Beyond Open Plan: Bringing Privacy Back to the Workplace
Gunlocke's new office furniture line finds a balance between privacy and collaboration.
Images courtesy Gunlocke
Once upon a time, cutting-edge office spaces consisted of restrictive cubicle walls that hindered communication. Since then, the trends of workplace design have veered from one extreme to another: designers have been creating open plan workplaces, many with acoustic problems and a debilitating lack of privacy. Design firms and manufacturers are now attempting to scale back, searching for a happy medium that allows for both spirited collaboration and private reflection. Metropolis talked to Jennifer Wammack and Mitch Bakker from Michigan-based design studio IDa about three of their recent collections of flexible office furniture designed in collaboration with Gunlocke, to hear their insights into ways of creating seamless transitions between collaborative and private spaces in office design.
What are some key shifts that you are witnessing in the workplace? What are the new needs that you are responding to in your designs?
Mitch Bakker: Over time people have become more comfortable with walls coming down and moving into an open environment. Collaboration was facilitated—but the tradeoff was that Individual spaces shrunk. Now we’re seeing more of a focus on personal space and personal storage. There is also a sense of the residential coming back into the office, of bringing elements and comforts of the home into the office. In some way these things have come full circle.
Jennifer Wammack: There are many cross-cultural phenomena going on. There is no one answer, the school of thought of one-size-fits-all is gone. We understand now that there is a spectrum of needs. People need variety, their work is not the same all the time. These big shifts such as cubicles and open offices—it’s a pendulum swing. What we’re seeing now is a new equilibrium coming to play and the main goal is to give people choices.
But how do you then design for this complexity? Do you work with specificity in mind or do you try to find solutions that would work across the spectrum?
JW: We create products that can themselves be very flexible. The Briefing line is a good example of that; it’s very broad and there are many types of ways you can outfit the products—whether it be height or the base or the finishes—all to try and get at the fact that not everybody needs these products to function in the same sort of way. On the other end of the spectrum there are things that are almost classic and have proven their usefulness over time. This can apply to our Saranac table—we all understand how to use a table, but there are a lot of different activities that can happen on and around that surface.
What are some specific needs you try to meet with your designs?
MB: For Briefing it was the idea of conferencing. In today’s offices the conference room is only one of the places where meetings take place. The way that we approached the project was to look at the broad range of these potential meeting places and try to develop products that could work across the floor plate—from walled conference rooms to collaborative spaces. This ties with another big wave we’re seeing, and that’s the sit-stand idea, which impacts conference rooms as well—not necessarily just for the ergonomic benefits, but for the benefit of shorter and more casual meetings. Certainly there is more of a casual feeling to a meeting when you’re perching on a stool.
JW: Our Trillia stool also plays into this idea. It’s a stool with no back to it—it’s uniform on all sides so it doesn’t dictate how you approach it.
Materiality plays an important role in your projects and you often use wood in expressive ways in your projects with Gunlocke. Why do you think wood is particularly well-suited for the contemporary office?
MB: When it comes to Gunlocke we’re always thinking about wood because they have such a strong heritage with it, they really pride themselves on their craftsmanship. For us it also ties back to this idea of introducing a sense of the residential into the office. There is a warmth and richness to wood that is unparalleled.
JW: The material sensibility played a key part in influencing what we were trying to accomplish with Saranac. We looked at how residential spaces have a much more permeable boundary between inside and outside. We were inspired by the idea of the picnic table, so we tried to incorporate that into the theme.
Where do you see the future of the workplace going?
MB: There was talk a while back that working from home would really catch on, and that offices would disappear. We’re certainly not seeing that—the value of community and collaboration in the office is immeasurable. Also, people want a sense of separation between home and work. I think the office is always going to be here, I don’t see these spaces changing that dramatically in the near future.
JW: I think change in this regard tends to be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, so if, as designers, you’re keeping your eyes open then hopefully you can stay abreast.