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The office is a much-derided institution. The hype once promised that, as mobile working, laptops, phones and tablets freed us from the tyranny of the workplace we would drift away from the office, and start to work from the beach or garden instead. Yet it has never quite happened – somehow the office remains as pivotal as it has always been. Except that we are now expected to work in trains and on planes, on holiday and in cafés – as well as in the office.
But the idea of mobile working – of not being chained to a desk – and of the office as a place you might actually want to be, has made an impact. Those tech firms with their ping-pong tables and garish sofas, their shabby chic and mismatched funky furniture, have made a difference to what we think the office could be. And as people become more important than products (which are now made elsewhere in the world) there has been some recognition that the office might be due for a change.
Workplace furniture, however, has seemed to be as stuck as the idea of the boring beige office. There might be a few more ergonomic chairs, a few more sofas and garish breakout spaces, there might be hot-desking as a cover-up for a desperate lack of space, but the office remains recognisable from the spaces where we worked a century ago: a desk, a keyboard, a phone, a chair.
“Office furniture seemed as if it had been left behind,” designer Sam Hecht tells me. Hecht, whose company Industrial Facility has advised furniture giant Herman Miller for many years, was commissioned by the company as part of its initiative “The Living Office” (alongside designers including Bruce Mau and Yves Béhar) to reinterpret office furniture for the demands of the digital, mobile age.
“For most people,” Hecht says, “work is a means to be able to live. So why can’t we have a workplace that we live in too? We started thinking autobiographically about our own studio,” he continues. “Why is it that we come in to work at all? I could do everything I do on a laptop. The reason is to be with other people.”
It is true that collaboration is at the heart of most contemporary business mantras. Yet the standard furniture focuses on the individual space, the Dilbert-derided cubicle. So how does Industrial Facility’s new range, named “Locale”, address the demands of the contemporary office?
“We began by thinking that all work is social,” Hecht tells me in his Clerkenwell office, “and we wondered whether it would be possible to create a series of neighbourhoods in the office, groupings of people you feel good with.”
Hecht’s team visited Scandinavian offices deemed to be productive and enjoyable, to find out how they had achieved there – in design terms – what they have done for domestic interiors. “The important thing was that everyone felt a sense of control. The desks were adjustable in height so you could sit or stand and work, and were very deep so each desk could become a meeting table. Colleagues could just drop by without having to make an appointment.”
This spontaneity was the inspiration for a range that is based around a height-adjustable, broad white desk with curved edges fixed to a low box containing all the cabling and storage. Colourful screens curl round the back of the desks implying – rather than defining – a more personal physical space. The boxes (which do away with the sub-desk landscape of legs and sockets) can be extended to create benches with inbuilt lamps to accommodate informal chats, removing the need for sofas and other pieces of furniture around the office. The range can be supplemented with screens and room-divider shelving for more private spaces. All these permutations allow the creation of a landscape – one much related to the 1950s idea of the Bürolandshaft (“office landscape”) developed by the Quickborner studio in Germany. Herman Miller responded to these ideas in the 1960s with the “Action Office” by designers George Nelson and Robert Propst, but this pioneering work somehow mutated into the inaction office of the constraining cubicle system.
So Hercht’s new offering is quietly radical for a company that has always been concerned with design. It is a range doesn’t attempt to change everything and doesn’t attempt to innovate through appearance alone. Elegant, self-effacing and practical, it might yet, however, change the way we work.