There are some pieces of furniture that just bore me rigid. I don’t mean that chairs, per se, bore me, or that the mere sight of a table induces a crippling ennui. No, I mean really specific pieces of furniture bore me. Certain designs just turn up again and again in office projects. Every 3D render of a new space seems to include them. The chrome and leather meeting room chair; the button upholstered reception chairs; the little circular glass tables; the chrome and leather ottoman; the white plastic chair with wire or wooden legs…and so on.
When I sigh and roll my eyes heavenward, muttering, ‘not again’ the response I most often get is, ‘But it’s a classic!’
Is it too harsh to describe a classic as a piece of superseded technology viewed through rose-tinted spectacles? Maybe a little harsh, but let’s face it, the 1962 Mini Cooper S is a classic, but I would not want to drive to the South of France in one. No, it would have to be a modern saloon with air con, cruise control and a music system that sounds like the band is balanced on the back seat playing live just for you.
The point I am making is that it feels lazy to keep dropping these pieces into a layout and calling it design. There is no doubt that a carefully placed ‘classic’ piece can lift a basic design and make it feel a little zingy and edgy, but when the coffee shop at the train station has a scattering of Eames-like chairs on the pavement outside the ticket office for commuters to sit in and sip their lattes whilst waiting for the next train to be cancelled, then all is definitely not well with the world. Classics are like antibiotics, overuse renders them ineffectual.
Why does it happen? Well, according to an old friend of mine in the office furniture business, one of the issues is the cheap ‘knock-off’. Simply put, there are factories all over the place, churning out copies of some of the most iconic designs of the last 60 years. This reduces the price and encourages their use by designers who suddenly find beautiful pieces they have admired all their careers are within budget.
Another point to consider is that fakes are often not economic. ‘Buy cheap, buy twice’ was a favourite mantra of my grandmother and, in this instance, she was most definitely correct. Fakes tend not to last in the rough and tumble of daily use and so the overall lifespan of an office is generally longer than the lifespan of the fake. When you constantly have to replace chairs where the legs have fallen off, the total cost of ownership ends up the same, or more, as buying the real thing would have done in the first place. So let’s get sensible and, just as I would recommend when purchasing whisky, buy the good stuff and use it sparingly.
I am, however, concerned that we will still be seasoning our layouts with the same ‘classic’ pieces in ten years’ time. Where are the classics of tomorrow? The path to the lofty land of ‘classic’ is not short. It requires initial ‘Wow Factor’, which then, with growing acceptance and adoption, matures over time into ‘classic’ status. Today, the pipeline looks fairly empty to me.
I recently attended a major office furniture show and was really looking forward to being energised by cool concepts, posing questions about the nature of work and the essential dichotomy between comfort and productivity (a little over-ambitious perhaps, but I am an optimist at heart). I walked expectantly up and down miles of exhibition floor, peering hopefully at stand after stand and…nothing!
There were of gimmicks such as large box shaped chairs to sit in when making phone calls; In-office climbing frames to perch in and work (honestly!); and of course sit/stand everything; but there was nothing that caused a buzz. Nowhere did I find awestruck crowds around a stand, talking in hushed and reverential tones as they gazed upon something that pushed the boundaries of art and design.
I believe that for things to remain creative, there must be a reason to get excited about furniture again. A classic will still be a classic but, just as with buildings, you have to demolish the older ones to make room for the new and create an open landscape in which to work. If we spend all our energies venerating the old and filling our workplaces with 60 year old designs, we will simply all end up working in furniture museums. We must give designers a gap to fill.
So, let us turn our backs on the fake, allow the classics to be classics, but use sparingly and challenge them with a new generation of practical, timeless and beautiful pieces.
Over to you designers!
Mike Walley is Criteo’s Head of Workplace Experience EMEA