Running together

A conversation with John Kuilman

‘It is very clear to us,’ says John Kuilman, workplace design lead at Swiss sportswear brand On, ‘that no one is going to the office anymore just to work.’

On the surface of things, this seems a surprising statement. Kuilman is, after all, speaking from the heart of On-Labs, a new 1000-person creative campus that On opened in West Zurich in the summer of 2022. Spread over seventeen floors in a converted tower block designed by architects Spillmann Echsle and Specific Generic, the space has been designed such that movement up through its storeys mimics a mountain ascent – a nod to the company’s sporting origins in the Swiss Alps. For a company which acknowledges that offices are no longer many people’s primary places of work, On has invested heavily in its own workspaces.

According to Kuilman, the key to unravelling this seeming contradiction is to appreciate the shift that offices have undergone as a typology, and to recognise that workspaces – in spite of their name – have considerable value outside of being simple sites of work. ‘The pandemic has taught us that we can work anywhere,’ Kuilman explains, ‘but what can’t be recreated at home or online is the personal experience; the platform for exchanging ideas; and the social collisions.’ As the world’s fastest growing running brand, On has established a working culture based around creativity and a willingness to break with the norm.
‘On really benefits from a communal working environment as it helps us share ideas in a more informal way. That's where innovation starts, which stands at the core of On.’
John Kuilman
The company’s new headquarters has been built with this emphasis on community at the forefront of its design. The company’s workforce, for instance, do not have fixed desks, but are instead assigned to different ‘neighbourhoods’, each of which includes some 250 employees and extends over three floors – a means of encouraging spontaneous meetings and interactions. ‘Within each neighbourhood, we have different types of working,’ says Kuilman, ‘but the middle floor is always very much dedicated to communal work.’ On also encourages staff to venture beyond their own community, moving between floors to facilitate chance encounters and creative serendipity. This internal structure is coupled with communal spaces such as shared kitchens and sports facilities, alongside a coffee shop and vegan restaurant. ‘One of the key elements is being able to connect in an informal way,’ says Kuilman, ‘We think it's very important to have a critical mass of people in the workplace, which is where friction starts and creativity begins.’
To enable this kind of creative interplay, On needed furnishings that offer a multifunctional and adaptable environment. Their long-term partner Vitra had precisely the right blend of products for every space and situation. Communal areas requiring structure and spontaneity were outfitted with Vitra’s established table system Joyn, which was already used in On’s previous offices. Designed by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec in 2002, Joyn provides large communal desks that bring people together, serving as a broad canvas on which new ideas, interactions and connections can take form.

‘To us, communal work is very much the idea that we work together in one area,’ Kuilman explains. ‘Everyone taking a place at the same table is a very democratic way of working.’ Joyn platforms emphasise this collegial interaction, while also ensuring that the space offers privacy options for individuals when required. ‘Besides the fact that Joyn creates an inviting environment,’ Kuilman summarises, ‘it's one of the core elements that creates a place where ideas can be exchanged, but also a space where someone can focus on their own work.’
Joyn 2 – the successor to Vitra’s original design – builds upon the successes of the original design and retains its distinctive focus on communal work, while also introducing a range of technical and sustainability innovations. ‘For us, Joyn 2 is a huge improvement,’ Kuilman explains, referencing its large dimensions as a crucial element of the design’s success. ‘Being able to have an even more flexible configuration than with our current platform is tremendous,’ he says. ‘We can fit even more people at the same table.’ Another part of Joyn 2’s appeal is its focus on sustainability – an ethos shared by Vitra and On. While the latter reduces the carbon footprint of its shoes through innovative technologies, Vitra has produced Joyn 2 with durable materials such as solid wood and cork to ensure the design is as environmentally friendly and long-lasting as possible.

This spirit of innovation is the secret of On’s success. While offices may no longer be the only places in which people choose to work, they remain an invaluable communal space for the creation of new ideas. ‘Communal work will always exist,’ says Kuilman, adding that systems such as Joyn 2 are invaluable for creating the social environment that lies at the heart of On Labs. Even if offices may have changed and become more flexible, he notes, ‘the desk is not dead – it is an important tool to exchange ideas, meet up with different people, and work as a team. Communal work won’t go away – it’s something we’ve been doing at On since before we could walk.’

Publication Date: 15.05.2023
Images: © Vitra; Photographer: Eduardo Perez

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