Working in the Open

Jonathan Olivares proposes three sets of furniture to turn the outdoors into an office.

Jonathan Olivares Design Research

The Outdoor Office
The Art Institute of Chicago
Through July 15


When an Italian furniture company asked the New York–based designer Jonathan Olivares to develop a range of luxury cast-iron outdoor furniture in 2009, he toyed with different ideas for a month before turning the job down. “I realized that if you were going to do something for the outdoors, it should not revolve around leisure, because that’s already a flooded market,” he says. But he discovered that “there’s a pressing need to help people work outdoors, which would cut down on electricity costs and result in more physical enjoyment.” Yet Olivares found that nobody was working to produce functional outdoor office furniture.

Hoping to do something about the situation, Olivares reached out to manufacturers of office furniture, outdoor furniture, and even playground equipment. But he didn’t find anyone to partner with. Unwilling to let the idea drop, he secured two grants from Chicago’s Graham Foundation, and spent three years studying outdoor work arrangements and developing a set of proposals. The fruit of this effort, The Outdoor Office, is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through July 15. The exhibition presents Olivares’s ideas for three different outdoor settings: a boardroom, a classroom, and an individual work space.

Olivares discovered that even though there’s a lack of purpose-built furniture, a number of high-profile American companies already encourage employees to go outside. “Anybody at Google, Apple, Facebook, Nike, or Reebok works outdoors a lot,” he says. “All of those places have picnic tables where some real work goes down.” He found inspiration from films and television shows, like Twin Peaks and Monty Python, that toyed with the notion of an outdoor office, and from real-world solutions, like the makeshift disaster-relief office set up by Plan International in Haiti.

Olivares identified three main problems. “The first thing you need is something that controls or focuses the view,” he says. “You can’t have a 360-degree view, because it’s too distracting.” Secondly, he notes that “shade becomes a huge issue. When it gets above seventy degrees, it’s impossible to work outside without shade for more than fifteen minutes. And forget about using a laptop.” Finally, there’s a stigma associated with picnic tables and café chairs, because they’re designed for leisure. “You need outdoor tables and chairs that have been subtly shifted to look like office furniture,” he says.

The result? Olivares’s proposed outdoor boardroom is lightly shaded by a semicircular structure and equipped with aluminum office-style chairs and a long, simple conference table. The classroom proposal includes a freestanding blackboard that interrupts the view, as well as a large bench made of aluminum, plastic, and wood, where students can gather but not get too comfy. The individual work space has a screen that provides some privacy and protection from the sun, as well as a pad of rubberized Nike Grind flooring that creates a sort of all-weather carpeting.

For now, all three setups are just concepts, but Olivares hopes that won’t always be the case. “I would love to actually build an outdoor office,” he says. “I’m hoping that a corporation, university, or manufacturer says, ‘Hey, let’s try this out.’”

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