To celebrate the release of their new Mirra 2 chair, we spoke to designer Carola Zwick of Berlin-based Studio 7.5 about the benefits of having a studio environment that responds directly to the way they work.
In the spring of 2011, siblings Roland and Carola Zwick, Claudia Plikat, and Burkhard Schmitz of Studio 7.5 moved into an industrial pocket in the former west part of Berlin, close to downtown. Located directly on the river Spree on the ground floor of a defunct turn-of-the-century fabric-dying factory, their studio retains markers of its workaday past. Two-story windows, once an aid to examining dyed fabrics, flood the interior with natural light. Capacious ceilings, originally built to accommodate cranes for moving goods, provide ample space for the designers to store and work on their various tools: lathes and CNC machines, CAD workstations and 3D printer, hand tools and a fully functioning photo lab. By providing the team with a venue to test and refine every idea—in full-scale prototypes—until the most elegant answers emerge, 7.5’s workspace helps to inform and support their process, resulting in the quality-tested, experience-driven designs—like Mirra 2—that make working better.
What attracted you to this particular space?
The fact that it is located directly on the waterfront creates perfect lighting conditions, distance to other buildings, and fresh air. It is a former manufacturing facility, so the space is generous with six-meter ceilings and huge windows. And the water creates unique reflection patterns that are changing constantly, which adds a sense of weather and time: the view is simply relaxing.
Did you have to change it very much?
We had to renovate it completely. There was no infrastructure on the inside: no electricity, no restrooms, no kitchen....
How does it compare to your previous office?
It's an upgrade from the old studio, which was a small former blacksmith shop that had only one big hall with six-meter ceilings, but the rest was much smaller and distributed on three floors. It was located in the backyard of a residential building, and the natural lighting conditions were pretty bad.
What precipitated the move?
Moving the studio after 17 years in the old place was like transplanting a living organ into a new body. We needed more space for our model shop, but at the same time there were a lot of spatial relationships and work patterns that needed to be respected, like seeing and hearing what is going on and connecting to other team members.
What were the biggest constraints?
Creating more space for experimenting and setting up prototypes and also reducing some noise, but at the same time, not cutting vital connections. The areas in the studio need to be connected and overlapping. Their purpose is also constantly adapted to our present needs. We try to "hardwire" as few things as possible. So currently the layout is structured into the six zones of the studio: the tool shop, the CNC shop, the CAD mezzanine (plus visual repository and storage), the kitchen/dining room, the entrance and reception desk, and the Einstein—or photo/documentation—room.
The areas in the studio need to be connected and overlapping. Their purpose is also constantly adapted to our present needs. We try to "hardwire" as few things as possible.
How do you move between the spaces over the course of a workday?
There is a constant flow in the space related to the work at hand. The different spaces provide a different level of privacy, such as for intensive phone calls everybody moves into the Einstein room. The central spot is the main hall, and if there is important information popping up, it will be announced in that space, because everybody will eventually hear it and convene if necessary.
Is an open plan office necessarily more collaborative?
Definitely yes, but it's not easy. An open plan office is like a small village, you need to develop a lot of sensitivity for the communal space you share with others. There is more respectfulness needed, as the ideas of tidiness, noise, or fun might vary a lot. If you develop a culture that is agreed upon by all members of the team, the fact that you "breathe the same air" and constantly sense what's going on creates a sense of purpose but also provokes productive serendipitous encounters.
What role does a communal table play in a design studio?
It's almost like a ritual: if you put something on that table it's open for discussion and it should concern all. In our case it's a generous, archaic, and thus generic surface that serves all kind of purposes—we even use the surface to test drive chairs up there, so that it's easier to see what is going on with the kinematics. We also have our lunch at this table, which is the daily conference everybody has and loves to attend.
You often refer to your designs as "work tools" or "equipment.” How do you distinguish these from furniture?
We think that the word “tool” or “equipment” is better suited to express the relationship between a user and his or her professional surroundings. It conveys a sense of ownership and control that we think is essential for good design. We are deeply convinced that something practical but ugly isn’t going to fly, nor is something that’s beautiful but non-functioning. The challenge is to reunite and balance both qualities. We also believe that we are in the business of experience design, which focuses on the pleasure of using something.
It's almost like a ritual: if you put something on that [communal] table it's open for discussion and it should concern all. In our case it's a generous, archaic, and thus generic surface that serves all kind of purposes—we even use the surface to test drive chairs up there, so that it's easier to see what is going on with the kinematics.
Are you more mobile in your work than ever before?
Maybe our profession as a designer didn’t change that much, as we deal with physical artifacts. However, digital tools help us to gain more control over the whole development process and our means of communication are manifold and intensified. You could even argue that we were able to reduce our physical traveling by intensifying virtual means of collaboration.
Why do you still come to an office?
We stopped calling it “office” a while ago and started to call it “studio” instead (we first thought studio would sound too fancy for our place), because the holistic approach of an artist’s studio reflects the desired quality: it’s a magical place where everything is happening.