At NeoCon, office interiors that can't be serious

World-renowned design talents like Rem Koolhaas are introducing poorly conceived oddities that don't help solve serious workplace ergonomics issues.

No one would suggest that designer Rem Koolhaas is lying, but perhaps he's being a little more than disingenuous.

His new line for Knoll seemed like a fun diversion at the Milan Furniture Fair, a cute kinetic sculpture collection that would suit a museum lobby nicely. In the packed halls of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, however, it just struck most NeoCon attendees as ridiculous.

There are serious issues plaguing the American workplace, and NeoCon is an annual opportunity to address those. Yet the triple stacked-bar conversation piece, 04 Counter, and other oddities offered by Koolhaas contribute to making most of them worse. This one item is useless, uncomfortable and possibly dangerous.

The "Counter" by Rem Koolhaas for Knoll: Dangerous, distracting and doltish. (Image from a Knoll video, courtesy Knoll)

A video made by Knoll in Milan shows a Koolhaas minion, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, and the furniture-maker's director of design, Benjamin Pardo, trying very hard to make use of 04 Counter. They climb it like stairs, and sit or lean their arms on it. A similarly adjustable coffee table seems designed to spill drinks and confuse users.

The project, which I predict will soon vanish from memory, was given the bizarre name "Tools for Life." Laparelli claims the Counter "blur[s] the line between working environment and domestic environment." It does no such thing. Koolhaas called it "a marvel of engineering," yet the embedded hardware was invented decades ago.

Massaud’s hairdryer

This was not the only hoax we found inside the Mart. Please don’t fall for them.

For example, consider this question of personal preference: Would you lower an opaque felt bell over your head for a private cell call or a Skype session?

Jean-Marie Massaud shows off his bizarre privacy hood, meant to allow for Skype and phone sessions. (Courtesy Coalesse)

Or like Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford, why not simply stroll outside to take in some fresh air while calling?

The French architect Jean-Marie Massaud introduced a hairdryer-style head protector that serves the former purpose as part of the Massaud Lounge Collection. Here again, a desire to make a big splash has trumped any sense of practicality or true benefit to U.S. workplace design.

At the center of this collection by Coalesse, an offshoot of Steelcase, is an insanely expensive lounge chair that is meant to be a work tool. (It is paired with a laudable ottoman, however, that pops open to hide your junk.)

The intention is "integrated hands-free support for smartphones and small tablets, LED lighting, and Bluetooth connectivity for audio," Coalesse says. So the den chair and parasol are purpose-built for comfy, private "video chatting." But there's no space for a laptop and notepad. There's barely room to wiggle.

This reclining lounge chair and hood will get as far as the executive suite at Facebook and Google, maybe, and then will fizzle into a suitable oblivion.

This kind of silliness is Massaud's forte. His blimp idea, and his plastic concept car for Toyota with its bamboo hood, were meant to generate buzz alone. As an inventor and architect, Massaud seems content just to attract gawkers, rather than propose ideas to transform how we work.

Yves: Old swill in new bottles

Yves Behar for Herman Miller: Unintended remnant spaces between tables and "social desking" units. (Courtesy Herman Miller)

He's not the only one of the world's greatest designers enlisted for the least useful explorations displayed at NeoCon. The San Francisco designer Yves Béhar, for example, created Public for Herman Miller, and it's an entirely new, complete office environment.

That is, if you count branding and promotional nuance as the basis for a new workplace. Béhar's designs have unique profiles and configurations, but they will be remembered not for new ways of working but instead for the fancy terms he has coined to make long-established concepts seem fresh.

Like “Social desking.” Really? What is that? It's a term as meaningless as "Group spaces," which describes the Public line's collaboration furnishings.

A third portion is dubbed "Interstitial spaces," which is meant to describe groupings for casual interaction. I think it might better apply to all of the Public seating products, which have a void behind the backrest that adds only wasted space and material. Positioned back-to-back, the seating leaves plenty of leftover spaces that might be useful, if unintentionally, as storage cubbies or places for office pets to hide. And they look difficult to clean, too.

At first glance, Béhar's set of work surfaces, seating and integral tables seems like a useful, novel idea. But the awkwardly angled seating, the ungainly and odd-looking systems, and the unfinished look of the voids when pieces are conjoined suggests that there's still some work to do.

The disappearing office?

As I recall, the idea behind great furniture design is to solve problems, not bring to market bold new problems.

For any new concept, designer and manufacturer must do their homework. Research the issues and publish your findings. (An example was the broad-based study into co-working done by Teknion two years ago, a serious inquiry into the future of the "third workplace," which refers to places we work that are not at the office and not at home.)

What Behar, Massaud and Koolhaas are doing is dressing it up with style (appreciated) and fancy terms (not appreciated), and creating costly experiments for their customers.

On the occasion of NeoCon, a number of pronouncements have been made about the future of work. Crains Chicago Business lamented that the office is shrinking, but provides no data to support this. We do know that workstation and cubicle sizes shrank between 1994 and 2010, according to the International Facility Management Association. So the reporter's assertion our workplaces are getting “smaller, more crowded and more horizontal” is absolutely true -- three years ago.

Today, we see offices using more bench desking. We see more small offices in open plan. But at the same time, we actually devote more space per employee when you count collaboration space, meeting areas, cafés and other amenities.

Before we ask the world's best self-promoting designers to provide a solution, first we need to determine what the problem is. Otherwise, we're just creating more.

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