Everything About the Way We Work Is Changing. Here’s How.

A to Z: Your guide to the new, diverse workplace.

With a diversity of work environments, the office of Harry’s, a start-up dealing in shaving products, is typical of the new generation of workplaces.

Courtesy Georgie Wood

Coworking spaces, sit/stand desks, hackable chairs, napping couches—there are many clear signs that work culture in the United States, and the world over, is being overhauled. Millennials who are starting their careers early and Baby Boomers who are retiring later in life have transformed the needs and concerns of the workplace, while offices everywhere are bracing for the entry of Generation Z into the workforce. For the most part, we have left the tired debates about open-plan offices behind, and are turning our attention to a whole new set of issues—noise, distraction, indoor-air quality, and mobility. After a decade of obsessive focus on collaboration, we are starting to address the needs of creative workers, introverts, individualists, and freelancers. Nature is making a comeback into the workplace, technology is being tamed, and corporations will come to increasingly depend on urbanists as much as architects.

Much of this is uncharted territory, so Metropolis turned to a host of contributors and experts to understand every aspect of how workplaces are transforming. This is our A to Z guide to the new, diverse workplace.

A for Adaptation
B for Beauty
C for Creative Freedom
for Distraction
for Ergonomics
for Freelance

G for Generations
H for Hacking
I for Individuality
J for Job Satisfaction
K for Keeping It Real
L for Living Office

M for Modularity
N for Nature
O for Observation
P for Pattern Language
Q for Quiet
R for Risk
S for Smart Office
T for Teamwork

U for Unobtrusive
V for Video
W for Wisdom
X for Xtra Large
Y for Yesterday’s Offices
Z for Zzzz’s


A for Adaptation

With each technology upgrade, the innards of our offices get messier. Architect Jeffrey Inaba suggests a way out of this vicious cycle.

Courtesy ©Greg Irikura

Quality in the technology world is synonymous with quick cycles of improvement. While a building might last 40 years, the technologies in it may need to be upgraded every two years. Instead of being seamlessly integrated into the building’s surfaces and spaces, each new improvement in technology is likely to create an increasingly tenuous relationship with its host.

Keeping up with obsolescence comes at a financial as well as aesthetic cost. Since each system (IT, thermal, communications, security, media, fire safety, etc.) has a different life span and each is a layer embedded very close to another one inside the residual spaces of the building, upgrading one layer requires negotiating the others, adding to the labor cost of installation. Over time, the layers become more and more entangled.

As one strategy to adapt to these independent temporalities, we exposed and separated the building systems at Red Bull’s New York offices. Reflected natural and artificial light was cast onto the ceiling to accentuate the disparate layouts of raw pipes and their future transformations as a feature of the space.—Jeffrey Inaba

B for Beauty

Can banal office fixtures be beautiful? Designers Sam Hecht and Kim Colin, who curated the exhibition Beauty as Unfinished Business at this year’s International Design Biennale in Saint-Étienne, France, attempt a definition of this elusive quality.

In the exhibition, Hecht and Colin showed the Geneva HQ Wireless security system designed by their studio Industrial Facility for the Swiss electronics company Geneva. Consisting of door sensors, a smoke detector, siren, telephone, mobile-phone-charging zone, and camera (shown here), the system is described by the studio as “forgotten objects untouched by design—friendly to the room, easy to install and use.”

Courtesy Industrial Facility

Many have remarked that our Branca chair for Mattiazzi is beautiful. They run the palms of their hands along its arms and down its legs, marveling at the seamless wood. Yet this wood, its diameter and form, was appropriated from a broom in our workshop. Do people run their hands down the length of a wooden broom and feel touched by beauty? So we ask: When do we come in contact with this quality, and can objects ever really reach it?

Beauty in products, in our opinion, has to do with the unity of material and function. However, there is a spatial dimension that is also very necessary and rarely ever addressed: The product must be experienced within a context that arouses something in us. This “something” happens when we look beyond the thing itself, beyond its own space, to something much bigger than ourselves, without time. Without space around it, the object becomes flat. Context adds an atmospheric dimension of space and time, while the tension or energy between the product and its context makes our minds and souls struggle just enough to raise questions. This is perhaps as close as we could come to describing beauty. —Sam Hecht and Kim Colin

C for Creative Freedom

This Is Work was a month-long exhibition organized by Fictional Collective and Depot Basel in a former Bureau de Change in Basel, Switzerland. The exhibition, and the accompanying online publication, examined contemporary working conditions for creatives.

This Is Work was a month-long exhibition organized by Fictional Collective and Depot Basel in a former Bureau de change in Basel, Switzerland. The exhibition, and the accompanying online publication, examined contemporary working conditions. One section, relating to the precariousness of creative workers, was curated by Lehtinen and Neretti of the Fictional Collective, in collaboration with Francisca Silva.

Courtesy Depot Basel and Fictional Collective

Independent creative work is seen both as desirable and precarious, which is contradictory. Managing one’s own work-life balance often also means long days and poor finances, which can be stressful. But despite its flip side, reconsidering attitudes of independent creatives can define a different future both for them and the class of ‘precarious workers’ as a group.” —Heini Lehtinen and Silvia Neretti

D for Distraction

Based on intensive research into neuroscience, and launching at NeoCon, Brody (above) is “kind of a new genre,” says Marcus Mckenna, a design director at Steelcase. “It’s in between a task chair, a lounge, and a cubicle.”

Courtesy Steelcase

The state of flow. For many creatives, it’s the equivalent of a state of grace—that rare alignment of skeleton and stars where ideas travel like electrons from mind’s eye to hand to paper (or keyboard, or tablet). Also known by athletes as “the zone,” the state of flow has been the subject of study since the term was coined in 1975. Psychologists have labored to chart its coordinates in the human mind. Coaches and managers strive to summon its essence in the human spirit.

At Steelcase, a dedicated research team has made office design the latest profession to plumb the channels leading to the state of flow. Over the past three years, that team has turned to neuroscience for aid in fashioning a space that could help knowledge workers find their flow. “By now, the many advantages of the open-office plan are well known,” says Markus McKenna, director of design for Steelcase’s Turnstone and Education divisions. “It’s wonderful for serendipitous conversations and collaborations, for checking schedules and e-mails, and for generating a sense of enterprise. But there are tasks, like those that require deep concentration, that aren’t ideally suited to the bench.” The alternative is Brody, a cocoon-like work lounge designed for brief periods of maximum concentration and performance. Brody makes its debut at this month’s NeoCon fair.

Named as an amalgam of “Brain” and “Body,” the Brody project was initially directed toward college and university libraries. But the researchers soon saw great potential for office application. “Our minds crave the sensation of being in flow,” says McKenna. “But our minds are also easily distractible. In our research, we noticed how students in libraries typically removed themselves from the fray when they needed to focus, sitting with their backs to the wall, eliminating distractions. From that, we understood that what we were really after was an optimized environment that minimized distractions and in which people could find their flow very quickly.”

“We’ve been designing to solve ergonomic problems for decades. But we realize there’s more to it than that,” says Melanie Redman, a senior design researcher at Steelcase. “People need an environment to take care of their emotional and cognitive selves.” Brody provides such an environment, even in high-traffic communal spaces.”

Brody is one of the first office products designed as much for the brain as for the body. A privacy screen wraps the single-person work lounge on three sides, reducing unwanted visual distractions. A single light illuminates and defines the personal work zone, helping to channel and sustain attention. Even its ergonomic features support the mind: armrests and a footrest enable users to adopt multiple postures, bringing more oxygen to the brain; an adjustable work surface helps eliminate back, neck, and eye strain—along with the distractions those physical discomforts generate.

“One big theme in Brody is a sense of protection—the screens allow you to hide without actually closing the door,” says Redman. the adjustable personal work surface brings text or screens to eye level. Under the surface, there is space for personal belongings, as well as power outlets, so needing a document from one’s bag or running out of juice is no reason to break concentration.

Brody is the first product born of Steelcase’s recent, intensive foray into how the brain functions. It is unlikely to be the last. “Our next frontier is going to be about behaviors and the brain,” says Donna Flynn, vice president of WorkSpace Futures at Steelcase. An anthropologist by training, Flynn believes cognitive research will have broad implications. “I think it’s going to change the entire landscape of furniture and office design. In one broad stroke, we’re all going to have to get a lot smarter about managing our cognitive resources.”

The Steelcase research team pored over reams of reports by neuroscientists and cognitive specialists. Their meta-analysis pointed them toward two distinct types of attention: controlled attention—in which the person intentionally directs his or her focus onto a single task—and stimulus-driven attention, which is reactive and volatile, and governed by external stimuli. “Human beings are very sensitive to movement in our peripheral vision,” says McKenna. The former lighting specialist enjoys explaining how rod cells, which perceive light changes, are situated around the eye’s periphery to pick up movement. “It’s hardwired in our brains, and probably kept our species alive in the time of sabertoothed tigers,” he says. “Understanding distraction was a transformative moment for us. We saw that it wasn’t a negative; it is part of our biology.” —Ken Shulman

E for Ergonomics

In the old office, we sat up straight and avoided carpal tunnel syndrome. Today we want mobility, to keep the creative juices flowing. The big pieces matter, such as Humanscale’s Float desk, available through Room & Board. But small details, like Turnstone’s footrests and height-adjustable stools from Knoll, are just as important.

Barber Osgerby Stools

Halia Chair by Studio Kairos

Campfire footrests

Wheels Round Table by EOOS

Winston Sit/Stand Workstation

Seating Swopper Air Stool

ESI Ergonomics Solutions
Ergorise Workstation

Float Desk

Kitos E Plus Table


F for Freelance

The Freelancers Union recently inaugurated a twice-a-week pop-up coworking space in its Union Hall in New York City. The Union’s executive director, Sara Horowitz, explains the design of the space and why it has implications for workplaces everywhere.

The Freelancers Union Hall, the Union’s coworking space open to members, is located at 80 Maiden Lane in Lower Manhattan.

Courtesy the Freelancers Union

Truly successful freelancers are the ones who put themselves out there and connect with other freelancers. Working from a home office can be great, but it’s critical to actually get out to meet, collaborate, and just generally enjoy the company of other people. We asked our members what they wanted to use a space in our Union Hall for and the response was loud and clear: coworking.

Our pop-up space is big, airy, and welcoming—just what our members said they wanted. Of course we have free Wi-Fi and big windows with views of the East River and the downtown skyline. But the biggest thing we offer is our members themselves. The real opportunity is to take a break and chat with your fellow freelancers, maybe grab lunch or a drink together. Marc Scheff, one of our longtime members, has a great phrase: “Real friends lead to real work.” Coworking is a way to meet friends, expand your network, and, eventually, find great gigs and people to work with.

Some of these elements are universal needs in all workplaces. Freelancers understand how to make work more human. They balance their lives better and are showing us all how to connect to ourselves and each other. Big windows, open space, fresh air, shared experiences—our coworking space has it all.

G for Generations

Workplaces today are adapting to the needs of Baby Boomers and Millennials. Are we prepared for the next generation?

70% of officegoers today predict that Generation Z (14– to 19-year-olds) will demand more flexible working arrangements.

62% of employees worldwide want to learn about technology from Generation Z.

39% agree that Generation Z could teach them a thing or two about work-life balance.

59% of all employers encourage their older employees to mentor the younger ones.

65% of employees think their companies should be listening to Generation Z to be truly innovative.

This information is derived from the Randstad Workmonitor Global Report, December 2014. The study was conducted online among employees aged 18–65 in 34 countries. The minimum sample size was 400 interviews per country.

H for Hacking

Inspired by Silicon Valley’s DIY culture, Vitra took a step into the unknown, asking whether users could create alongside designers. The result: a personalizable system that could change everything we take for granted about office furniture.

At the Orgatec fair last year, Vitra showcased the Hack system in an installation that highlighted its spirit of constant improvement. Developed with and designed by Konstantin Grcic, Hack can assumed several different postures, all of which were on display at the fair, as were details like the cable-management tray.

Courtesy Eduardo Perez/ ©Vitra

The birthplace of start-ups and tech giants alike, Silicon Valley has become virtually synonymous with innovation in the modern workplace. This is why designer Konstantin Grcic and Vitra’s chief design officer, Eckart Maise, toured the region in 2013 to understand how these companies operate. “What we found was the need for super-flexibility, as these companies grow extremely fast and the workplace constantly changes,” Maise says. “We also found open space as a dominating workplace concept and, as a reaction against this concept, the need and desire for visual separation.”

Other aspects of digital culture, they found, had seeped into the workplace as well: “Offices have become much more dynamic; they are undergoing constant changes—often these changes are executed by the users,” Maise says. “The office is never done; it is in a ‘constant beta version,’ constantly about to be improved.” It was this observation that led to Hack, an innovative table system designed by Grcic for Vitra.

With its raw wooden panels and unfinished aesthetic, Hack stands out amidst Grcic and Vitra’s refined oeuvre. But it is a highly deliberate form designed to provoke the question: How can the design industry create products together with its users? “When you see Hack for the first time, you might take it for a work of carpentry,” Maise says. “At second glance, you will notice many functional parts that are well engineered and designed, made from die-cast aluminum or injection molding.”

One of the key features of Hack is its ability to fold down, making it easy to change office layouts when needed. The Allstar office chair (pictured here), also designed by Grcic, was paired with the installation at Orgatec.

These functional mechanisms allow Hack to be personalized and improved upon, depending on each user’s specific needs. The main design features reflect specific trends Grcic and Maise noticed in California, such as a predilection for standing desks. The tabletop can be adjusted from sitting to standing height—from about eight inches to 49 inches—through a recessed crank. And, since the table collapses for easy storage and transportation, Hack adapts to any office scenario, from conference rooms to lounges. It can even be equipped with cushions to become a sofa.

Once the hidden design details are unpacked, it becomes apparent that Hack’s incomplete look is precisely why the system is able to address the needs of emerging companies, down to its environmentally conscious materiality. The wooden parts are locally sourced and assembled by Vitra on-site, while the manually operated mechanisms use prefabricated metal hardware. “There is a culture of the unfinished,” Maise says. “The workplace reminds people that they are still on the way to reaching their goals. At the same time, the digital world is balanced with a desire for natural or ‘honest industrial’ materials, like wood or steel.”

True to its bold name—the computer science term first coined at MIT in the 1950s—Hack is not only a translation of the contemporary work ethos and a highly responsive industrial product, it might be capable of radically subverting the larger system of office design. —Alexandra Alexa

I for Individuality

“Our motivations were always about the macro changes happening in the working world,” Brian Boyer, cofounder of Makeshift Society in San Francisco, says of the coworking space.

Courtesy Mark Wickens

Designers, artists, writers, and other independent creatives—a growing part of our information economy—seldom require more than their laptop, a work surface, and a convivial atmosphere to thrive. And while there are plenty of coworking spaces for app developers and digital entrepreneurs, San Francisco’s Makeshift Society was unique in its focus on creative types when it opened in 2013 and grew to more than 300 members. Having secured this market, the Society opened its doors in Brooklyn last year, in a former pencil factory adapted and redesigned by Dash Marshall.

“We’re now a community of about 100 creatives,” cofounder Bryan Boyer—who is also a strategic designer at Dash Marshall—noted on the occasion of the space’s first anniversary last month. “The front door is still propped open when the weather’s nice.”

Inside the Makeshift Society, you might discover a movie screening or an event celebrating typographers, but more often than not, you’ll see a bunch of people quietly snuggled into modern furniture, each of them busy on a laptop. “The challenge is, if we are all freelancers, then all our projects as a society are at the scale of individuals,” Boyer says. “What’s the infrastructure that we can build so people can cooperate without giving up their autonomy?” —Avinash Rajagopal

The first floor at the society has a custom communal table, with Bell lamps by Normann Copenhagen. “Those lamps are the most commented-upon element in the space,” Boyer says. This summer, sunlight began to flood the space, prompting requests for blinds.

J for Job Satisfaction

Last year, studio O+A designed the san Francisco office of Livefyre Studio, a company that helps media clients aggregate and curate online content. The space reflects Livefyre’s ethos in its thoughtful details, from the original mural by local artist Erik Otto, to the stitches on the upholstery from Camira Fabrics.

Courtesy Livefyre

“Now more than ever employees are not just seeking a job, but something that they can support wholeheartedly, and that in turn supports them. So, when we design a space, the interior has to reflect the underlying narrative, from layout to FF&E (furniture, fixtures, and equipment). It has to be about the culture and community being fostered in the environment. This is why the workplace has become so important to recruitment and retention—because it mirrors the company’s soul.”—Primo Orpilla, Studio O+A

K for Keeping It Real

Authenticity might be the Holy Grail for offices of the future. Shih Hua Liong, director of workplace strategies at IA Interior Architects, explains why.

An example of the merging of one’s workstyle and lifestyle, and the shift towards a more authentic workplace experience

Courtesy Shih Hua Liong

The world of work has dramatically changed over the last decade. We have a new generation in the workforce, composed of not just knowledge workers but also digital natives. There is also a new group of companies that are disrupting how we work and interface with technology. The spheres of work and life are realigning—not just in space typologies (cafés as workplaces, for example), but also in terms of health and well-being.

People are looking for authentic experiences. Just as they make choices in where they live, what they eat, and where they shop, they are also evaluating the places they work in. The design and experience of a workplace plays a large part in that. Employees no longer just come to the office and complete the tasks at hand. They want their work to feel like a natural part of their lifestyle, their interests, and their life goals. That is the essence of an authentic workplace.

In his book Work Rules!, Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, talks about making work meaningful and people happy, because we spend more time working than doing anything else in life! I’ve had the opportunity to work with Google over the past several years, not just in planning their workplaces, but also in working with people within the organization. The level of intellectual engagement and collaboration is quite amazing, and that’s a kind of authenticity intrinsic to who they are as a company and culture. To match this, in their offices you’ll see all the elements of choice, freedom, and places to do your best work—planned and unplanned, apparent and ad-hoc.

Workplaces today must support all work styles and lifestyles.
Another marker of this new era is the success of coworking spaces. The authenticity barometer is high in these places. They are open-source offices, with a sense of community at their core. There is less hiding behind the work, and more sharing of ideas, learning from one another—without barriers. Many of our workplaces are migrating toward elements of what we see today in coworking culture.

The vital characteristic of an authentic workplace is a combination of space typologies. At the leading tech companies that IA Interior Architects works with, we are seeing a redistribution of space for different environments, experiences, and even postures. In the design for LinkedIn’s New York office, for instance, we found we had to add in open-lounge seating for a more casual meeting experience. The variety of elements we have incorporated in other projects is mindboggling—spaces to perch or huddle, rooms for a quick touch-down, booths to duck into for one-on-one conversations, sun-drenched seating areas for coffee, comfortable quiet zones, or amenities such as respite lounges, treadmills, walk stations, fitness/yoga rooms, and bike areas.

Employees want their work to feel like a natural part of their lifestyle, their interests, and their life goals.
The reason for this variety is that workplaces today must support all work styles and lifestyles, coupled with a sense of “I have a choice in how, when, and where I do my best work.” Other things that this diversity promotes are a sense of community and collaboration, a spark for imagination and creativity, as well as a deliberate focus on employee health and happiness.

In the future, maybe our offices will be smarter—they can learn and recommend the type of environments we need based on our individual states of mind, need for the day, or task at hand. Our workplaces will become more rewarding, incorporating the softer aspects of comfort and happiness, while supporting personal productivity.

L for Living Office

How to deal with the growing pains of a rapidly expanding business and still keep all the employees happy? A unique collaboration between the start-up Harry’s and Herman Miller is both an evolving workplace and an ongoing research project.

At the turn of the millennium, Office Space became a cult classic film for its depiction of widespread antipathy toward standardized work spaces. Satirizing the operations— and spatial organization—of a tech company, the film shows banal office interiors as a catalyst for employee unhappiness. “Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day,” complains one protagonist. “We’re gonna need to go ahead and move you downstairs into Storage B,” a company vice-president, the film’s villain, tells a subordinate. “We have some new people coming in, and we need all the space we can get.”

Harry’s, a shaving products company that does business online, is proof of how things have changed. The young start-up is implementing Herman Miller’s Living Office approach—a three-phase plan that contains myriad flexible work spaces and also accounts for the business’s rapid growth. “We’re going to expand the company dramatically over the next few years, both from the revenue perspective and also on a people basis,” explains COO Will Freund. After outgrowing four spaces in just over two years, the company recently moved into a 26,000-square-foot office in downtown Manhattan. The space will need to house twice its current staff of 80 by late 2016.

This is the sort of challenge that the Living Office was developed for. Though Herman Miller has long been a supplier of office furniture, Living Office was developed during the last five years to provide clients with comprehensive spatial solutions, not just desks and chairs. “It’s a process that informs how we put the products in your space,” explains James Cesario, a member of the growing team of Living Office specialists at Herman Miller. “It’s a way to do placemaking,” he adds, “to help companies make their office a vital tool.”

A Danskina rug and an Eames Walnut stool lend a cozy air to an area screened by Yves Béhar’s Public Office Landscape furniture (above). “We do a lot of one-on-one chats that we don’t need a conference room for,” says Scott Newlin, head of product design at Harry’s, so Béhar’s Social chairs come in handy.

In-house experts like Cesario engage with clients by using visual aids and terminology, tools created by a research team at Herman Miller to address a client’s present needs while planning for future expansion. Cesario explains that Living Office specialists ask a variety of questions to help clients “identify their company character, how they want to change that, and how that character is going to impact the way their space will get designed.” This “discovery process” uses a taxonomic breakdown of ten basic modes of work (including chat, contemplate, and create); ten various workplace settings (such as haven, clubhouse, and forum); and six key sources of motivation (security, autonomy, and belonging, for example) to begin synthesizing employees’ responses. Character traits are plotted onto a four-part chart, which is then plugged into a formula to generate an initial, abstract floor plan that shows how high-priority traits can be supported in the space. That floor plan is translated into an architectural document and specified with Herman Miller products to facilitate the kind of work employees will perform in a given area. The resulting office designs are “very specific to each organization,” says Cesario.

People keep personal belongings in these felt restore baskets, made by Muuto and available through DWR. Design moves of this kind came out of the rigorous Living Office process. Specialists used questionnaires and visual aids to help Harry’s transition out of its Union Square space. “We had gone from twelve people (who were already pretty cramped) to something like thirty,” Newlin says.

Herman Miller has been collecting quantitative and qualitative data about Harry’s since early autumn of last year, speaking with at least half the company’s employees during discovery meetings. When Harry’s moved into its Living Office System just before the winter holidays, the company had an interior fine-tuned to its employee preferences and managerial style. An executives’ table stands near the office entrance, to emphasize that anyone can approach the company heads. “We wanted to foster openness,” explains head of product design Scott Newlin, who led the office design process from the Harry’s side.

The graphic designers have their own area, with a Locale furniture system designed by Sam Hecht and Kim Colin. The adjustable desks provide standing-height surfaces to display and discuss work. “This group does a fair amount of ‘Come over and check this thing out,’” Newlin says. “They’ll often pull the desks up and just have the whole crew come by.”

“Casual conversations are really helpful in our business,” he adds, and indeed, a survey of the office reveals several two- and three-person groups, huddled over laptops in problem-solving formation. Some sit at banquette-style tables facing one another, others sit on couches, others yet at tables—it’s impossible to ignore the sheer variety of activities occurring simultaneously within the space. Small and mid-size conference rooms are at the center of the office and separate two “halves” of the space: designers and engineers on one side and administrative and marketing teams on the other. Herman Miller worked with Harry’s staff to customize colors on worktables from the Public line of office furniture, and created custom-size editions of the Locale tables. Both systems support individual and group work, giving Harry’s an essential: flexibility.

Even now that move-in is finished, the process is far from complete. Phase II will involve rearranging and adding furniture to create additional seating for new employees. The HVAC system will be moved to the roof for phase III, and an in-office photo studio, among other amenities, will be built out in its place.

Though Herman Miller keeps ties with all Living Office clients after completion, Harry’s is one of very few that has become what the furniture company calls a “place lab.” Part of a research effort that runs for at least a year after phase I is completed, place labs work closely with Herman Miller’s team to study post-occupancy usage. “We’re going to continue the research as we expand, because that’s leading to better space utilization,” explains Newlin. He adds on an essential phrase, underscoring how both the goals and environments of company life have changed in the last two decades: “And to higher employee satisfaction.” —Anna Kats

M for Modularity

USM, a pioneer of modular furniture, takes on one of the sacred cows of office design with a provocative project.

Allan Wexler and the Parsons team displayed the power of modularity in language, which is constructed from single ideas coming together. The outside of this reading room makes each book a module—the building block for a library. On the inside, the book is broken down into the ideas it contains.

Courtesy USM Modular

The kit-of-parts concept has always been essential to the modern office: Through the assembly and reassembly of individual components, creators can strike a balance between frameworks and flexibility, the stable and the ephemeral.

Five decades after Fritz Haller and Paul Schärer created the Haller system for USM, an icon of modular design, the furniture company explored the concept with fresh eyes with its Project50 initiative. Students and alumni from seven design and architecture schools around the world were invited to the Domaine de Boisbuchet in France to participate in an intensive master class and exhibition called Rethink the Modular. The schools formed teams around seven internationally renowned architects and designers, exploring modularity in critical and experimental ways at every scale.

In one of the projects, Wolf Mangelsdorf and the team from the Architectural Association School of Architecture, London, worked toward developing a tool that enables architects to harness modularity in large-scale constructions. In another, Lorenzo Bini and students from the Politecnico di Milano turned to plants and nature for inspiration, while Allan Wexler took students and graduates from New York’s Parsons the New School for Design through the concept of books as modular objects.

Rethink the Modular formed part of an exhibition at the 2015 Milan Furniture Fair, curated by Tido von Oppeln and Burkhard Meltzer, and will be published in an anthology along with interviews and accounts of the project. —Estefanía Acosta de la Peña

N for Nature

Photography by Cait Oppermann

In the 1980s, office workers worldwide were reporting headaches, nausea, and fatigue while in the workplace, but the symptoms disappeared once they left the building. The cause of the complaints was linked to poor indoor-air quality from toxins in the office environment. In 1989, NASA famously tested the ability of houseplants to mitigate indoor pollutants. Some of the most efficient air cleaners it identified are also easy to take care of, which is lucky for us—recent studies continue to show that workers in offices with plants are happier in their jobs. —Christina Kelly, author of A Field Guide to Office Plants

O for Observation

The study makes sit-to-stand desks like Teknion’s Livello Counterbalance workstation-table all the more relevant. The desk allows for an easy switch between sedentary and standing positions, in line with Dr. Callaghan’s recommendations for frequent changes in position.

Courtesy Teknion

Officegoers today may agree that sitting for eight hours in an average workday is unhealthy, but so far few of the alternatives have been backed by hard facts. People are turning to standing and height-adjustable desks, but Teknion, a leading office furniture manufacturer, saw gaps in the information about the effects of these workstations. “Everybody knows that moving around and standing up is a good thing—just like exercising and eating the right things,” says Dannion Smith, director of ergonomic initiatives at Teknion. “But how should I do it? And how does it benefit me?”

Recently, Teknion funded a formal study to put workstations to the test. A team led by Dr. Jack Callaghan from the University of Waterloo in Canada compared discomfort and performance among sedentary, standing, and adjustable or sit-to-stand desks. The longitudinal study observed as people performed tasks—the workers were wired to infrared light-emitting diodes (IREDs) and electrodes, which allowed the team to correlate postures and movements to individual reports of pain. Over time, they confirmed anecdotal accounts that favored adjustable workstations.

But the more surprising find was that in an ideal scenario, people should spend three-quarters of their day standing, not sitting—that’s six hours out of an eight-hour workday. Before Dr. Callaghan’s results, the most common recommendations cited an inverse ratio—a largely sedentary day.

Sharing such information is as important as the desk itself. “Training made a huge difference in how people acknowledged the benefits of adjustability—and that’s half the battle,” Smith says. Some of this training could be delegated to a digital platform connected to the table—Teknion is unveiling such an app at NeoCon this year. The aim is to customize technology to meet needs across ages, experience, and capabilities. “Workstations need to become a little bit more personal,” Smith says. “Knowledge about your body gives you the power to control these things. To make people feel better, help them do their work better—that’s the dream of any ergonomist.” —Estefanía Acosta de la Peña

P for Pattern Language

Even though Phillip Low is based in New York, Michael McGinn first discovered his work on the website of an Australian art gallery. “I think my sculptures (or rather photographs of them) transfer well to textiles because essentially my work deals with light and color,” Low says.

Courtesy Dean Kaufman

Updating an icon is an intrepid process—how do you take something revered, beloved, and repeatedly referenced and give it a modern touch without removing its soul? For Susan Lyons, president of Designtex, it was a welcome challenge. When Coalesse and Carl Hansen & Søn approached her with a vision to develop a line of textiles that would adorn Hans Wegner’s iconic Wing chair, she turned to Michael McGinn of Brooklyn-based design consultancy Standard Issue for assistance. McGinn and his team proposed leveraging Designtex’s surface-imaging capabilities to develop a custom pattern that could be used on both upholstery and wallcoverings. But to do so, they would first need to find a pattern with imagery that respected the forms and size of the chair and could simultaneously function across wide swathes of wall in an interior space. The answer lay in the polychromatic, crystalline Lucite sculptures of artist Phillip Low.

“The interesting thing about Phillip’s work is that a single piece can feel entirely different from various vantage points,” says McGinn. “We loved the combination of intense saturated color and subtle gradients. And they became even more apparent after a photography session on our studio’s rooftop, in the middle of a cold, bright winter morning.” The team generated an entire library of images from six of Low’s sculptures, photographing each one from multiple angles to reveal the interplay of colors, textures, reflections, and refractions. “Phillip’s work is beautifully complex,” adds Lyons. “The shape and finishing of each sculpture defines the way the color and form is experienced. I love that the pieces are solid and ethereal at the same time.”

Once Standard Issue had sufficiently experimented with size, shape, and color, the resulting patterns were proofed and digitally printed. “The delicate translucency of the sculptures presented a challenge to our Portland printing facility,” says Lyons. “But our shop is run by artists, so there is always a profound dedication to capturing the intent of an artist’s work, and this was definitely the case in translating Phillip’s sculptures. The printed work exhibits extraordinary dimension and an uncanny fidelity to the color in each sculpture.” The completed textiles were then shipped to Denmark, where Carl Hansen & Søn’s master upholsterers took over, dealing with the complex task of wrapping the images around curves and corners. Finally, having passed through countless sets of hands from idea to fruition, the finished custom chairs will be exhibited at this year’s NeoCon fair. For Lyons, facilitating the collaboration between multiple creative parties was a pleasure. “We love to work this way,” she says. “Each person brings something to the conversation—it’s a creative ecosystem.” —Mikki Brammer

Low crafts his sculptures from colored acrylic sheets, which are then laminated onto acrylic blocks and milled into shape. To create different light effects with the colors, some sides are polished while others are left rough.

One of the challenges of the design process was to ensure the pattern would still function well when applied to the curved surfaces of the Wing chair.

Q for Quiet

Open-plan offices are great—until hearing a coworker on the phone sets your teeth on edge. Designers have been hard at work addressing this common complaint. From Plyboo panels made from bamboo to cocooning furniture like Arik Levy’s Platform— with the right mix of products, an office can be both peaceful and beautiful.


Woodworks Grille

Parentesit Wall Module by Lievore Altherr Molina

De Vorm
Living Pet Acoustic Animals by Lorenzo Palmeri

BuzziBox Wedge Wall Panels

 Frame Furniture by Ola Giertz

J+J Flooring Group
Umbra Stripe Flooring

Connection Zone Privacy Booth

Hush Lamp for IQ Commercial

Impressions Panels

R for Risk

What can we all learn from high-risk, high-pressure workplaces? Jeremy Myerson and Imogen Privett explain a portion of their groundbreaking study and share some insights.

Life of Work: What Office Design Can Learn From the World Around Us (Black Dog Publishing, 2015) was produced in partnership with Haworth and Philips Lighting. In their examination of extreme workplaces, the researchers first turned to air-traffic control rooms, such as this one at East Midlands Airport in the U.K.

Courtesy Imogen Privett

The popularity of teams has tended to outstrip our knowledge about them. Outside of health care and air-traffic control, detailed studies in organizational settings are still rare and multi-teamworking has been almost entirely neglected. The research that does exist reflects intense disagreements about what constitutes a team. This challenge is mirrored within organizations— we cannot just label a group of people a team because the title sounds motivating and productive, and then expect to see results.

Our case studies were chosen as examples of high-performance teams that could function successfully only by developing effective communication and teamwork processes. Air-traffic controllers were our first port of call. Analysis of air-traffic incidents found that failures in teamwork were a contributing factor—the U.S.-based National Transportation Safety Board found that 73 percent of incidents in its database occurred on a crew’s first day of flying together, before people had been given the chance to learn through experience how best to operate as a team.

Teamwork is also hugely important in hospitals, where there are typically multiple care disciplines involved in looking after any one patient. Our third “extreme team” came from the television newsroom, where we shadowed a daily news team. We chose this environment for the absolute reliance on communication and information transfer, with groups of people working in very different disciplines having to respond effectively to constantly changing inputs.

Although each extreme team was very different, we found common themes in all three areas, especially in terms of the physical environment.

Having access to all the necessary resources within their immediate workspace—whether tools, services, or information—was crucial. Everything needed to be accessible and easy to find. Each setting was tailored to specific needs, with systems and tools provided as appropriate. This included rest or breakout spaces where they could regroup and refresh after busy periods.

The relationships between the spaces were just as important as having the resources available. Related settings and services needed to have a strong physical link; overly long distances between frequently accessed spaces had a significant negative impact on the ability of medical teams to work efficiently.

With the potential for situations to change at a moment’s notice, all three teams needed to be able to sit down and just get on with the job, with no distractions from the task at hand. Being able to dock down quickly was also important, with quick, straightforward log-ins and clearly structured information handovers.

S for Smart Office

Connected office products need a course correction. It’s about collaboration, not personal needs, says Randy Howder, who leads Gensler’s technology practice area.

Courtesy NBC

It should be news to no one that our smartphones have changed how we spend time, relate to one another, and occupy physical space. Yet the vast majority of our workplaces remain outfitted for an older era. Conference phones at the centers of tables and desk phones in the corners of cubicles dominate the spaces we inhabit, living an uneasy parallel existence with the smartphones we cling to as we shuffle from meeting to meeting.

Even in bring-your-own-device offices, the dominant trends in workplace thinking endorse collaborative environments as the key to improving how organizations perform. Yet most recent developments in workplace technology have tended to focus on boosting individual effectiveness and mitigating the perceived deficiencies of the open-plan workplace.

Personal temperature control, height-adjustable desks, and a profusion of AV-equipped activity-based spaces are being deployed to increase the quality of individual focus. But despite digital way-finding devices, interactive room-reservation tablets, and videoconference units, our collaborative spaces are, at their core, just more numerous and distributed versions of the same conference rooms we had in the 1980s.

This is because most app development today focuses on devices that learn personal patterns of behavior, like your connected thermostat or fitness band. These innovations could have important workplace applications, but Gensler’s recent research with a large technology company shows that a focus on incremental improvements to individual work is perhaps misguided. Instead, increasing the quality and discipline around collaboration is more likely to pay huge dividends in transforming the way we work.

Much of the frustration and many problems that people experience in today’s workplaces, open-plan or not, happen through undisciplined interactions.
A lot of what constitutes individual work involves some degree of collaboration, with interspersed moments of problem-solving and communication with colleagues. Workers across vastly different industries indicate that only about 10 percent of their time is spent doing uninterruptible work. Forty-nine percent is spent doing work that could be and is interrupted by coworkers and others. The other 41 percent of time is spent collaborating, either spontaneously or in formal meetings. People often combine or toggle between focused and collaborative modes throughout the course of a typical workday.

So isn’t it time that we harness connected new technologies to make our meetings, and the spaces in which we conduct them, better? Perhaps our smartphones can help eliminate the universally unproductive 10-minute AV setup phase by getting participants ready to go before the meeting even starts. Or users’ devices could automatically reserve a space, set up the technology, connect remote participants, and ensure a timely wrap-up.

Much of the frustration and many problems that people experience in today’s workplaces, open-plan or not, happen through undisciplined interactions. As the holographic “Gryzzl pad” from the final season of the television show Parks and Recreation illustrated, seamless digital paper connected to a personal device will someday eliminate obsolescent AV infrastructure and its associated panoply of dongles and adapters. Every surface in meeting rooms could become interactive and collaborative. And—as our research indicates—shorter, better, and more connected collaboration might make people more willing to put up with the occasional overheard conversation or interruption from a coworker.

T for Teamwork

A well-made table, like Datesweiser’s latest release, or group seating, such as Global’s River system, is invaluable for teamwork. But easy access to technology is essential too—which is why Herman Miller’s historic Chadwick seating now carries power.

Infinium Collection 

CER Cloud Edition

Highline Executive Mobile Table

Doug Mockett
PCS74 Hemisphere Power Grommet

River System

Cantilever Paper Table

Particles Seating


Workware Wireless Pro

Herman Miller
Chadwick Modular Seating


U for Unobtrusive

There was a time when modernizing a workplace meant incorporating as much vibrant color and pattern as possible to create a “fun” environment. But just as audio noise can prove distracting, so too can visual chaos.

To create a more calming environment, David and Cindi Oakey, the design team behind Interface’s new flooring designs, looked to the neutral palette of nature—and the notion of biophilia. “Color has the greatest influence on human behavior, and we have an innate desire to connect with nature,” says David. “We researched the terrain of coastal Northern California using colors of prairie grass, driftwood, and stone.”

Emulating wood-grain textures, the Near & Far carpet-tile collection (above) comes in eight neutral colorways. The Equal Measure collection—which launches alongside Near & Far at NeoCon—explores the intersection of the man-made and the natural in well-worn cobblestones. “Both collections address the question: How would nature design a floor?” Cindi says. “In nature, there is no sameness. These collections are dimensional, and they undulate from soft to firm underfoot.” As with all of Interface’s products, Near & Far and Equal Measure are made using 100 percent recycled nylon. Both collections can also be recycled at the end of their life cycles via Interface’s ReEntry program. —Mikki Brammer

V for Video

Virtual communication is a requisite part of workplaces in 2015, but for start-ups with employees scattered across cities—or countries—costly videoconferencing software isn’t always a realistic investment.

Tapping into the “plug-and-play” ease of innovations such as Apple TV, Highfive’s gentle price tag (at less than $800 per room) and aesthetic appeal have made its videoconferencing system a hit among young firms such as Harry’s. The technology eschews complicated cables, dongles, PIN codes, and software, functioning instead via a slim device that uses wireless projection to allow seamless video communication across any gadget with a screen via cloud-based service.

Once the device is connected to a flat-screen TV in a conference room, remote users can join the conversation via a smartphone app or e-mail link, while those in the room can take a call on their phone and then stream the video directly to the screen. The app also serves as a remote control for the content on the screen.

As long as there’s an Internet connection handy, everyone can join the conversation from wherever their “office” might be that day, whether it’s a café, a beach, or their bed. —Mikki Brammer

W for Wisdom

Charles and Ray Eames were master communicators. An anthology of their articles, film scripts, interviews, letters, notes, and speeches spanning four decades offers invaluable advice on how to work, Eames Office style.

All quotes taken from An Eames Anthology, Yale University Press, 2015

On the Psychology of Objects

There is also a psychological function present in the object, but we as yet do not know much about this. In any case an object should never betray its user. A chair that radiates an ostentatious cheerfulness and gaiety could let you down when you are depressed. This I call a betrayal.
Quoted in “‘Eames’: An Interview,” Algemeen Handelsblad, 1969

On Useless Things

One of the things that seems to be common among those who tend to not be miserable is the ability to have concern (for), get pleasure from, and respect objects, people, and things that are of no immediate value to them. Respect for the thing that isn’t going to pay off tomorrow. Because tomorrow’s problems are going to be different, and the things that come to your rescue are often the things you learn to respect when you had no idea they were going to be of value.
Quoted in Anthony G. Bowman’s article “The Designer as Renaissance Man,” Ameryka, October 19, 1971

On Disorganized Information

Ours is a world so threaded with high-frequency interdependence that it acts as one great nervous system. It requires all the feedback controls man has devised to keep from oscillating itself out of existence. Examples of apparent information vary in complexity and degree. The telephone is a highly personal disorganized complexity. The controls that link airplane traffic and relate operations to weather are only practical to the degree that they are current and disorganized. In the operation of a processing plant or controls for a rocket, information in the form of signals must come in microseconds in order to be current. In communication even with a computer, the speed of light becomes too slow if the light is a bit too low. In problems of inventory and logistics, information can be slower but must remain current. A high percentage of the information possessed in our society would be meaningless if it were not current.
Royal Institute of British Architects 1959 Annual Discourse

A still shot of the house’s kitchen sink from the film House: After 5 Years of Living.

On Clients

When we’re considering a new project, the first question is: Is there a real, workable overlap between the client’s interests, our own interests, and our view of the interests of the community at large? If there is, then it’s in this area of overlapping interest that we can work comfortably. you can get into as much trouble by not thinking in advance about the client’s interests as you can by not thinking enough about your own.
Frank Nelson Doubleday Lecture, Smithsonian Institution, May 1977

On Winning Competitions

It’s really Eero’s trick, but I’m going to break a rule and reveal it. This is the trick, I give it to you, you can use it. We looked at the program and divided it into the essential elements, which turned out to be about 30 odd. And we proceeded methodically to make a hundred studies of each element. At the end we tried to get the solution for that element that suited the thing best, and then set that up as a standard below which we would not fall in the final scheme. Then we proceeded to break down all logical combinations of these elements, and we made one hundred studies of all combinations of these elements, trying to not erode the quality that we had gained in the best of the hundred single elements; and then we took those elements and began to search for the logical combinations of the combinations, and several of such stages before we even began to consider a plan. And at that point, when we felt we’d gone far enough to consider a plan, worked out study after study and on into the other aspects of the detail and the presentation.

It went on, it was sort of a brutal thing. It was a two-stage competition and sure enough we were in the second stage. Now you have to start; what do you do? We reorganized all elements, but this time, with a little bit more experience, chose the elements in a different way (still had about 26, 28, or 30) and proceeded; we made 100 studies of every element; we took every logical group of elements and studied those together in a way that would not fall below the standard that we had set. And went right on down the procedure. Before the second competition drawings went in, we really wept, it looked so idiotically simple that we thought we’d sort of blown the whole bit. And won the competition. This is the secret, and you can apply it.
Quoted in Ralph B. Caplan’s book By Design (Fairchild, 2005).

The Aluminum Solar Energy toy, designed for the Alcoa Collection

On Playfulness

There is a certain relationship between playfulness and art, and there is a relation between playfulness and science, too. When we go from one extreme to another, play or playthings can form a transition or sort of decompression chamber—you need it to change intellectual levels without getting a stomachache.
Quoted in James B. O’ Connell’s article “A visit with Charles Eames,” in Think 27, April 1961.

On Genius

The genius baloney is just a lot of work. An incredible amount of things go wrong all the way.
Quoted in Charles Davenport’s article “Chairs, Fairs, and Films,” Los Angeles, January 1962.

X for Xtra Large

Google’s proposed new headquarters is less a giant campus and more a new neighborhood. BIG’s Kai-Uwe Bergmann comments on the collection of lightweight structures.

Courtesy Google

Silicon Valley has been an engine of innovation driving technological evolution and global economy. so far the majority of these vast intellectual and economical resources have been confined to the digital realm—Google North Bayshore expands this innovative spirit into the physical realm.

Together with Heatherwick Studio and Google, we have set out to imagine the work environments of future Googlers to be as adaptable, flexible, and intelligent as the rest of Google’s wide-spanning portfolio. Larry Page and Google have been among the most demanding and exciting clients we have collaborated with. Rather than an insular corporate headquarters, Google North Bayshore will be a vibrant new neighborhood of Mountain View.

Y for Yesterday’s Offices

Andreas Gehrke’s photographs of vacant German office campuses are documented in three recent publications from Drittel Books. This one is from IBM Campus, 1972–2009, Stuttgart-Vaihingen.

Photography by Andreas Gehrke

Light filters through slatted blinds, half-open doors afford glimpses of adjoining spaces, bright corridors and clean-lined interiors offer an air of somber concentration. Silent and empty but for a few unwanted items left behind in the move, these once bustling spaces now wait forlornly for new occupants.

With his series on vacated headquarters, Berlin-based photographer Andreas Gehrke takes a dispassionate look at dormant business premises, including a tower block built for Hamburg news magazine Der Spiegel (1963–1969, by architect Werner Kallmorgen), the old IBM Germany offices in Stuttgart-Vaihingen (1967–1972, Egon Eiermann), and the HQ of now-defunct mail-order firm Quelle in Nuremberg (1955–1967, Ernst Neufert). Formerly home to firms that helped shape the economic, cultural, and political landscape of postwar Germany, the buildings are also notable examples of German Modernist architecture. —Christine Dissman

From the volume Der Spiegel, 1963–2011, Brandstwiete, Hamburg (Drittel Books, 2014), these images show the former canteen famously designed by Verner Panton with colorful wall panels (above) and a swimming pool (below).

Quelle Versand, 1956– 2009, Nürnberg (Drittel Books, 2014) shows the exterior (above) and interior (below) of Germany’s biggest mail-order catalog company and one of the largest department store chains. Bauhaus alumnus Ernst Neufert designed the building.

Z for Zzzz’s

Very few people get their recommended eight hours of sleep every night, so the final strategy to boost productivity might be to let people take naps. The likes of google and Nike can afford to have designated nap rooms; for the rest of us, the Ostrich Pillow Mini might be just the right size for some desktop snoozing.

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