Soft Wait - make the wait pleasant

Interview with Barber Osgerby

For decades now, Vitra has been exploring work trends and developing office concepts, creating comfortable and inviting home interiors and – since the production of the Eames Tandem Seating system for waiting areas – responding to the stringent requirements of public spaces. As more and more people are working while on the go, Vitra together with Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby have developed Soft Wait, a modular seating system for public spaces.

Let's start with Soft Work, the seating system that you and Vitra launched a few years ago. How did it come about?

Edward Barber: Soft Work is our answer to people working in shared spaces. We noticed that people were working in hotel lobbies and airports because of the advent of wifi and smartphones, but quite often the furniture was not appropriate for that. We felt it was necessary to design a system that would give ultimate comfort, with work surfaces, power and many other features. That was the beginning of Soft Work.

Jay Osgerby: One of the things we always do before we start a project is look around to find areas in life that need attention. What can we do? What's our purpose? And what's the purpose of the work that we do? We try to solve problems. One of the outputs of that was Soft Work; we saw there was a need to create new forms of architecture through seating.

So what is Soft Wait and how does it differ?

Barber: Soft Wait differs from Soft Work in the sense that it's fundamentally designed for waiting spaces such as: atriums, healthcare, education, airports. Some of the features obviously remain from Soft Work – it's powered so you can charge your phone or your laptop – and in terms of ergonomics, it's a little bit higher. The seat width is smaller so you can achieve greater density. You've got gaps between each seat and the back so that, dirt can’t lodge itself anywhere. Each detail is designed to be durable, easy to clean and simple to maintain. This makes Soft Wait particularly suitable for heavy use and the exacting demands of public spaces.

When Soft Work launched it had that provocative marketing line of "the desk is dead". So what led you to think that this kind of system has applications beyond the office?

Osgerby: While developing Soft Work we realized that we would have to respond to very specific requirements for public spaces and that we would need a whole new kit of parts for really intense, hardworking areas, such as airports, healthcare and education. There were the dual challenges of needing to create comfort and needing to create something that was going to be incredibly hard wearing. It's a dichotomy, because often things that are soft, wear out quickly.

Barber: Soft Wait is designed to cater for everybody. Whether you have a disability, whether you're an older person with decreased mobility, it's designed such that it's easy to get up from and to sit down on. The height has been adjusted slightly so that it's more comfortable for older people. Soft Wait responds to the broadest spectrum of society possible. Fundamentally, it has a smaller footprint than Soft Work and is a more robust system for very taxing environments.

What's your impression of being in these types of spaces? How do you find them? And how did that observation form what you wanted to do with Soft Wait?

Osgerby: Traditionally waiting spaces are for processing large volumes of humans. In a way, you're dehumanised. We wanted to provide comfort and ease. It should feel relaxing or productive - anything other than stressful and transitional.

Barber: There's a lot of competition between airports. People can choose to fly on different airlines and through different routes, especially on long-haul. The competition is how airlines can offer the customer more. If you have something very comfortable at your gate, where passengers may be sitting for a couple of hours, that can set the experience and therefore the airport apart from its counterparts.

For a long time, people just thought that you get what you're given with these spaces. Have you noticed a big shift in expectations?

Osgerby: Definitely. Airports specifically have invested a huge amount of money in improving the experience and as a consequence people quite rightly expect more. They are starting to view the journey as a valid and enjoyable or productive part of a holiday or business trip and not just an inconvenience.

Barber: What was happening in the lounges is now creeping out into the more public spaces. It's not just about having the better lounge, it's the terminal too. A lot of these bigger airports are used as transit hubs. They want to attract as many customers as possible. The best way to do that is to make the experience very comfortable.

Osgerby: So much of airport furniture gets worn out and then thrown away. Soft Wait offers the specifier and the organisation flexibility over a really long period of time. You can buy it, add to it, move it and change it, and you don't have to throw it away.

Barber: You can also repair it. If one seat gets ripped or damaged, you can literally just pop it out and replace it, while that older one gets repaired. It's a kit of parts. It’s really easy to work with. Someone who is part of the airport team could update the system without prior experience, it wouldn't need to be sent back.

A big part of Soft Work was making offices more domestic – offering comfort and greater familiarity. In the public realm, there are so many requirements and specifications you have to meet. How have you done that? What kind of materials can people expect?

Osgerby: Soft Wait is covered in a particularly hardwearing PVC-free artificial leather - Skai Pureto EN - that is as robust as it is sustainable. Soft Wait has to work really hard. We have to work on the basis that you're going to get coffee on it; someone's sandwich is going to be down the back; someone will leave their bag underneath it. Absolutely everything had to be thought through so that within 10 minutes of a major food, or drink spill, it can be usable again and looking pristine. Other than that, the main chassis is made from steel while the feet and armrests are made of die-cast aluminium, which is endlessly recyclable. When we were researching the Tip Ton chair [created for Vitra in 2011], the most alarming thing to us was the amount of wastage caused by school chairs that were inappropriate and didn't last. The lifecycle was terrible. Tip Ton was a response to that, because we wanted to make something that was fully functional but which had an incredibly long lifecycle. With Soft Work and Soft Wait, we've tried to make something that's fit for purpose and which lasts a long time, but which also gives the user the flexibility to adapt to change so that there's no need to throw it away.

Barber: It’s the first of its kind on the market. It’s the first seating system that is upholstered, that has integrated power, and which is flexible so that you can use it architecturally to lay out big, wide, open spaces.

Osgerby: Part of our thinking on this system is that you can use it to make use of structural columns you typically get in large open spaces, whether the system goes around them, or whether they can be incorporated between two bays. We've designed Soft Wait so that it can absorb big architectural elements but still be useful, because the areas around those are normally dead space. The whole system has been created to enable items to be specified. If you have a really peculiar junction in a building, or a tricky space, or a particularly small column, for example, Vitra can make special parts that enable you to tackle any sort of architectural installation.

What sort of locations do you see this going into?

Barber: Soft Wait can be used anywhere. It's a very flexible system that can be paired with Soft Work. For example, in a university, you might use Soft Wait in the atrium and then use Soft Work in spaces where people are going to be sitting for longer and potentially working as a team. We think it will be used quite heavily in healthcare.

Osgerby: Soft Wait addresses one of the fundamental problems of modern life; waiting. Nobody wants to wait more than they have to. We have tried to make waiting better with Soft Wait.

Publication date: 30.6.2022
Images: © Vitra

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