s beauty-and-the-geek dynamic appears a resounding success.
Openest is indicative of the way Haworth sees the office developing. Though one would struggle to find a design classic in its overall portfolio, few would dispute the company’s firm grasp of ergonomics. However, Reuschel believes that what he calls the ’emotional ergonomics’ of a space has been underplayed and to this end the collaboration with Urquiola is ongoing.
Patricia Urquiola on Openest
“You need some products that give you a more sensual hand. Europeans work in a less formal way so it’s easier for us to communicate. The little poufs have a baaied these polyester panels – it’s a kind of sandwich with different layers to it, but they are all done with the same material.”
Like Herman Miller, Haworth is keenly aware that the office is changing. Earlier this year, the company raised a few eyebrows with its buy-out of Italian superbrand Poltrona Frau Group, a move that is in fact shrewdly logical. “What is very impactful to the furniture industry is the shift in square footage from individuals to common areas. Most estimates put it at 50-50 in the near future, a very significant shift from the old 90-10 [ratio],” says Reuschel.
This means that Haworth and its rivals face broader competition with any company producing soft seating or so-called third space furniture. It would take years for Haworth to build up a roster of lamps, cafe tables and loungers to counter this development; Poltrona Frau, on the other hand, already has a litany of products that fit this description. Rival Knoll has made a similar move with the multi-million dollar acquisition of luxury home furnishings firm Holly Hunt.
While these brands are seeking to establish their credentials through big-name collaborations, Steelcase has played something of a wild card in teaming up with author Susan Cain. Cain is best known for a bestselling book that celebrates introverts, so it’s no surprise to find the results of the collaboration, called Quiet Spaces, concerns the places people might go for a one-to-one conversation, be alone or even do some yoga.
In many ways, Steelcase is the outlier in this story. The company is associated more and more with its research, published in a themed quarterly magazine, 360, rather than its roster of superstars. Quiet Spaces – essentially some nicely designed glazed boxes populated by a variety of furniture and colours – is not likely to blow anyone away in terms of aesthetics or engineering. Its impact is cultural.
At the beginning of the year, for example, the company was pushing what it saw as an overlooked aspect of work life – health and wellbeing. To Steelcase’s CEO Jim Keane this seems to reach further than ergonomics and permeates the psychology of workers. Central to this is privacy, which is where Cain fits in. “Privacy is not always about four walls and a door,” says Steelcase’s global director of research communications Chris Congdon. “It is about information and stimulation control. Mobile working and the move to open plan created a perfect storm for people to be overwhelmed.”
Steelcase’s Chris Congdon on Quiet Spaces
“Of the questions we used to measure satisfaction, one of them was ‘Does your workplace allow you to work without disruptions?’ Privacy is about information control and stimulation control.
Each of these spaces has five purposes. For example, the Green Room is a place where you could go and have a private conversation with someone. That is really about building trust. Or it could be an activity that I don’t need everyone to know about. In some cultures it is perfectly OK to take a nap at your desk, but here that would be really embarrassing. Or say, if I had neck pain and I wanted to do some yoga moves.”
Collaboration has manifested itself physically in open-plan, non-hierarchical spaces. What Steelcase’s research reveals is this one-size-fits-all approach in fact hurts creativity. “If you don’t give people privacy they are much more likely to fall into ‘group think’ because they haven’t had a chance to develop their own thoughts about a problem,” says Congdon, stressing that the aim is not a return to private offices. “One of the things we talk about is strategic anonymity, which is basically going to a department where no one knows you so no one is likely to disrupt you.”
But few of us have the kind of workplace culture that permits this. Better then, perhaps, to tackle the problem with an emphatic design-led solution whereby management still feels it has an element of control over staff. Europeans, however, are not destined to see Quiet Spaces pop up in their offices anytime soon as Steelcase views this as an answer to a particularly American problem. This is understandable given the static nature of these products, but while places like Germany (which avoided the stampede to open plan) might not suit them, they would certainly gain traction in the UK.
By contrast, however, Haworth and Herman Miller are thinking globally. “I think it is safe to say that in all geographic markets, whether you are in Shanghai, New York or London, the Living Office is going to appeal to progressive and forward-looking clients,” says Duncombe. The gamble for Herman Miller, Haworth and Steelcase hinges on how accurate their definition is of what a progressive office will look and feel like.