Photos by Robert Fischer
Text by Oliver Herwig
It’s no coincidence that the successful AMC series, Mad Men, played against a background of golf-ball typewriters, mimeographs, telex machines and mountains of paper. The good old working world of the past has become so distant these days that it is being repurposed as the background to a nostalgic TV programme. In those days the desk was still a status symbol, with its drawers, compartments and dividers; the demarcation line between the boss and his team. Today’s desk, by contrast, is the portal into the digital world. Konstantin Grcic has constructed a rugged toolbox which can be opened up and packed away again in an instant. Hack is a disconcerting collage, all plywood and hinges. As Grcic says of his construction, the piece should have something of the unfinished about it, a view that enshrines the new spirit of Vitra in a similar vein to the Pacific Chair invented by British design duo Barber & Osgerby: the rationale is not to know all there is to know, or to fill the office from wall to wall, but to ask searching questions and be open to responses from many users with a variety of different needs.
We are in a vast hall filled with products in Weil am Rhein, the location which Vitra has made a place of pilgrimage for architecture aficionados. Since the development studio is out of bounds, Eckart Maise, Vitra’s Chief Design Officer and Raphael Gielgen, Head Research & Trend Scouting, are sitting on a sofa in the alcove. They could be described as the firm’s natural polar opposites. Maise, formally dressed, makes use of precise himself in precise terms, as if aligning parts of an algorithm in logical order, while Gielgen flings images into the air like confetti. He serves as the company’s radar for the outside world. Last year alone, the spry Rhinelander travelled to 20 countries and held countless interviews on the lookout for the movers and shakers of our time.
Yet Maise and Gielgen are in agreement. They call it hybridisation: the fusion of the worlds of work and living, where forms combine and blur and nothing is totally clear. Gielgen grins, “Is it an office, a hotel, a public space or, perhaps, even almost a home?” These amorphous worlds demand more: more research, more vision, greater risk. What is at stake here is nothing short of a new philosophy of work. Furniture that takes its lead from the user, not the other way round. And everything is in flux. Economics graduate Maise says, “Twenty years ago, it would have been inconceivable for a sofa to be a workplace. Today, it’s natural. But not for napping, of course for working.” No, Maise doesn’t take a siesta. As he says, “that hasn’t established itself in the office yet”, but is something they are “constantly coming back to, thinking up concepts and making offers”. Vitra, whose campus now has a 4.9 point rating on the Google scale of places of interest, is on the lookout. On the lookout for the next step. And that might be radical. Why not get rid of the desk altogether? Office environments are changing faster than throughout the whole of the preceding 2,000 years. Gielgen explains, “Our ideas are power fully shaped by private life. Worlds of work are coming under heavy pressure in terms of the way they are designed. In the past, our focus was on functions and processes, whereas tomorrow we will be concentrating on qualities and relationships. The workplace will become a place of experience.” But haven’t Californian software developers already created a working environment which is a cross between a nursery, a four-star hotel and Club Med? The Lala Library in Google’s quirky London Office, with its giant semi-circular sofa adorned with piles of coloured cushions, could easily pass as a lounge. The message is unequivocal: nine-to-five work should be fun, and the working environment has to play its part. Vitra’s trend scout has taken on board a “search for the analogue” and, in connection with this, “the question of what will be left of the things we use today”. His vision is of architecture which is flexible enough to withstand the changes.