To be human is to be a control freak. We want to choose everything from what we watch to what we wear, and with today’s smart technology, we can do an awful lot of it on-demand. Consider the experience of shopping for shoes. In the past, our choices were limited to the styles available at our local department store. Now, the tap of a screen gives us immediate access to everything from flip flops to penny loafers in any color we can imagine.
The expectation of instantaneous control often seeps into our lives at work as well. We seek environments where we can easily and immediately connect with technology and each other, and go about our business where we want, when we want. Often, our workplaces seem completely indifferent to our desires.
The reality is that a company’s culture or the nature of certain types of work can limit autonomy and flexibility in the office. But that doesn’t mean an office can’t be sympathetic to what people want. The designers at Studio 7.5—Carola Zwick, Roland Zwick, and Burkhard Schmitz—were contemplating ways to give people more freedom at work long before the Internet and its welter of apps and online errand-runners gave us a taste for complete control over both our personal and work lives.
They’ve spent years coming up with designs that allow people to shape their work environments. “Flexibility, combined with ease and joy of use, liberates and empowers people,” say the Studio 7.5 designers, who prefer to voice their perspectives as a group. Part of this “ease and joy of use” comes in the form of instant feedback. According to the designers, an object should immediately indicate what it is, how it should be used, and the level of control it provides.
Here we explore four designs from Studio 7.5 and Herman Miller that put people in charge.
Studio 7.5’s design for Puzzle, an office in a box that Herman Miller launched in 1998, was more than a response to a design brief, it was personal. “We were just forming as a studio, and some of us only worked part-time,” say the designers. “We needed temporary, pop-up workstations, which led to Puzzle.”
Studio 7.5 believed Puzzle could be a unique solution for the challenges of itinerant workers: from tax auditors and litigators who camp out at clients’ workplaces for weeks, to salespeople who peregrinate from home to field to office. And what about project teams who need the flexibility to work together anywhere in an office, but are constrained by immobile workstations? Wouldn’t it be great if they had desks they could just pack up and take with them?
The answer wasn’t much of a puzzle. The easy-to-use office on wheels (so easy, says Puzzle’s brochure, that you can “snooze through this and still get it”) could be set up in a few simple steps. Grasp handles. Roll into place. Unlock. Open. Extend surfaces. Connect technology. Wheel up chair. Presto, chango! Open for business.
Despite interest from the US government, which saw a need for ambulatory offices at remote locations (think Puzzle parachuting onto the battlefield or into a humanitarian crisis), the spark of Puzzle’s ingenuity ultimately fizzled. “Its main form factors were driven by the weight and size of bulky CRT monitors and computers,” say the designers. “Any attempt at a pop-up office today would be very different.”
The rise of the mobile device may have sunk Puzzle, but its design embodied the freedom that Studio 7.5 would strive for in the years to come.
Mirra and Setu Chairs
When something doesn’t want to be moved or adjusted, it tells you. Consider the desk that’s so massive that it takes a team of installers to cart it to a different part of the building. This desk, through its unwieldy shape and hefty size, is telling you to stay put.
The designers at Studio 7.5 kept that in mind as they were developing the concepts for their Mirra and Setu Chairs. According to Studio 7.5, “There are signals that tell you it’s okay to manipulate your surroundings. As soon as users receive instant, positive feedback, they feel in control.” You can see and feel this philosophy in both chairs—Mirra and Setu are made to move.
For the Mirra Chair, and its successor, Mirra 2, Studio 7.5 wanted to create adjustments that would allow people to immediately feel the effect of manipulating the chair’s controls, and to make using these controls a pleasant and intuitive experience. The chair’s Butterfly Back is made of lightweight, translucent material that flexes with the sitter’s movements—much like a leotard that forms to a gymnast’s body, moving as one with the athlete.
The Setu Chair takes the concept of instant feedback one step further, immediately responding to the sitter and providing support without any adjustment required, other than height. This automatic adaptation comes courtesy of the chair’s Kinematic Spine, a polypropylene curvature that regulates resistance as the sitter reclines. All a person has to do is sit, and they are immediately comfortable. Power, control, joy of use.
It’s easy to feel like circumstances are out of our control at work. Budgets and business decisions beyond our purview can dictate our surroundings, which can skew toward safety and standardization—two things that rarely delight or inspire. Not so with Metaform—the perfect antidote to the inflexibly vanilla workplace.
Metaform’s unique structure makes it a standout. The foundation of the system is a lightweight block made from expanded polypropylene—the same stuff used in bike helmets. Blocks can be straight or curved, and have staggered furrows like the tiers of a ziggurat. But while ziggurats were built for worshiping ancient gods, Metaform celebrates a different sort of spirit—the lively, creative energy people can tap into when they have the freedom to shape their offices as they see fit.
“The work environment is a knowledge worker’s tool. You should be able to control it and adapt it to the task at hand,” say the designers. “The key with Metaform is ease of use and playfulness.”
Like Lincoln Logs for the nine-to-five set, Metaform makes creating a work environment a delight—especially for teams that are growing and changing quickly, or highly improvisational groups that are charged with dreaming up the ideas that will shape a company’s future. What starts as an office can be easily transformed into a small meeting space—so easily in fact, that the people working in the space can do it on the fly.
Studio 7.5 has amplified the sense of play through the design’s quirky aesthetic. Accented with brightly colored shelves, the dark grey blocks pop against more neutral office palettes. The designers even offer a 3D printing service so people can create custom accessories like postcard clips or flowerpot holders that attach to the blocks. It’s a winsome way to put your mark on a space, express a team’s personality, or promote a company’s brand.
Studio 7.5’s past and present designs are working hard to give people control of their workplaces. But what of the future? More—and less—of the same.
“Over the last decades we’ve been experiencing a growing trend toward more diversity at work,” say the Studio 7.5 designers. “In the race for talent, the office will need to welcome everyone. So, flexibility, adaptability, and customizability will continue to be important criteria.”
As the Internet of Things plants itself firmly in the office, people will likely have more control over both the way they work and the places where they do it. Smart furnishings will provide data and insights to help people personalize and improve everything from their health to the way they connect with colleagues. But Studio 7.5 offers a word of caution. “With a lot of today’s technologies, people feel disempowered. Many times, things don’t work as expected or don’t provide adequate feedback on what’s going on.”
For digitized furnishings and tools to truly liberate and empower people the way their analog analogues like Metaform and Mirra 2 do, they’ll need to follow the design tenants Studio 7.5 codified nearly 30 years ago: Make it easy. Make it responsive. And always, always, make it fun.