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22 Jan 2009

Jeffrey Bernett

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Jeffrey Bernett is a workplace designer with a foot on either side of the Atlantic. An American who was adopted by three Italian companies in the space of six months, including B&B Italia and Capellini, he also works in office systems and seating for US furniture giant Knoll. Spilling with ideas, it is hard to keep up with the designer who is one moment rejoicing at his chair being specified at Wimbledon, the next berating the US for its impatience for change, discussing how batteries can change the workplace as we know it, comparing the executive desk to a designer suit, and explaining why, as a designer, the 25-year-old web-savvy Google employee will always be in the forefront of his mind. Bernett’s first point of reference is the Tulip chair, which he designed for B&B 10 years ago and at last year’s Orgatec was launched as a contract model. “Although it’s specific to the contract market, the chair is still about a relaxed lounge chair. B&B will never do furniture that looks like it’s for the office, so this still really is about a beautiful chair. “But if you’re going to sell a chair into contract, you really have to think about footprint; how much real estate a chair takes. “This chair, if you do your AutoCAD drawings, allows maximum density and still enough air around the chair, and people, for there to appear to be more space.Against the original, if you had 200 of these in the room, you would see a lot more daylight, and everything else beside the chair.“I am also trying to give the A&D person flexibility and choice. 011010_KnollEWCRedhr_onoffiThrough fabric and base options, you can decide what is best for your application. A good architectural practice has many clients. If the chair is too distinctive and has only one personality, they can use it only for one client. “The really nice thing about B&B is that the Tulip chair will have a statement line of 12 pieces, but the finishes are consistent across lines. This allows you to mix and match the products that the A&D world thinks creates the interesting environment.” What Bernett seems to appreciate most about the European market, however, is a thoughtful approach to product development – and the avoidance of novelty. “In America, we embrace change, which is great, but sometimes we look for it too quickly. “Design is really a long-term business. It takes time to come up with good ideas, and resources to create tooling.“With many corporations in America owned by the stock market, design can become about maximising dollars fast. Innovation, however, isn’t something that can be rushed. “In Europe [where most of the compnaies are privately held], design is a continuum, an evolution, which builds on itself: A&B&C&D.” Bernett himself is plugging for change, mostly when it comes to the power cord. “I want to reduce the visual clutter,” he says. “When I see wires hanging out of office systems, it is like having the television on the static channel and the stereo up when it is mistuned. Why does the eye need to see that? “Wireless USB hubs help, but where we need power, we still need wires. The minute we free ourselves from this umbilical [power] cord, with batteries that can last the useful life of a day, for example, we don’t need to see that any more. “Back in 1950, the only thing that had a wire was a telephone. So we had office furniture that was beautiful and environments that were uncluttered and clean. Then all of a sudden, we had all this technology that helped us connect to the world in a great way. We are now in a movement where we can have the technology that allows us to do all of this, without being encumbered with all the wires to connect us. “That is actually pretty nice because we can start living more with the things we want to. Can I do my work in an Eames lounge chair with a side table that comes up next to me, and not think about power? And can I do that with a couple of colleagues and have an hour-long meeting where we share information on computers through our global network, instantly? We are pretty close.” Bernett believes that people are increasingly particular about what they want in their office, and especially how it reflects their values. “From 30-year-olds to 60-year-olds, you have a group of professionals that has been successful, whether that is through Google or JP Morgan, who don’t want to work the way in which their parents used to. “We listen to Apple iPods. We live in a different world. Maybe we don’t want to drive the Mercedes Benz, we aspire to a different model. So why do we have to work in a way that is traditional, in an environment of the past? “In America, a lot of people used to wear Brooks Brothers but now we have executives who wear Prada or Comme des Garçons. “If you work at a law firm, financial firm or IT firm, you are trying to represent a very intelligent, sophisticated approach in the market place. If you are successful, you have been successful in doing that. If you are buying a Prada suit, this may be because you feel it is a very good representation of your values. Why wouldn’t you want your environments to reflect that also? Your home could be B&B and it has been that way for a long time. But your office couldn’t have been – until now. “The culture of work is changing fast. It is hard to explain why our house has been able to represent that and our work environment has been slow to. There are a number of companies that are actively allowing us to change that now. “I think Vitra has been very good, especially with the work of the Bouroullecs, for young creative offices. How do you provide furniture for Google? These are 25-year-olds who are always on the internet, who are fast-paced, industry-changing, world-changing participants. They don’t want to work at a traditional cubicle. “Interestingly, Knoll’s corporate headquarters in New York occupy one floor of a building of which Google occupies four floors, so I see them up close on a pretty regular basis.” At the more executive end of the office scale, Bernett admires the work of Antonio Citterio for B&B. “It is refined and elegant in a tailored way, with fabric and detailing that is like a custom-made suit. When you touch the veneer, you feel quality and you feel it represents a valued proposition to the market place.” For Bernett, as it makes the right leaps to meet customer values, the contract market is enjoying a high. “If I go back to London, the opportunity in the commercial market place is bigger for B&B than the residential market,” he says. “A lot of seating around the world goes to airlines. That’s a nice feeling, when you have Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic and Wimbledon specifying your chairs – when these companies say this is very good representation of a value set that we believe in. These are some of the nicest accolades you can have.”

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