Office furniture and office design has always been one of the core issues of design research and development. The way we conceive spaces to foster collaboration, the manner which we conceive and develop internal communication tools to enhance communications and – especially – the solutions we find to face ergonomic issues, are all challenges that, once solved, can truly enhance work life and outputs.
Now everything has changed and most likely the Home Work phenomenon – please not call it Smart Working which is something else – will be there to stay. We have seen here what it means for offices (read here). But what does it mean for homes? We asked Jay Osgerby of Barber Osgerby,, the British duo who has worked – amongst other things – on many office solutions for Vitra. Their work vision has always been very clear and was summarized when they designed Soft Work for Vitra, a seating system that functioned as a relaxation as well as a work station unit. “Work is a place where people come together”, they used to say…
This is a very nice statement. Unfortunately, for the moment, and in many places and cases, work cannot be a place where we come together…
True. And things function anyway. We have found out that we actually do not need to be physically together to make things function and, depending on the profession, it can be a blessing or a tragedy. Yet it’s a fact that in order to keep going – I do not mean just surviving but innovating and moving forward – we need collaboration and creative energy: which thrive with warmth, human sharing and, hopefully, presence.
Why do you think we managed to adapt so quickly to the home work situation?
Because although it was suddenly imposed on most people, a huge amount of professionals world-wide were already experiencing in one way of another. Home have been turning into work places for more than a decade. Before 2008, the world was still in love with open plan offices: the utmost of innovation was embodied in joint tables, large surfaces that could host people gathered together in a (hopefully) convivial atmosphere. The reference point – often openly quoted as such – was the kitchen table as a symbol of sharing and experiences with others. Yet, as it often happens, societal changes occur when the economy shifts. And the big crisis forced a lot of people to freelance and re-invent themselves. And it was suddenly clear that in order to perform, all you need is the freedom to move around with a smart device rather than a fixed desk. This, in turn started changing the way we design offices which started to look increasingly like homes. But it has started to change our homes. The big difference between back then and now is that what used to be a choice or a fluid solution in a nomadic week has now turned into an obligation and with a very unclear time frame.
If the home becomes the place where we work, what does that mean for furniture?
The biggest design challenges when it comes to home work are related to ergonomics. You cannot sit for 8 hours on a kitchen chair: sooner or later something bad will happen to your body. Design should focus on providing new archetypes for the societal changes we are experiencing. Understand how people are and behave in this new situation. We are still extremely proud of what we did with Tip Ton, the Vitra chair (read here) that accommodates spontaneous body movements with no mechanism, just by design. It is a very ergonomic solution with a very homely feel.
I assume you say this because thinking of a home that looks like an office is not a great idea…
I think that both offices and houses will change now. The former will most probably turn into a neutral space where people gather together to solve issues, to do team work practices and exercises. This shift was already happening in most advanced companies and the pandemic has merely accelerated this trend (which is what Smart Working actually is). It is far more difficult to understand how homes will change. They will certainly not look like what offices used to be. My advice would be to convert some spaces in a rational way in order to avoid the ‘work is everywhere’ feeling. In a home where you work you need design but also technology solutions because the real problems are ergonomics, privacy and sounds. If you can create silence with a speaker and an earphone, we are no far away from creating physical space without physical elements.
So how do you think homes could look and function?
My gut feeling is that we have to move away from a ‘less is more’ approach. Because this worked when home was just a transition space where to find calmness and silence from the chaotic flux of information and stimuli. But now home now is a place to conserve memories and build ties. It has to contain the whole world, all the places that are far away and maybe we will not be able to reach again for a long time. I think this a really a good time to start to collect, to give sense to objects. We have to create a world within our four walls, a place for joy and colour, filled with things that intrigue us. It’s not styling but a vital element in sticking to who we are. We need to remember how the world is, to keep signs of what’s out there even inside a little space so that we can reconnect with a more joyous part of it. There is life out these, not just a pandemic.
The home you describe sounds like a real home. Could this be a good outcome of the pandemic?
I feel we live in a moment that is very close to what our grand-parents experienced in the aftermath of the war. There is a lot of pain, suffering, discomfort, we are crying our dead but also bracing for the future. This is a moment in which we can re-invent society and also re-invent design. We all have a focus on building a sense of community, a common experience, new ways of connecting with each other not only practically (in order to work) but mentally and emotionally. Design should inspire optimism and support us in this massive change ahead.
Elisa Massoni collaborated.
Cover photo: portraits of Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby. Vertical photo by Dan Wilton.