ORGATEC 2018 Review: The new informal

 The "super-flexible space" by Konstantin Grcic at the Vitra booth. Eduardo Perez © Vitra

The "super-flexible space" by Konstantin Grcic at the Vitra booth. Eduardo Perez © Vitra

by Fabian Peters

What impressions of the present and future of work defined Orgatec, probably the world’s most important trade fair for office furniture and equipment, in the year 2018? To get an answer to this question, it’s worth taking a look at two of the most successful stands in Cologne – those of Gumpo and Thonet. For Bavarian manufacturer Gumpo, RelvãoKellermann not only revised the product range and the corporate design, but also designed an exhibition stand that offers the perfect framework for the new products. The trick to this radiantly white, graphically conceived architecture was the lighting. Draped in thin covers, powerful photographic lamps created a very soft, pleasant and glare-free light. Yet the stand is worthy of note for another reason, too, namely the glaring absence of all the cocooning sofas and lounge chairs without which virtually no other office furniture supplier – let alone one known for its design – would dream of appearing today. Instead, there were desks, conference tables, lecterns and dividing walls, not to mention a stand architecture more reminiscent of individual offices than open-plan office landscapes. 

 RelvãoKellermann divided the Gumpo stand into different room units - here a conference situation. © Gerhardt Kellermann

RelvãoKellermann divided the Gumpo stand into different room units - here a conference situation. © Gerhardt Kellermann

An alternative was presented at the Thonet stand, whose design was placed in the hands of design studio Ply. Kept entirely in metallic silver with floors made of galvanized sheet steel, it offered a successful interpretation of industrial chic, without descending into kitsch industrial romanticism. The area was subdivided by semi-transparent curtains made of wire mesh, which reinforced rather than disrupted the stand’s impression of openness. The overall presentation evoked associations of a loft-like, open-plan office of the kind that the media seem to present as the ideal scenario for a creative working environment these days. “Offices are the new coffee shops,” read the slogan applied in large letters on the wall of the Thonet stand. In other words: The combination of working and relaxing, observation and concentration that is all part of the myth of the Viennese coffee house can now be found in the office. Here, people gather informally, with no sense of hierarchy, to exchange ideas or to work alone. 

The Dead Desk

The idea of informal working is certainly nothing entirely new at Orgatec. Nevertheless, it was presented especially pointedly this year. If you had to state the central idea of this trade fair, then undoubtedly it would be the question of the future of the office as we know it, which is now being asked on many different sides. Most strikingly, the trade fair’s biggest exhibitor, Vitra, addressed the forms work will take in the future. With “Soft Work,” a sofa by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, Vitra presented a sofa system that was developed by the designers especially for informal working. Posture, seat height, the opportunity to integrate plug sockets and tables – all this is supposed to make it possible to work comfortably in places like hotel lobbies, airports or work lounges, instead of dashing off e-mails “on the hoof.” Here, then, the intention is not for the office to become a coffee shop, nor vice versa. According to Barber & Osgerby, “Soft Work” is intended as a full-fledged workplace. Consequently, they believe their furniture has a place in regular offices and are already proposing the “deskless office” and declaring the death of the conventional desk. 

 Metal surfaces were an important design element of the Thonet booth designed by Ply Studio. © Patricia Parinejad

Metal surfaces were an important design element of the Thonet booth designed by Ply Studio. © Patricia Parinejad

Vitra didn’t stop at this one concept of the future of work. At its stand, which was curated by Jonathan Olivares and Pernilla Ohrstedt, Sevil Peach and Konstantin Grcic presented their own ideas on this topic. Grcic’s “super-flexible space” in particular shows an interesting alternative to the sofa landscapes that have long since become representative of the “new office.” His scenario is more like a classroom than a living room. Everything is light; everything is mobile. The inspiration came from a gymnasium, Grcic says, in which the type of sport practiced changes time and again. “Stool-Tool,” his versatile stool, has its place in this concept as much as his new, small and economical swivel chair “Rookie,” which premiered here. In fact, the orientation towards school classrooms is an intriguing idea. Virtually no other environment sees work situations change with such frequency or demands furniture that permits individual work, presentations, small-group projects, and conference and plenary scenarios with no great effort required. The search for the future of the office might therefore begin in the classroom.