Doug Ball Digs Out of the Cube

A celebrated industrial designer and workplace pioneer takes a last stab at that beleaguered staple of American corporate life: the office system.

One would expect a man who has designed office chairs, desks, and systems for 40 years to know something about comfort and posture. But it comes as something of a surprise to see Douglas Ball, age 70, kicking back in front of a computer in the deep recline of a programmer on a late shift. Though his office provides several prototype workstations, he currently sits at a desk that is about three inches lower than the industry standard in a deep-reclining chair named Lucy (which he designed for Steelcase’s Vecta in 2000). Ball explains his preference for a low desk with a quick demonstration of his daily routine: “I start working upright in the morning, doing e-mail, and then progressively as the afternoon goes on I’ll slip down and shift the body back, relaxing around the neck.”

Ball discovered the ergonomic benefits of kicking back a little earlier than most of us, in the mid-1980s when he began getting neck pains and eye fatigue as a result of sitting in front of a computer. Noticing that he suffered no comparable ill effects from driving an Audi for five hours from Toronto to Montreal, he designed a computer station resembling a driver’s seat or a pilot’s cockpit, with a low sliding seat inspired by a rowing machine and the monitor positioned where the road would be. To ensure reduced glare and optimum privacy, he put it inside a capsule. The batty yet ingenious result—the armadillo-shaped wooden Clipper—sits center stage in Ball’s studio, with translucent white flaps that hinge down from the roof to enclose the user and a red light on the roof to signal occupancy. Few who enter Ball’s studio can resist a test-drive. “This was all developed at a time when the ergonomists were still saying you should be sitting upright at your computer,” Ball says of the Clipper, one of which is in the permanent collection of the Design Museum in London. “I’d done that and was experiencing great neck pain. Once you tilt back that pain goes away.” The Clipper was proof that, he adds, “You can have a small space and it can be enjoyable, if you do it right.”

When Herman Miller unveils Ball’s new high-end workplace system this summer, it is gambling on the idea that an increasing number of companies are looking to provide for their employees the same kind of comfort in confined spaces that the designer began pursuing with the Clipper. Ball’s design for the new system, called My Studio Environments, embraces the paradoxical idea of providing a retreat in the open-plan cubicle environment. With its translucent walls, sliding door, sliding windows onto neighboring stations, and private lockable closet, My Studio aims to give back a little seclusion to office dwellers without sacrificing openness and light. Into the brief dark history of systems furniture Ball has introduced a kind of Schroder House of cubicles—a dynamic piece of architecture on a street of nondescript boxes.

The gamble is based on a prediction among economists that the impending labor shortage brought on by retiring baby boomers will be most keenly felt as a shortfall in white-collar workers involved in the transformation of information. These “high-end knowledge workers”—what Richard Florida refers to as the “Creative Class”—aren’t the obedient “Organization Men” of the postwar years, the argument goes, but fickle Gen X types with a strong sense of entitlement. Moreover they came of age with the advent of telecommuting and the technology-enabled mobile office. If they don’t like the office, they don’t show up—they find a way to do the work at home or in a coffee shop or at the library. Herman Miller takes this prediction seriously: it forms the “Race for Talent” segment of a poppy film of possible economic scenarios shown to potential customers in a small purpose-built movie theater at its headquarters. The company’s research team also provides a stream of citations to support the argument that within a handful of years corporations will have to compete for the diminishing talent pool with office furniture design that is attractive and configurable. Among the sources cited is a report from management consultancy Accenture, which declares, “Successful organizations will recognize that high-end knowledge workers need mobility, stimulation, and both interaction and isolation.”

Surprisingly for a risky product with a high price tag, My Studio emerged out of the gloomy days of the 2001 recession. The company was retrenching; it had discontinued its Herman Miller Red line, cut its workforce by 40 percent, and was in no mood for a risky new venture. Its Ethospace—an innovative flexible “subarchitecture” system by Jack Kelley and Bill Stumpf, released in 1984—was being undersold by cheaper rival designs. To look at ways in which the Ethospace manufacturing process might be changed to build a price-competitive frame-and-tile system, it briefed three leading design teams—Blu Dot, Eric Chan, and Doug Ball—to come up with a proposal for a fast-track solution. The project was code-named NT, for “New Thing.”

Ball felt that rather than simply respond to Herman Miller’s market-driven brief, he should tell the company where he felt the current thinking on systems furniture in open-plan offices was wrong. Having designed one of the first cubicle systems in 1968 for Canadian manufacturer Sunar, he had learned from bitter experience where systems had failed. “I went to see the first installation of the Sunar system, a huge government project. The panels were all seventy inches tall, so unless you were six-foot-three you couldn’t look over the top. It was awful—one of the worst installations I’d ever seen,” Ball says. “We thought it was extremely flexible in the plan view, but we had never considered the vertical elevation.” It was of course way too late to fix the problem. To let in some light and air, he adds, “you’d have to go in with a chain saw and cut off the tops of the panels.”

The history of the cubicle is by now a staple of business magazines: in the late 1950s the Schnelle brothers came up with the Bürolandschaft (“office landscape”), an idealistic effort to arrange workers according to communications patterns rather than corporate hierarchies. The open office was systematized with products such as Robert Propst’s portentous Action Office for Herman Miller, launched in 1968, a system of movable wall-storage units and lightweight interchangeable desks, tables, and chairs. When it emerged that a revenue act gave companies a more liberal depreciation allowance on furniture and equipment—a deduction not applicable to fixed walls—manufacturers, including Sunar, followed the Action Office example. (According to Fortune, today companies can depreciate furniture in seven years—walled offices take nearly 40 years.) But as real estate costs rose, the generous open proportions of Propst and Ball’s system were sacrificed, and the panels and desks were reconfigured to form a space-efficient arrangement of boxes. Cubeville was born.

Ball subsequently redressed the oppressive effect of a cost-driven rectilinear installation of his panel system with Sunar’s Race, an ingenious low-height modular program organized around an electrical-and-data spine with support posts that allowed users to clip on desks at any point. Race went into production in 1979 and garnered many awards before Sunar went bankrupt in 1990. One of the research findings that led to the system’s openness was that high panels not only block the light but also create an illusion of acoustic insulation; whether or not your office mates can overhear your personal phone calls depends to a large extent on the size, shape, and ambient noise of the room in which the furniture is installed. “The most important thing is to know who is around you and modify your voice accordingly,” Ball says.

Ball arrived at the first Project NT steering committee meeting with a sketch he’d made on an airsick bag on the flight from Montreal—and a polemic. Herman Miller was a company with a rich design legacy that Ball had always put on a pedestal, he said. To ignore that legacy and simply respond to market pressure for a low-cost frame-and-tile system would be a betrayal of principles. “I said, ‘You’re the people who did the Aeron chair,’” Ball recalls. “‘Times won’t be difficult forever.’”

He outlined a proposal for a cubicle with a door, a system of translucent panels that provided for both privacy and interaction between office workers by inverting the traditional measurements. The highest wall would face the most trafficked area (“the street,” in Herman Miller parlance), and the lowest would adjoin the adjacent cubicle to allow team interaction. To facilitate visual feedback Ball suggested that the occupant sit at a 45-degree angle to the door, so that his or her back wasn’t facing the entrance. A translucent door would enable the occupant to signify to colleagues that he or she needed a little uninterrupted cognitive flow, as psychologists would put it; the transparency would allow the occupant to know if someone was outside without the distraction of eye contact. “Doug responded in a way that we didn’t expect,” says Don Goeman, executive vice president of research, design, and development at Herman Miller. “But we thought he was pretty compelling and provocative in his vision, so we altered course.”

Ball works out of an airy studio and model shop in a small riverside resort town, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, about 20 miles from Montreal, where he has been based since 1973. In hearing his measured account of a creative life that began as the only child of a farming family living outside Toronto who made his own toys in paper and wood, one is struck that this has been a remarkably focused career. After discovering industrial design at Ontario College of Art & Design, in Toronto, and hearing Charles Eames lecture in London, Ball landed a job in 1960 as the first in-house designer at Ontario-based furniture manufacturer Sunshine. By 1964 he was done with office life: he negotiated a contract with the company that enabled him to work off-site as a full-time consultant in Montreal, paid in royalty advances. He was even able to insist that the company name be changed from Sunshine to Sunar. (“Sunshine reeked of vitamin D and all those healthy things,” he says.) Ball hired Leon Goldik, a designer with exceptional model-making skills (they met while working for Robin Bush on the design for the Canadian pavilion at the 1967 World’s Fair). Goldik has built every Ball prototype since. Neither he nor Jeff Sokalski—a 39-year-old designer with digital model-making skills to parallel the former’s analog assets—are strictly employees; both work as consultants from studios in Ball’s Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue building, Goldik restoring vintage motorcycle parts and Sokalski designing his own furniture. The arrangement reflects the value Ball places on independence and a sanctuary in which to work. “Doug allows you your own space,” says Sokalski, who began as Ball’s intern immediately after graduating from Ryerson University with a degree in interior design in 1989. “But then you’ve got to produce. If you don’t, he’ll say, ‘Let’s not waste any more time here.’” Sokalski has little doubt about the benefits of this mentorship to his own career. He adds, “He’s one of the most intimidating people I know. He doesn’t make a lot of errors, and he’s really thorough. His attention to detail is absolutely amazing.”

Detail manifests itself in the play of light off and through surfaces. Ball took up digital rendering early on because he appreciated the computer’s capability for “pinpoint precision” and visualizing the effects of light. The rolled edges of his file cabinets in the 1969 “S” system for Sunar were intended to create an eye-level luster by maximizing the reflection of dull overhead fluorescent lighting; the forms were directly inspired by the painted metal dash of a Porsche 356 he once drove across the continent. “I had many hours to try and figure out what made this enjoyable,” Ball says. “It was the fact that the metal was painted glossy and reflected light, so you get these little highlights and shadow lines. This taught me that a product, through the correct use of material, should speak to you.”

Ultimately Ball was able to incorporate some of his ideas—notably the orientation of the occupant—in the design for Vivo, Herman Miller’s low-cost frame-and-tile system, which it revived during My Studio’s development. Although Vivo represents “a big piece of business” for the company, according to marketing and communications director Mary Ellen Kettelhut, the excitement at Herman Miller around My Studio is more palpable in the run-up to NeoCon. Bill Clegg, president of Schoenhardt Architecture + Interior Design—who ordered more than 100 units of the system for the new Meriden, Connecticut, offices of Webster Bank—sees a case to be made for a paradigm shift comparable to the Aeron chair’s impact on task seating. “I think it has a chance to really change the market,” Clegg says. “It’s coming at an interesting time, when people are looking for more privacy in the office.”

Success with My Studio would provide a happy epilogue to a career that Ball tried to wrap up almost ten years ago. After Sunar went bankrupt, Ball saw two of his best designs (Race and Main Street) acquired by manufacturers Haworth and Westinghouse. Race survived, but Main Street was later abandoned. By 1997 he was disenchanted with the industry: “It didn’t seem to be worth the effort,” he says. “I thought I was going to retire. I bought a Volkswagen camper with a pop-top and told my wife we were going to spend our winters in Arizona or New Mexico. We did make several trips, but what I think put me off was passing other vehicles and seeing gray-haired people and deciding I wasn’t quite ready to be there yet.”

Ball’s decision to give up and focus on driving to warmer climes might have been the best preparation for what may well be his swan song. Freeing himself from any allegiance to a manufacturer opened the door to Herman Miller. Goeman ventures that the cross-country drives were part of Ball’s mental preparation, albeit unconsciously, for a final assault on the office cubicle. “How do you find a person who is this passionate about making the most of confined spaces? When you look at his life experiences and passion, it’s a perfect fit for this challenge—a person who’s lived it and breathed it for decades.”

For Ball, who seems to have reveled in a return to the front line of the contract industry, this is certainly his last word on systems. With a boyish grin, he adds, “I wouldn’t know what else to say.”

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