For contract-furniture oriented Clerkenwell Design Week 2016 three unique popup salons were curated: the UK-NL XL1 salons. These breakfast salons, were open for an audience and each time a Dutch and British speaker discussed a different topic around furniture & work environment.
With PROOFFLab Dutch designer Jurgen Bey explores PROgressive OFFice furniture. He caused amazement with his Ear Chair that proved to be excellent for meeting and privacy in current office environments. Sam Hecht of Industrial Facility designed Locale for Herman Miller a system that enables people to switch easily between working together and alone, seated or standing, and to connected to their work and each other. Gareth Williams spoke with both about new approaches for office environments.
Date & location: 24 May 2016 - Clerkenwell Design Week Goldsmith's CentreModerator: Gareth Williams (Professor of Design at Middlesex University)Speakers: Sam Hecht (Industrial Facility) & Jurgen Bey (PROOFFLab)Photos: Sanne van Engen
Gareth Williams: Welcome to the first of three in conversations this week looking at furniture and workplaces. We are going to bring together a Dutch design voice and a British design voice on today's theme which is around 'New approaches for work environments'. But before I invite Sam Hecht and Jurgen Bey to speak I thought it might be useful to give a couple of observations about how workspaces have evolved and how they might change in the future.
The workspace that we know now is really a relatively recent innovation. The office came around really from the 19th century with the growth in trade from the industrial revolution and an awful lot more paper work and clerical work. So the furniture that we now know as very familiar, like task chairs for example, have been designed very incrementally over a very long period of time, primarily to enhance the comfort of the worker by giving them mobility and adjustability. But this was also driven by economic principles to make them more efficient and to make the work better, and harder I suppose. So we must not forget that the work environment may look very nice, but actually it is really about efficiency and economics.And that is also why tailorism - the principle of scientific working methods - first emerges around 1911, which of course informed things like Henry Ford's production line for cars by breaking up workers into specific functions and hierarchies. The same thing applied to how offices and workspaces were and are organised. So by the mid 20th century you get innovations like the 'Action Office' by Robert Probst in the 1960's designed for Herman Miller: a kind of modular office system that can be rolled out across open plan offices to create different kind of workspaces. He really sees the worker as part of a working machine, a working environment.Later - with the rise of a great deal of IT - of course the focus of the workspace designers was about equipping workers with IT and we see chairs like the Aeron chair from 1994, again from Herman Miller, very specifically designed to support and hold a worker to work very efficient with a keyboard and a screen and to save their arms, their wrists, their back and eyes and everything. So, furniture from that era is very high-tech and scientific, almost like medical equipment you could say and the worker again is an subordinate figure in all of this that is acted upon.That is a very breezy, rushed through and personal view on how workplaces have evolved. What is happening now of course for the last ten, twenty years, is a kind of dematerialisation of the workspace altogether, completely driven by digital innovations and the way that we work. The other day I was reading about a new workplace software called 'slack' which offers instant messaging in the work environment and in work communities within a business. It promises to further dematerialise how we work, where we work and how we communicate with one another. We don't need workspaces anymore we are told. We don't need office chairs and cubicals and any of those kind of familiar territories of the office space. Now it is all about working at home, or on the bus, or in coffee shops or wherever - as long as you have your mobile device to connect you. So, there is a whole change in behaviour for workers and what is that going to mean for design in the workplace and how is that workplace going to evolve and change because it is very hard to keep up with these changes. Technology is moving ever faster. What is the impact upon a rather slower industry that makes chairs, tables and cupboards? And what is the interface between the design of workplaces and the changing patterns of work themselves?
We are very lucky that we have here Sam Hecht of Industrial Facility that both works with technology companies and with workplace firms, so he can give his insight onto this. And we have Jurgen Bey who will give his thoughts on how workplace design might evolve. Both of you have a couple of slides and a few minutes to give us your thoughts.
Jurgen Bey: Fifteen years ago I designed the Ear Chair a project for spaces specifically designed for a Dutch Insurance company and it was my first encounter with the workspace. For me that is not about efficiency, but more about a working society which is a very social and a very engaging place. It is also a place where it is really amazing how it works. For instance if you are a pilot and flying a Boeing, it doesn't matter how hard you work, you will never be able to own a place like that. You would never be able to fly a plane if you would not go to work, because you need a whole infrastructure. That is what I like: it is this whole infrastructure and the landscape. So when we did the Ear Chair the starting point was: how does the workplace look when it is empty, can it compete it with a forest? Can I look at it as a landscape where I come in in the morning and where I can make a choice to go left into the forest or right into the work with the same quality of surrounding? Altogether for me it is about the future landscape that we are developing.
On the left in this image you see the place where I really learned about the qualities of a working society. It is me in a anti squatted warehouse of 18.000 square meters that I would basically own and where I had to set up my company. It was also part of an industrial area that we normally have at the borders of the city because it brings annoyance. I was interested in living and working in the same place. What we know is that if everyone goes to work in the morning - and certainly here in London - it takes hours get from house to work. The only reason that we have a house somewhere else is that we tend to think that we have our privacy: a nice home a nice garden, but there are so many people there that we are all in the car or the tube for 1,5 or 2 hours to get to work.When we were working and living in this place, at eight o'clock in the morning the first people would come in and activate me and at five they would all leave. Since these industrial areas are made for trucks with huge roads and a lot of free space and in the weekend they don't work there we would have the biggest garden that I could wish for every weekend. By living and working at the same place I did not have to queue in traffic and have my privacy in the same place and at the same moment as everybody else. I got my privacy because everybody was moving away. So, I got opportunities from this working society that I thought were very interesting and for me it was the starting point to develop furniture especially for this working society and for PROOFF.
Now that we have set up PROOFFLab - which is the laboratory for the brand - we try to be more involved in behaviour and thinking and we started to work with architects and designers to develop new ideas, also for PROOFLab Magazine - an online magazine - where we ask designers to write essays. This is because I do think that if we really want to develop our community we have to start writing ourselves instead of critics talking about representations and good and bad: If you want to develop you have to develop your own language.
Being interested in developing the landscape I wondered - that if you would go to Mars - how would you develop if you could start all over again? What would that mean? And that is basically why we started to develop these drawings. If you want to redesign new things for the workplace you can start with a problem, but you can also start writing or drawing up what kind of world you would like.
Gareth Williams: Does it matter what the work is that is taking place here?
Jurgen Bey: Not at this moment. Here we just started with the idea of 'the office as a basic' but we also developed the idea for 'a library on the tube'. if you could ask yourself "shall I take this road to work or through the library of 15 kilometres long?", than you are able to drive through the library instead of always going to the library to get your knowledge. Starting with these drawings is starting to develop a context. We never thought: let's design transportation, but we started with thinking about the campus and then about how do you go from one place to another and then we had the basic chair. From the chair we got to the slow car, a car that can go inside and outside and then you get a rampless city with no pavements, so when the cars are not there you don't have roads.For us it is almost literature. You start a story, you follow the story and then you see what it brings.
Gareth Williams: So this is a very speculative way of working, thinking on a very big scale away from what I was describing as the principle interests of 20th century office space design: which is about comfort and security, safety and efficiency for the worker. You are not only talking about redesigning the workspace, but also aboutredesigning the city and the society. Where does this ends, are there boundaries?
Jurgen Bey: The thing is: would you like to start with the problems? And the question is: are problems actually problems?
Gareth Williams: What are the problems?
Jurgen Bey: There are no problems! This is a society that just starts. You have a slow car that can never drive faster than 30 kilometres per hour so you will never have queuing, or want to go much faster. I think the frustration you have from a car is not based on what model you can drive, but the fact that when you step into a car - even if you have five minutes and are too late - you think: "I can make it". Than it doesn't work and you get frustrated. It is a strange machine and even though there is glass in between you, you can say horrible things to people that are only 50 centimetre away, you pick your nose, you put your fingers where ever you like! This is what people do! For me those are observations that I wanted to deal with.So this car here is basically a chair and if you drive you are on the same level as when you walk, so there is still communication when you are driving! It was a project for Nissan where we looked at: "what will be the consequences of next generation transportation?".If you take a petrol station, that is a strange place. We think everything there is always cheap, and that there is cheap stuff that you can eat there, but the pavement is extremely expensive, it is a very high-end pavement where all the oil can not go through. The basic money spend on petrol stations is huge and it makes me think: "why do we only make black plastic packages for food look better?". If you want to change all of that you have to look at other projects with similar qualities. You can observe it not from the problem, but from the other side like "the petrol station is an amazing place, the most democratic and social". Which is again is also strange because we all know that it is about oil and wars are started because of that and it is also about pollution.
Still, the petrol station is special, if I have a very old car, or if you have a Rolls Royce you park your cars just 20 centimetres away from each other and no one will think: "Oh god what is happening?" If you go into the station everyone will say: "Hello!". In a petrol station there is no social order, but in your bakery in your neighbourhood you have expectations: if another person is in your bakery you think: "What is this? Another person!". I think a petrol station has also good qualities that we have to find out about and we should use them! If you want to have a very social place where people are talking to each other you can learn much more from the petrol station.
Gareth Williams: What I think you are suggesting is that what you are examining there is proximity between people and tension. Which I think exists in workspace design throughout in the last 150 years: the tension between sublime privacy in a horrible little cubical for some workers and also a collaborative open space where you can interact and share ideas and experiences. An awful lot of workplace design seems to be trying to do both. Your Ear Chair is trying to do both things: if it is in a chair space with other chairs it is a chair, but if it is in a room it is also engulfing and it is privacy. I mentioned 'slack' which is about sharing messages in a communal way - but that is also a bunch of words entering your private space. So, those tensions between privacy and communality seem to be the key driver in redesigning and rethinking the workspace.
Jurgen Bey: A lot is changing in what you call privacy. If you go to an airport you see everyone working and you feel privacy is when you are sitting against a wall or close to a socket. People talk about horrible diseases even if they sit next to you, just by giving you a back. People can work in a café and really concentrate. If that is the case, the question is: "What brings the privacy and what brings the concentration?"I think that we are now - not for everyone, but for a lot of people - in a world where you don't want to miss out on anything. In a white small space you are afraid that you miss out on the emails, the phone calls and all those things that happen in the world. But in a café... as soon as something big happens you are there! And you can concentrate because you know you are not going to miss out on things.
Now in this picture, you see PROOOFLab Magazine. As said we ask designers to write essays and from that we research for projects of which we think they are all connected and put them online (see & read). This opens up the mind completely, without saying this is good or bad and without being moralistic, which I think is important.
And here you see my last picture. It is a column by Adrian Paci, a piece of art. A Greek column is made in China and is shipped to the biennal in Venice.It was a constructed on the ship during the trip. If you order a Greek column now it can only be made in China, so it raises questions about migration. What I think that is so amazing of this piece - apart from that it has beauty when they cut it, sand it and that it makes a cloud of marble on the ocean - is that it touches on all the topics that you can think of for working, but it only touches in the waythat you see it. It is your mind that is reading it. It's an open mind, but you can only see what you know.
It is an amazing piece it really hurts from beauty. The boat travels from China to Venice and for weeks it makes this sound of 'bobobob' that drives you crazy and in the mean time a piece of marble changes into a column.
Gareth Williams: Thank you I am going to bring in Sam here and see how you can follow that.Sam Hecht: Well.. my 'slides' are not so abstract.At the moment we are working on very different scales. This image shows furniture, a new collection for a company in America called Emeco. They were born from aluminium, so they know a lot about the materiality and know how to form it. It is particularly made from recycled aluminium. Each year they work with a different designer and this was a two year project. We did not want to do a chair with Emeco because they always do chairs. We thought it would be interesting to express a different point of view on a table which we then morphed into a bench and a shelving system. It is all 100% aluminium, the curious thing about it is that it is that it is all extrusion.Once we started to create this series of extrusions we played a bit with scale. It is showing a very narrow table but totally enough to work and to function. The seating is a bench. The interesting thing about that is that - rather than a chair - there is very little ownership about a bench. There is nothing weird about sitting next to someone else and not feeling though as if you are intruding into someone else's place. We wanted to create a collection which was extremely communal, where people felt they could come together in restaurants, canteens, offices or even at home.
Gareth Williams: I am really interested in the symbolic value of this kind of furniture. We have not talked about that yet. I am sorry to single out again the poor old Aeron chair, but that is a kind of exploration of a very high tech, high performance and advanced technology office solution - and very expensive with it. Its symbolic value is that it is a chair for the master of the universe. It is the future of technology. This is saying a completely other thing: it is utilitarian, it is simple, it is democratic, it is plain and recycled as well. So, the value system that it is evoking is entirely different from what we are used to from office based design. Is that in the brief or is that your desire to change the way we work? Where does that come from?
Sam Hecht: That is a complicated one because this is for Emeco.
Gareth Williams: And it is also for the workplace?
Sam Hecht: Eh yes! But the Aeron chair is an absolutely incredible piece of machinery. I don't think you can made that comparison. I don't think you will sit at this table for very long. Not for a full day. That brings into question the very nature of contemporariness of furniture and space. Previously there was this notion that you would sit at the desk for a very long period of time, do your work and then leave and that is not really the case anymore. That is not good for you. You need different types of furniture for different use and context and different amounts of time. That is a very modern condition.I think what the Emeco furniture tries to apply itself to is that there has been a very very fundamental change for offices and the concept of "what is the office?". This change is in my opinion that previously the furniture was very much about efficiency and performance and not very much with comfort. That was because the furniture was all bought by the company. Their concept was all about profit and growth. To achieve this you need efficiency. If people can't do their work it means that a space and the furniture are not working. The difference now is that a lot of the furniture is bought by the workers. Their reference is the home. The reference point has become a domesticity. That is all great, but if you don't have the performance aspect, it is very difficult to spend a day working on a sofa. It is not as great for you either. The point is that we are in this big change where the demands of the workspace are coming from the workers and if the workers are not feeling comfortable they'll leave! That is very different from previous generations.
Sam Hecht: This is office furniture - called Locale - we designed for Herman Miller and that is the direct opposite of Emeco. A much much bigger company which means that you can actually do very very interesting things with them in terms of scale and investment.But I'd like to pick up a point of Gareth. I think it is a common trap by journalists and by many people that in some ways the Action Office was evil. It wasn't!When developing Locale with Herman Miller, we had the benefit of being able to talk quite deeply with a lot of the engineers and project managers from the original Action Office.It was very telling - and it is not something that is not very often described and talked about - that when it was launched it was a complete failure, because it was open plan, it was super collaborative and all of the walls were based upon 120 degrees. There were no cubicals. It was all about this concept of 'if people could be visible, that means work could be visible'. You could come into a company and could see the work. Work is a beautiful thing visually. You see people working and you can feel an energy and feel an understanding of what a company is doing.It was a failure for about three years and they invested heavily in it and then George Nelson said: "One problem is that we are not seeing its scale". So they hired a supermarket in Michigan right next to the factory and it is absolutely stunning and beautiful - I have seen photo's of it - and they invited architects and interior designers and still it wasn't successful. One of the fundamental reasons why it was not successful was because architects and interior planners at that time drew on drawing boards. Now anyone trying to draw a plan on a drawing board very quickly with an office furniture system which is based on 120 degrees takes a long time. It is much easier if you can draw them at 90 degrees. So architects realised that if they could take Action Office and just change the angle - which they could - and make the walls 90 degrees they could then very quickly draw up a plan of an office layout. That was essentially what happened with Action Office. It was decided - not by Herman Miller - but by the industry that cubicals were a wonderful way of delivering on the promise of division of labour. It was so quick and so easy to specify and it grew and grew and grew and once you get companies like IBM, HP or all of these fundamental companies of that time where they had massive growth, it was fantastic.
When we developed Locale we went back to many of the ideas of the original Action Office, which were that if you want to work collaboratively and if you want to work with people you kind of have to see them, you have to be with them because that is a totally spontaneous act. If I have an idea or a concept I would like to go the person who can help me with developing that idea or questioning it right there. It is very difficult to plan collaboration in a meeting. It doesn't happen like that, it is like air, it is spontaneous. So with Locale what we tried to do is take as many of the obstacles out as possible. It is a system that has no legs, so there are no obstacles. It is also a system that is height adjustable, so effectively you don't need many chairs. So, if you want to work with someone at their desk - right at the heart of where works takes place - you can go there, the table can be raised, there are no legs and you can have five people around the table or two that does not really matter because it is literally like a meeting table.These ideas are actually very high performance, they are not cheap. There is a lot of physics and a lot of technology involved in achieving that with cantilevers and all sort of things. What you are essentially doing when you are creating 'Locale' is that you are creating this kind of neighbourhood, this kind of cluster of people. This is exactly how we work in our offices. We have groups of people that are essentially around a very large desk and we are able to spontaneously talk and collaborate.
Gareth Williams: What you are describing there is an understanding of management, science, psychology, human behaviour, the changing workforce and work patterns that are coming from beyond design, they are coming from psychology aren't they? As a designer are you also expected to be up to date with the latest trends on group working and management theories?
Sam Hecht: I think that's all wonderful to read and to digest and I think I would be mistaken in saying that a lot of our work is autobiographical. It is coming from how we are working ourselves. I do spend more time at work with my colleagues than I do with my family, I am there every day. I want to come to a space which is very pleasurable and allows me to efficiently do what I need to do. Which is why we have a workshop where we build things, we have a kitchen where we cook, we have a workspace where we sit and work and that is ours and that we can control and share. In a way the designer does have his ability to be able to reflect how they themselves are living and working, or at least how they would like to and then impart that in the work. I think that, whilst studies and all of the things described are very interesting, sometimes the very very basic things in life are actually the things which designers need to remind people of.
This image changes it again completely, it is another project we launched in Milan for an Italian company called Mattiazzi who we have been working with for many years. This is a chair called Tronco. We were asked to design a chair for a church. The church was in Triëste in Italy, a very bizarre piece of architecture. The idea was essentially more than that. It was to design a solid wooden chair for a congregation. If you look at a chair like the 40/4 chair by David Rowland that is a very efficient chair in how you can stack them 40 high, but it is a difficult chair when you only have one. Than it illustrates its system. What we wanted to try is to design a chair that you could stack quite high but if you had one you would not see it is a system. You would not see its connections, you would just see a wooden chair, but you can still connect them. So with Mattiazzi we wanted to bring in another level of technical ambition without loosing their craft and ability to produce beautiful things.
Gareth Williams: I am going to throw open to floor now, to get some responses and questions from you in the audience.
Lady in the audience: if you have for instance a call centre where privacy and segregation is an issue, but that is not so design lead or based on cooperation, how do you think that is going to develop?
Sam Hecht: You've hit an interesting note. I am not suggesting that the idea of being collaborative is for everyone. I like the specificity of each condition. So, it is not to say that if you go to school you should be in a cubical, that would be nuts! But the condition of a call centre also is quite sad if you have to spend your hours of the day just in a cubical. I don't know a great deal about it but I would imagine that it is not that difficult to answer a call about insurance while walking around. The idea that you have to be plugged in where your perifery is completely is closed off I don't know... the main point is that there is a specificity to each condition of work and that is where design gets to work.
Jurgen Bey: First of all we will always have walls, but I count a lot and when I was in the tube earlier today there were 8 out of 10 people with their own phone. They were not there at all, they were in a totally different space. In that sense I think that this 'blocking out' of people will go further and with technology you can already see what ever you like to see. They did research with people on the phone in cars. They put pink elephants on the road and people did NOT see them! The question is not if we need to segregate we are segregating. If you watch television CNN sends you 10 messages, but you only see what you want to see. If you are on a sports field you only see the basketball lines if you play that game. This is how it is now, but imagine that we start wearing glasses that you can program to see what you want to see!Yes we will always have walls and small spaces, but they might be materialised differently. They don't need to be made of cement anymore to 'block out' and this leads into developing architecture further. And here comes in what I like: that you are living and working together. You can develop a whole new typology for architecture and all kind of things: cars can be big batteries. But if everything is possible the question is: what is it that you want to have? If you talk about efficiency is that about 'as-fast-as-possible' or are we going to talk about detours and what we expect from those?
Gentleman in the audience: I am very interested in workplace design, but I am more interested in how to get more productivity and wellbeing in the workplace. So, what is your perspective on sleeping or napping in the workplace? How will that impact the design industry?
Jurgen Bey: I am basically one of the most luckiest persons on earth when it concerns sleeping. I can basically sleep anywhere and lay down here and I am gone. I have those qualities and I use them a lot! But I am not the only one. I can again refer to the tube: either people are phoning or sleeping. About napping: for cultural reasons we find it very difficult to sleep in the office because you are not productive. For Vitra we did a project where we started with that you can only see legs and a computer and no one knows if you are sleeping or working. Designwise it is not a problem to solve it. The problem is how you can feel at ease with that socially.
Gareth Williams: I am really interested in the point you raise. The boundaries of work have dissolved and broken down. The nine to five idea has gone, but we still hang on to it. We still think about the working week and still prioritize certain times of the day for work. Life and work are merging ever closer, yet it is still a huge challenge for us both socially and culturally. We had a huge debate here in the UK with doctors resisting new contracts for a 7 day National Health Service. That is really about a different work model. Does that mean a different design model for space too? Do you still design workspace and living space or do you design just space? Do we need a boundaried activity like work at a call centre? Perhaps you don't want to be always on call and you want to be able to leave when not working?
Jurgen Bey: We definitely have to orchestrate that. I remember the workers who worked on my house. The one that was the best always complained because he had an intern and a boss. He always had to check the intern and the boss would always call him and ask "can you do this and that". His problem was that he was someone who really liked to do the plumbing himself, but he could hardly concentrate on his work because he had his intern and his boss. You need to orchestrate that type of work and deal with different cultures and languages. If everything is possible, that doesn't mean that everything should happen. This is also the case with design. We get more and more interdisciplinary. It doesn't mean that we have to know everything ourselves. If we want to change and make the quality of travelling better we will not solve that by just having nicer chairs but we need other disciplines like psychology. Then you can make big leaps.
Sam Hecht: I think you have to do it well. When we were looking into the office in enormous detail we saw so many of these token gestures in offices. A few comfy chairs that were low, a coffee table and the idea that workers could chill out. The problem is that they were embarrassing to the workers on different levels. I think if you want to sleep it is totally valid. It just has to be done very very well. I was in Japan a month ago and I slept in a capsule hotel, which is like a washing machine essentially and I slept very well. It was perfect for the concept of sleep, but you can imagine that if you put a bed in an office with a duvet and expect people to take a nap that is not going work. To propel these different concepts they have to be done with a great deal off care and attention to have a chance and to encourage different patterns. But I would also add to it that in the end people will decide themselves. As with the Action Office it wasn't the company that was able to determine the success, it were the interior designers.I am not able to predict as much as Jurgen. The way I see this is that things just happen. The tube was never ment to be slept on but people do, it was never ment to have communication but it does now because people demand it.
Another lady in the audience: Who should be driving the design innovation in the workplace? Should it be designers or interior designers?
Jurgen Bey: In Holland we have a lot of empty spaces and most of them are offices because they had to be representative and it was always better to develop new buildings instead of working with the old ones. The same counts for industry. It is now for the first time that the design results and the questions that raise from those topics can come from the architects, city planners, the product designers, landscape architects and the interior designer and that they can all compete. Before it would first be the city planner and so on. Now they can all get in at the same moment and fight for the same project and that is a healthy situation.We are going to have big changes but the question is: is it in material innovation, in product innovation? I don't know, but if we start competing from different levels than there are opportunities and you see the growing quality in for instance interiors. We are in an interesting time where different disciplines are able to work together in the projects.
Gareth Williams: I'd love to carry on with both of you, but I am afraid we have to stop here because many of us have work to go to! I'd like to thank both Sam and Jurgen and all of you for coming this morning!