For decades, office cubicles have been regarded as the apogee of corporate dehumanisation. Originally designed in the 1960s by Robert Propset for US furnishings giant Herman Miller, the cubicle was intended to grant employees more confidence and self-determination.
They quickly became a sign of the opposite, as given visual form in the 1999 dark comedy Office Space. By the turn of the millennium, open plan offices — themselves once maligned, as memorably depicted in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) — were advocated as the healthier norm. And trends towards openness and shared spaces have proliferated since, even as the flaws of open plan designs have themselves become manifest, particularly those pertaining to the difficulty of working above the surrounding chatter.
All of which might make Paravan, launched by Arper at Orgatec 2018, seem like the completing of a circle. Formed of sound-absorbing coloured panels, they provide discrete areas in offices for isolated or individual work. When arranged to create walled-off areas, they undeniably reinstate something of the loathed cubicle.
But there are crucial differences, not in the least in terms of aesthetics. Available in a range of colours — which at Orgatec skewed towards the autumnal, with russets, ochres and soft pinks — Paravan has a real visual flair, courtesy of designers Alberto Lievore and Jeannette Altherr, with calm curves and gentle edges.
Lievore and Altherr have spoken of their admiration for the mid-century architect Luis Barragán, whose buildings in Mexico City use unusual colours to emotively powerful effect, as well as the American artist Richard Serra, famed for his powerful metal sculptures and black monochrome paintings.
Unlike its predessors, Paravan is modular, able to be used to create spaces of different sizes and spaces within spaces, as well as serving as linear sound barriers. It can provide an island of privacy in a sea of openness, allowing for a balance between different parts of the workplace, and different types of work.
The cubicle as the organising principle of the office is unlikely to come back wholescale, but the cubicle as a unit is. Paravan is one of the most elegant arguments yet produced for this quiet return.
Lievore Altherr’s Paravan is a modular acoustics system allowing respite from the hubbub of the office