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.
Dutch company Arco has its roots in furniture for the home, but increasingly provides furniture for work environments. Recently they even became supplier for Apple's new headquarters. London studio PearsonLloyd developed a strong design portfolio of workplace products for a.o. Bene, Howe and Walter Knoll, and is a specialist in the field that shifted to more domestic settings.Johanna Agerman Ross spoke with Luke Pearson and Jorre van Ast, designer and director of Arco about the domestification of the office.
Date & location: 25 May 2016 - Clerkenwell Design Week Goldsmith's CentreModerator:Johanna Agerman Ross (Disegno Magazine)Speakers: Luke Pearson (PearsonLloyd) & Jorre van Ast (Arco)Photos: Sanne van Engen
Johanna Agerman Ross: Good morning everyone, thank you so much for joining us at this second morning of talks around furniture and the office at Clerkenwell Design Week. I am Johanna Agerman Ross the founder and Editor-in-chief of Disegno Magazine. With me today I have Luke Pearson from PearsonLloyd and Jorre van Ast of Arco.We will have a conversation between a Dutch and a British designer and manufacturer and hear different view points from either side. First we will have two introductions by Luke and Jorre and then launch into a conversation with the three of us. Jorre, you look perky you should start maybe....
Jorre van Ast: So, I am Jorre van Ast, I am trained as a product designer first in Holland and then here in London at the RCA. I set up my own studio for a few years and then moved back to Holland to continue the family business which is Arco. We are a furniture manufacturer, we are a small company, we are not big in the UK and only do a little bit of business here. Therefore I have a short video to show you what we do, where we are from and who we are (see it here).
We decided to focus on tables and. If you are in Milan or another fair there are a lot of companies that all make furniture. We also make sofa's and cabinets but a couple of years ago we decided to focus on one subject, try to master that and become a specialist. In Dutch there is the word 'tafelen' ('tabeling'), meaning the activities that take place at the table in the domestic and in the work environment.Until six seven years ago 95 percent of our business was related to the domestic field and working with retailers, but we decided to move into the contract area and that is growing rapidly. I think next year this might be 50 percent.
So, why did we move into that area?If you look at it from a business or strategic perspective: We recognized an opportunity, we have our own production, we are a family-run business which is really about a sustainable business. Design plays a very important role in that and as such you are always looking at: where is a market for the skills we have? In Holland there were quite big changes: the housing market had quite a hard time and as a result also the domestic market and retail. At the same time there were big changes in the work environment. The traditional environment with activity based working was shifting into new needs and because our production process is made to order we are very flexible and can easily adapt, so we started to work with architects. Five years ago we decided: this is not something that we are going to do on the side, but we splitted it up and work with 2 teams now.
From a design perspective we design, develop and manufacture. I am also a designer and we always looking at: where is new territory to explore, whether it is material or new technologies, but also this new office is an area where there is a lot of work to do.
The topic of today is the domestification of the office. Here are some products from our collection to support that, but at the same time the opposite is also true: Private life and work life more and more start to blur and influence each other. Work environments become more informal. I am not saying that the domestic life is becoming more formal, but your kitchen table might also be your office for half a day.Here you see a cable sock by John Prestwich that could transform your hundred years old kitchen table: a low tech solution for a high tech situation nowadays with laptops and communication devices.
Johanna Agerman Ross: Thank you Jorre, we will continue talking after Luke has given his presentation, are you ready Luke?
Luke Pearson: I am not going to show much of our work but I give you just a little bit of history of where we've come from when we started the studio. We set out in 1997, when it was probably the height of 'the power of the desking system' and I am going to reflect on young furniture designers working out what the heck office design really ment. I put this first image in, because we have a sort of a nostalgic view of the idea of the domestic landscape. But this domestic landscape is probably a bit of a recent thing, because historically the only people that had these lovely big offices where the gentry. Most people actually were involved in the cottage industries - that is obviously where the name came from - and this a tailor.
So, you had people working in their houses and really when we came to industrial production the things changed. This image is interesting for me, because the parallel between the car production line and the office production line is horribly similar. What happened is that in the 20th century the office arrived really to feed the administration that the factories produced. They were centralised because everything was done on paper: if you wanted to communicate with somebody you had to take a paper, a book, something heavy to someone else and you ended up with these centralized area's. Communication was face to face word of mouth, paper, post, or books, so it forced everyone in one big place.
Then we see the first computers arrive and it suddenly produced even more pressure on the office where everybody literaly had to link their computers together because these needed to talk to each other. So when we started in 1997 our brief - working for Knoll - was to get to a desking system where you could lay an Ethernet cable (which some of you may not even know about) from the server through the building without breaking, because breaking would mean a risk of continuity. The art was to design this long desking systems so that it could be installed very easily. As a result you had these companies who were really serving one solution which was not really serving the business but just serving IT.
That all began to break down in the mid 90's when we started and laptops arrived. We actually said to a couple of clients: we should start designing for laptops because surely people will start moving away from the desks. And they all said: "No, no, the wifi is to slow, it is to risky and where is this information coming from?". Now all of us have a two or three bits of technology in our pockets.
What I am trying to paint here is when technology broke down again. We are talking about the domestification but the period of the late 20th century office is only a short blib in our human landscape. Now when we have these new tools, we suddenly have these different types of people of which we don't know where they work and the concept of the hub. No longer do you need a centralised building, but you can have many hubs. And actually we can bring all types of information straight to our desktops: within minutes you can have the finance files from 1993. You don't have to go to the vaults anymore. We see that people are changing their work styles completely. Originally these big businesses needed loads of people on data input. First of all we shipped that off to India and now we have computers and algorithms to do that for us.
Luke Pearson: We are at an interesting moment where office design is going to change and you can see it here. When anyone would go into the cafe here, you see this domestification and ways of working exactly as we are talking about!A lot of it is a reaction to this bland industrial landscape that we had. And as you, Jorre, have just pointed out we also have the opposite happening where the domestic landscape recognises that we've got to work at home and a lot of our domestic furniture does not support that. So we have two things going into two different directions. The reality is - as we move forwards - that we are not going to sit on the antiques that were not designed with the ergonomic knowledge that we have today and we are not going to sit in very noise environments all the time. And we also have other pressures. This Middle picture is called 'Spacehop' where someone is apparently renting a room in someone's house (!) for £ 17,65 a day to work in and our reality is: if we were setting up a studio now I am not sure if we could afford to do it in London in the way we did.So, there are huge pressures that are going to force this flow between the domestic landscape and the traditional office landscape. One last note that I added is: 'homeless' because we all think of the office and of the home but actually our loose, flexible interface with technology means that we can sort of be anywhere and we don't know what how the new landscape will be when we are going forwards.
I am ending with just the only bit that I am going to show of our work. At the left here you see a thought provoking piece we did last year for Teknion. The coat stand is a symbol of: I have arrived and I am gone. The loveseat is a symbol of communication where face to face is still very important and as close as you can get. On the right you see an item that shows our future vision of what a desking system might be; given that we don't need cables any more and we might only be there only for ten minutes or 5 seconds doing an email. The image on the right is all about the sense of place, because with that kind of future comes a lack of identity. Where do we work? People need a kind of home. We were challenging that and this was about wellness: eating, drinking, the integration of technology... The marble giving a sense of permanence and the sense that so often our materials now have a lack of value.
Johanna Agerman Ross: You mentioned the comission with the long desking system and Ethernet cable. Where does your role as a designer fit into the changing landscape and domestication of the office. Are people coming to you to analyse the trends, or do they come with big projects in mind that they then want you to execute, or are you able to input equally on what you think and they think that is happening?
Luke Pearson: It is all those things actually. It was interesting to see Jorre's presentation and hearing you talk because originally we'd been employed for our international style and I never really quite knew what that ment. But what our clients were talking about was a more softer human aspect to the design. For years we were talking about tactility and the subtlety of touch. The fact that Tom and I did furniture design, is because we love the archetype. The human body does not change. Furniture design always supports or satisfies what human bodies need to do.Everybody intrinsically - when they sit down - has an understanding when something is good or bad, because from our earliest moments we know about touch and feel and this has always driven our work. So when we first started with desking we could not get our heads around where everything was so harsh and mechanistic. But the change has suited us, because we are much more interested in groups of objects that work together for people and the old order was less interested in that.When we first started working you would get involved in big tenders and 4 companies would control an entire building for seating, desking, lighting and something else. Now there are 365 companies involved in a building which is kind of insane, but also wonderful because the architects, specifiers and designers have to satisfy a much more sophisticated pallet for the people in that office, clearly because they don't want everything to be the same.
Johanna Agerman Ross: Jorre, you said Arco started out more in the home market and operate the last few years more in the contract market. Is that a coincidence or are the specifiers that Luke is talking about more actively seeking inspiration and furniture from companies that do not have that office style look?
Jorre van Ast: Yes absolutely!
Johanna Agerman Ross: And how has that changed the conversations that you have with your clients?
Jorre van Ast: We have also been a bit lucky. Of course it has been a strategic decision to move into that area, but some people found our vocabulary in the domestic area a bit rational and minimal, where this vocabulary made our transition into the contract market much easier. Still if we make a brochure for the domestic environment people ask: "is this for the work environment?". The office environment now asks much more for natural materials. We work a lot with wood, so it has made our transition very easy.
Johanna Agerman Ross: Luke, you presented the Teknion range in wood at Neocon last year as an experiment. Did the feedback mean that you will make those type of products more in the contract market?
Luke Pearson: We have been working with wood before, but for us it is very much about the feel. Furniture is an important item, you spend most of your time working. That should be in the best environment and for a long time that ment the furniture was thinking about productivity and this is why people got unhappy and were looking for something else. Furniture is incredibly important. As Jorre said a table forms an intrinsic part in a human dialogue; we sit around it, it gives sense of position, space, separation, connection, privacy. The height, the width, the material... it immediately sets up a precedent about how you feel about a meeting and each other. That power is often underestimated.
Johanna Agerman Ross: Jorre what about costs of material. Are people prepared to pay when better materials are used?
Jorre van Ast: It really depends on the product. Sometimes solid wood is cheaper to use than veneer or something that we call 'semi-solid'. At the same time it depends on the time scale and the client. Shop interiors and restaurants for instance have a much shorter time frame of just five years, but we also have clients that buy a table and say: "in five or ten years time we send the table back to you to oil it again and we have a new table".
Johanna Agerman Ross: Luke, you mentioned that the period of the late 20th century office is just a small blip in our human landscape. What do you think, when moving forward and when we talk about domestification is that the right that the right terminology or are we still grasping at what is actually happening in the office?
Luke Pearson: We are still trying to work out how to work! And work continues to change. We are now talking about workshop spaces where people come together to generate ideas. Then I think: "Okay, but what do we do with those ideas? We have to go off and implement them!" We only talk about a very tiny peak of the triangle and actually for a very rarefied group of people. That is because we are not an industrial culture anymore. To a one level our service culture is removed as well, because it is too expensive. So things will flow; industries and commerce flow around the world ending up at different places and change things. And these things change work!
But we also have very short memories. It is only 8 years ago that we had a crash and we are about to have another one for the same reason. Somebody talked to me about the office landscape as if we had always had this mobility. But it has not! Before the crash there was still the idea that companies would always grow and get bigger and bigger. After that we had these smaller companies coming to the floor because things were not stable anymore and people thought we might as well do things on our own. Now we have a hole set of different entrepreneurs, those who coincide with the app-culture and the internet are blooming. There are different pockets of change driven by different things and we are in one at the moment. The issue of what the office will be, has to do with the acceptance that there are many more areas where you can work and what work can be. Next to it the concept of big companies that can say: "you work with us", is also a bit broken and that is potentially very good for people. We still have a capitalist system where growth is based on scale, scale means more people and that means infrastructure. Of course not all people will start working in 'hubs' but it will influence, because if those people feel more liberated: what is that going to do to the office?
Johanna Agerman Ross: The tech companies are very much set up in such a way and it is not for nothing that a company like Vitra looked at start-up companies in Silicon Valley and that Konstantin Grcic Hack desk came out of that. Jorre, with Arco you have a big commission from Apple. That has an interesting impact on you as a company, but it is also interesting that they are turning to you. What do you think of their kind of west-coast power?
Jorre van Ast: I am not sure if they are leading or pushing these new work environments. In Holland there is a company called Veldhoen. They are consultants on activity based working for thirty years. What is happening is that these new tech-companies are really adopting that now. America has been for a long time very traditional market and now there are a lot of things happening on a bigger scale and also within small companies. The process is just speeding up now.
Johanna Agerman Ross: What does the project for Apple mean for you as a company?
Jorre van Ast: I cannot say to much about the project itself. We are obviously doing tables for them, but the project means leverage. It gives a push to the company. It is a big opportunity and challenges at the same time.
Johanna Agerman Ross: Luke, can you say more about the conversations that you have with companies?
Luke Pearson: It is always a collaboration. We are always looking for the DNA of a company. Teknion is forty-something years old. They came out of the tech-companies, they talked to these companies about what they needed, and designed for that particular organisation. They were incredibly flexible and one of the few companies that could do that. So we tried to go back to those entrepreneurial roots where they try to find out what companies do and design solutions for that, rather than trying to impose solutions to people. With companies you sometimes have a set of collective experiences, or you know what a company needs, or they come to you with a thought but it is rarely isolated. You need to know the company and always have a dialogue.
Johanna Agerman Ross: Talking about domestification is that something that is actively discussed within companies?
Luke Pearson: Very much! We are not always using that word but the topic covers a lot of the aspects that we use: humanising, simplicity, calmness, personality. A space needs a personality to give it a feeling of place. Our next collection for Teknion could be described as very influenced by domestification. Material and value of material play an important role in it.
Johanna Agerman Ross: The value of space is a missing in this discussion so far and lies with the interior designer or stylist. With 365 companies in a project the pressure on them is much bigger to create that whole. Do you deal directly with those people?
Jorre van Ast: They are very important for us. They are the people we visit, because we hope that they will start using our products and propose them to their clients.
Johanna Agerman Ross: So, that is - not to belittle the designers role - actually a very important role in this domestification: if there is not that person that brings it together you won't have the desired effect? Do you think the role of the interior designer will become more important?
Jorre van Ast: What happens in general to the furniture industry is that it is moving closer to fashion. It becomes very stylistic. It is about nice colours and as in fashion furniture becomes almost disposable. It can be replaced when there is another pattern and another colour coming up. I think there is also a bit of a danger in there. Furniture is something that should last and not be something that you use a few years and then move on to something else.
Johanna Agerman Ross: Do you feel it is your job to be influenced by the interior designer?
Luke Pearson: It does and I think it is good. It can make the general fabric of our environments richer and that is a good thing. If this builds in a kind of obsolescence that is sad, but the thing is also: if the office changes because of technological change we can not stop that. However I think a lot of companies also realize that embedding technology and furniture is a waste of time and money because by the time you've build the structure the technology has moved on. But the more mobile it gets the furniture gets freed up and we have the opportunities to design things better than they were. Let technology be what it wants and let that be the fluid thing.
Johanna Agerman Ross: Looking back at the last 100 years and the mystification of for instance 'the tailor' you showed and now having the opportunity to work basically from your bed. Is there any mystification in the buzz of domestification? Is there a more sinister side to that?
Luke Pearson: Yes, last week I was at my local barber where I picked up a magazine about work. The last three presidents - apart from Obama - have all said: prepare for a 3-days week. They were still selling leisure time! I think we will get more leisure time because artificial intelligence will get us out of work! One of the reason why the UK is championing the IT and creative culture is because we don't have much else. If I phone up why my Virgin internet is not working somebody in Bombay picks up the phone. Everything that can be done cheaper somewhere else has moved out.
Johanna Agerman Ross: But than at the same time you have companies that employ people with Yorkshire accents because it causes less stress when they help people to do their online banking work....
Luke Pearson: Yeah... but hmm....that is debatable ;-)!
It is a really complex issue this, because I don't think that people working all the time is a good thing. There is a certain amount of processing that you can do continuously, but for intelligent thought and creative work you need space and to fuel yourself. Tom, my business partner, says: we are taking holidays to recover, where we should take holidays to recharge beyond zero, but we are only topping up to zero again. How do you get above zero, so you can tap into stuff again? This is the problem with working all the time but also that when we do leisure or watch tv or online we are fed with an awful lot of stuff to dumb us down.
Johanna Agerman Ross: I have started my own business and that is a different reality and that I did not realise when I was an employee. I work all the time and you expect people that work with you to work too. So, I have a natural suspicion towards things being too relaxed at work and I want people to be active. It also disturbs me that I cannot have an open mind towards all these new theories about work because for me the bottom line is that things have to be done. However when we look at the next five years what do you think we are looking at?
Luke Pearson: I think we will have more fluid dynamic workspaces, but I have concerns about if it will be sustainable. Everybody is now talking about that they need a workshop space an incubation space, but that is also a reflection on that the other space we have is not working well enough. Work styles and models change and it is very difficult to pin something down to the perfect model. We have to see it as an evolution. The internet has given a radical change. One of the things is that London is very close to the point that the souffle will blob down on itself. People are moving out to Margate. But if I cannot afford a place here but can skype in Ace hotel with my headphones on while some else is DJ-ing that really challenges where we work. For an awful lot of people the pressure to be in a big city will be bigger than the need to be there and that might give a big change.
Johanna Agerman Ross: What about you Jorre where is your company based?
Jorre van Ast: We are in the east of Holland, close to the German border, rural area, small town. I am there two or three days a week, but I live in Amsterdam. The small village is perfect for having a manufacturing company, but of course that is not where the architects are. However Holland is a small country so this is easy.
Johanna Agerman Ross: And what is your prediction for the next five years for your company and furniture?
Jorre van Ast: Five years is a lot of time now for furniture, but I think flexibility will be very important,because what we come up with now might have changed already a bit in five years time. For Arco things are going well it is an exciting time with just a generation change and we have this new focus that we want to develop further.
Johanna Agerman Ross: Well I like to thank Luke from Pearson Lloyd and Jorre from Arco and all of you for coming this morning and sharing this conversation with us. Have a good Clerkenwell Design Week!