At Architecture Media’s Design Speaks event, designers and thinkers – including Ministry of Design’s Colin Seah, architect Clive Wilkinson and Foundation for Young Australians Jan Owen – discussed the shifting work place and the power of invention and connection. Here more space takes a look back in time at some of the trailblazers who have helped shape the office of today.

Architect Clive Wilkinson, known for his work building creative communities for companies including Google, recently designed an office for The Barbarian Group in New York that explores the internet age in a physical way, with no walls or divisions between commerce, culture, brands or people. Communal commons was the approach with a meandering 330-metre “super-table” defining the interior and how the team work together.

But let’s step back a few decades. 1984 was a turning point for technology and for the ‘future office’. It was the year the first PC was launched by Apple, live to the Super Bowl crowd and to millions of viewers across America. A 60-second Orwellian-style commercial directed by Ridley Scott, then fresh off the set of the sci-fi classic Blade Runner, did what other technology groups had only dreamed of doing. It called about the democratisation of technology. In the case of Apple it was the design of independent, individualised products that broke the stereotype of standardisation, centralisation and hierarchy. The debut of HAL, the chilling mainframe ‘co-pilot’ onboard 2001: A Space Odyssey, had done a lot to build up the big brother image and companies had been working overtime to reassure consumers that technology meant freedom, not ‘shackledom’. Produced by the award-winning Chiat/Day agency, the ad opened on a grey network of futuristic tubes connecting blank, ominous buildings. Inside the tubes, subservient drones blindly march into a huge auditorium, where they bow before a dictatorial figure pontificating from a towering TV screen. However, one lone woman remains unbroken. Chased by storm troopers, she runs up to the screen, hurls a sledgehammer and shatters the TV image. The glass screen explodes, bathing the stunned audience in the light of freedom followed by the voiceover, ‘On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce the Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”

From the early 1960s, freedom from office drudgery was the promise. The paperless office was another. Designers Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson and Robert Propst helped to change the look of the modern office and the launch of Propst’s Action Office system was the world’s first open-plan office system of movable components and a bold departure from the era’s fixed assumptions of what office furniture should be. It transformed the workplace and the entire furniture industry, which scrambled to copy it. While experimental designers including Superstudio, Gaetano Pesce and Verner Panton were busy designing furniture ‘landscapes’ that would open up the way we relaxed.

In 1993 Jay Chiat, co-founder of the Chiat/Day advertising agency which had been so successful at launching Apple and Nike, was developing a plan for a virtual office. A new landscape where freedom from ‘cubicle bondage’ abounded and where the main aim was to feed creativity. As the story goes, Chiat was skiing down a mountain in Aspen when he was struck with the idea that the conventional office was dead. So with the help of his friend, the architect Frank Gehry, and two of his favourite passions technology and architecture, Chrysalis was born – a real life experiment into the ultimate office that would transform his California HQ in Venice Beach and go down in history.

First to go were the desks. When employees arrived at work they checked in hotel style. A concierge issued their work tools for the day. If they were visiting a client: a laptop and a mobile phone; if they were working in a team: the keys to a locker and the number of a ‘project room’. In the attempt to reduce paper in the office, all mail and documents were scanned into a central network where they could be viewed by anyone. Even private letters were made public. Rooms were built for specific accounts. Creatives and planners working on the Apple account could meet in the Apple suite, Absolut workers in the Absolut room. Lockers were assigned to people who wished to store family photos and personal items, but personal desks in the middle of the workspace were forbidden and Chiat was famous for patrolling the new office. Anyone found spending too much time in one spot was moved on.

Initially the idea was enthusiastically embraced. The office was exciting and fresh, the gadgets new and fun and the whole idea promised the ultimate freedom and balance for work and play. But six months later rebellion set in. Employees began to stake out their own personal space. With never enough mobiles or laptops to go around, senior staff sent juniors in at dawn to grab them for when they arrived. Storage was also a problem; there was none. Employees started filing in the boot of their car, running between the car park and the office in a mad scramble to meet deadlines. Deadlines became the only thing staff could rely on. Jay’s Chiat’s notion that chaos bred creativity ground to a chaotic stop when Chiat left the company a year later. Although the experiment failed, it is still considered one of the most heroic attempts to break down the walls and has laid the foundations for a more democratic design approach to the office today.

Although most offices today are still based on dedicated desk systems and a fixed work team, powerful communication networks provide the freedom to work anywhere. At home, on the bus, the train, in the air. This doesn’t mean that we need a utopian return to the 1960s or ‘office of the future’ fantasies. The contemporary office demands communication, collaboration, speed, interaction, versatility, teamwork and creativity, whereas the old office was based on a Tayloristic notion of dedicated tasks, standards and hierarchy. Relaxed lounges, spaces to chill out in and to practice yoga or meditation, cafés for meetings, tranquil areas to collect thoughts, places to encourage communication – this is the office of today. A place where transparent surfaces and relaxed, domestic furniture symbolise a new freedom in office culture and a shift in the way people work, where they work and the hours they keep. As technology develops so will the workplace, opening up new possibilities for the live work, live play experience and hopefully more balance between them.

You can read more about Design Speaks: Work Place/Work Life held in Sydney on 18 August, 2015, here, and about the making of Clive Wilkinson's interactive offices for The Barbarian Group here on Dezeen.

Words_Heidi Dokulil
Film_The Barbarian Group