0845 094 1255

The design of office furniture tells us everything about the way we work

Posted on May 19, 2016 by Paul Goodchild

Awaiting Image

d8650284d9c82a2e7b30c00744a9335c‘Our furniture,’ wrote J G Ballard, ‘constitutes an external constellation of our skin areas and body postures’. Of all the things we buy, except our clothes, furniture is the most intimate, the one we spend most time in contact with. In the case of office furniture, it is also the ‘external constellation’ of the organisation’s culture and a reflection of its self-image. So the design of office furniture and the shape of the market matters because of what it tells us about how we work, how organisations functions and even what is happening in the economy. If you want to know what’s going on in the world of work, ask an office furniture designer. The office furniture scene can even tell you something about the economy because it something of a feelgood purchase and firms can always wait because most of the stuff they buy is good to work with for years. They can always live with the things they’ve got. Organisations also tend to see expenditure on items such as furniture as part of the capital budget, so it’s easy to not spend. If they view it as part of revenue expenditure then you would see a change in the way they procure it, and would also see a change in the way the business world sees workplace design.

Some of those changes have already happened, driven by changes in the way we work and the resurgence in the economy. Three types of firms appear to have done particularly well; high-end ergonomic seating designers, designers of bench systems and those marketing accessories such as monitor arms and acoustic panels.

The market for high performance task seating has continued to flourish in the sector carved out for it by the Aeron chair in the mid 1990s. But what has really taken off is the market for seating for the growing number of public spaces within offices. Boss (pictured), Orangebox, Vitra and Bene, amongst others, have caught the wave of interest in breakout space, now seemingly a standard requirement for offices.

Similarly, the bench – a long table with a core of data, comms and power servicing – has become one of the great office design success stories of the last few years. This is all a far cry from the time when Frank Duffy described the idea, pioneered by a small media company called Michaelides and Bednash nearly ten years ago as something that ‘would not work for many…companies.’ That’s not a criticism because hindsight is wonderful thing but we now know the bench would come to dominate open plan offices, at least in the UK. Its simplicity and stasis has also come to  signify how that the once dominant element of office furniture – the personal desk – plays second fiddle to shared worksurfaces, meeting tables, chairs, screens and accessories.

All of these developments are closely linked to changes in the way we work. Technology, so often the engine of change, has driven us to work from anywhere. The world is our office and so there has been an overlap i both the function and aesthetic of company headquarters, hotel lobbies, cafes and waiting rooms in stations and airports. New legislation continues to shape the market, especially the Disability Discrimination Act, the right to request flexible working and new EU working time directives. The environment provides an ongoing leitmotif. Workers continue to demand more control over their work. Companies are responding with changes in their management practices and a new appreciation for how the office can be used to attract and retain employees. This in turn is transforming the way we design offices and the furniture with which we fill them.

The three elements of design, that is to say humanity, utility and beauty, are absolutely critical to the way ahead and all we do in designing furniture and workplaces must reflect them.