The office of the future? No desks, no chairs

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Last week at Orgatec, a leading European trade show for contract and office furniture, the Swiss company Vitra previewed a set of office seating prototypes, called Soft Work, which you might more likely find in a chic hotel lobby or airport lounge. That’s exactly what the designers, London studio Barber Osgerby, intended.

Much has been said about the downfall of cubicles and the rise of open-plan offices over the years, with the pendulum of public favor alternating between the two. With Soft Work, the designers argue that the next trend in 21st-century working life will be to do away with the shackles of the desk-and-chair setup altogether. In their vision, offices of the future may consist of sofas–and little more.

It might sound extreme, but consider: The freelance workforce is on the rise–and growing three times faster than the U.S. workforce overall, with studies showing freelancers may become the majority as soon as 2027. More full-time permanent workers are also opting to work remotely, according to a recent survey with 1,000 hiring managers, who expect 38% of their employees to be completely remote in the next decade. In this context, the battle between cubicle and open-plan seems comically shortsighted.

THE DEATH OF FORMALITY

Just two years ago, Barber Osgerby designed its first-ever office chair with Vitra (and the brand’s first in years) with the Pacific, both named and styled to speak to a working philosophy that aspires to denote a different, more relaxed class of professional status. The Pacific took all of the function and performance of a modern-day, ergonomic task office seat–height-adjustable back and armrests, automatically synchronizing parts, and padded lumbar support–and packaged it into a svelte, minimalist silhouette with color-coordinated upholstery that suggested a cooler, updated vibe to the standard, sober corporate look that could work just as nicely outside of the office. It was enough to grab the attention of Apple design chief Jonathan Ive, who took to furnishing Apple’s campus with the chairs. As partner Jay Osgerby told Fast Company: “To get the best people you have to have an environment with less formality.”

Subsequent visits to the Apple campus while the Pacific was in development, however, helped the studio realize what the modern-day office was truly in need of: even more casual seating, away from the desk. “We realized that they were going to be putting a large amount of soft seating into [Apple Park], which were effectively residential sofas, very high-end Italian sofas,” says partner Edward Barber. “They were fantastic sofas, there’s no doubt about that, but they weren’t buying them to relax on–they were using them to work on, as an alternative area for working.”

This poses various problems: “You have to prop up or pull up a table,” he says. “You don’t necessarily have access to a power outlet. And you’re not sitting in the most ergonomic environment. It’s fine for a couple of minutes, but if you’re sitting there for a couple of hours, you’re sort of slouched, balancing a laptop on your knee. So that got us all thinking: If they could have the ideal setup, what would it look like?”

A NEW AESTHETIC

An extension of the same thinking that gave the Pacific chair a more welcoming look and feel, Soft Work puts the same premium on a casual aesthetic to suggest a lifestyle in which work and relaxation aren’t at polar odds, but present in nearly every public space we frequent: cafes, airport lounges, hotel lobbies, and corporate and co-working spaces of all kinds. The name of the new collection, too, doesn’t just imply softer seating, but an aesthetic softness that Barber Osgerby and Vitra are betting will  overtake the next wave of office design–and maybe a subliminal cue to all of those tech and (ahem) software companies with large campuses that are likely to adopt it.