Furniture and design products for people who work from home

Today’s technology has created a mobile workforce, and residential furniture designers are sitting up and taking notice. This year a new type of hybrid design, from chairs outfitted with electric sockets to tables with built-in PCs, is cropping up at furniture fairs worldwide.

In 2002, Italian furniture maker Cassina first produced the Music Image Sofa System (Miss), a design by Philippe Starck that incorporated built-in speakers. “For the new collection of Cassina this year we have tried to see how we can update that,” says Starck. The designer’s new My World lounge system shows how much technology has changed in the past 10 years. Instead of sophisticated sound systems, the sofa’s storage cubes are equipped with electric sockets and chargers that cater to household tech.

Cassina is not alone in its mission to meet the needs of a tech-savvy audience, who use laptops, tablets and smartphones at all times and in all places. At Salone Internazionale del Mobile, Milan’s annual furniture fair, dozens of companies showed adjustable-height laptop tables that can be drawn up to couches and folded away when not in use, as well as chairs that can conceal tablets and cords with upholstery pockets.

Coalesse, a furnishings brand, conducted extensive research before presenting its new collection in Europe, a market it is breaking into after four years in North America. One of its recent studies identified 16 workers in creative or knowledge-based fields – people who are autonomous and can ostensibly work anywhere – and documented their lives through videos and interviews over eight weeks.

“All 16 people had home offices and didn’t use them,” says Frank Merlotti, president of Coalesse. “The home office had become used for storage.” The anecdotal evidence indicates an increasingly common reality: a salesman making international calls from a desk in his living room so he can watch his children play in the evening; a family juggling work at home with the care of elderly parents and children.

These situations have led to a new breed of crossover furniture designed for working homes. Launched in Milan in April, Coalesse’s collection, designed by Jean-Marie Massaud, includes a swivel lounge with an integrated table and an ottoman that opens to reveal storage space.

The Lagunitas sofa – designed by Toan Nguyen to replace the conference table and task chair archetype – has cushions that flip down to support both a working posture and a mobile device. Released last year, Patricia Urquiola’s Hosu chair, which has storage pockets and a cable pass-through, sits low to the ground and becomes an even lower seat with a flip of its cushion. Upholstered in quilted fabric, it is an appealing place in which to sit while answering emails at night.

Cassina’s My World sofa

There is what Merlotti calls an “emotional comfort” in these new designs that was missing from old office furniture.

Research into changing work and life habits is even influencing established companies. Finnish furniture and lighting company Artek launched its White Collection of lights in 2010 after two years of research into changing work habits and the benefits of light therapy. “When we started designing [the lamp], the team started drinking less coffee because we were in a huge room full of the lights,” says Artek design director Ville Kokkonen of the brand’s bright, light therapy-certified table lamp. The company will launch a new lighting collection, also based on this research, in 2014.

Can these new approaches to office furniture support an increasingly diverse pool of at-home workers?

Recent research culled from 75 countries indicates that two-thirds of all full-time employees work at least one day a month at home. Joan Blumenfeld, global interior design director for architecture and design firm Perkins+Will, says these workers are not who we might expect: “You’d think it would be younger people who are more tech-savvy. It’s actually older people who are more secure in their jobs and have the trust of senior management.”

Today’s workforce spans four generations, and if they are to spend more time working at home, furniture must adapt to suit their needs. “We now have ergonomically designed workplaces,” says Blumenfeld. “But it hasn’t been thought about at home. Unless we address that, we are going to end up with a whole generation of people with back problems when they get to be 35 years old.”

Many companies are encouraging their employees to work from home, motivated by better technology and pressure to save on real estate costs, along with a desire to lessen employee turnover.

The result is an increasingly solitary working environment. As offices cease to be a place of social interaction, furniture companies are beginning to think of ways to facilitate remote collaboration.

The AT-UM table

Lenovo is one such example, having made its debut at New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) last month. It was there to promote its new Idea Centre Horizon Table PC with three furniture concepts designed to work with the 27in, touchscreen computer.

One of the designs, UM Project designer François Chambard’s AT-UM table, allows the screen to flip from an air hockey game to a video phone to a conference room display atop a three-legged base equipped with a sliding accessory drawer and keyboard tray.

A day into its debut at the fair, the table was surrounded by groups of visitors using it to play games or to demonstrate office applications – things it could easily do in a hybrid living room-office.

“By integrating technology into furniture, the pieces become more essential components of our lives, less passive and forgettable artefacts,” says Chambard. Future projects like this one may help ensure the transition to a working home is a positive one in the years to come.

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