An Alcove Sofa generates a good spirit, positive energy

A conversation with Ronan Bouroullec

Developed by Vitra with Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, the archetypal Alcove Sofa with its extra-high back and side panels has been synonymous with modern and inviting office environments since its introduction in 2006.

Often copied but never equalled in terms of style and enduring quality, Alcove was one of the first examples of microarchitectural sofas to provide secluded niches or meeting spaces within open-plan offices. Now Vitra and the Bouroullec brothers have teamed up to further develop and expand the Alcove programme. A conversation with Ronan Bouroullec about the development:

Fifteen years ago, you and your brother developed Alcove, a furnishing that offers its users peace, privacy and a sense of isolation from the immediate surroundings. Did you imagine that your design would be so successful, and above all that it would be even more relevant today than at the time of its creation?

Ronan Bouroullec: No, not at all. But the topics we addressed with Alcove were of course already circulating at that time.

What do you mean? You can’t have already been thinking of the Covid pandemic back in 2006.

At the end of the 1990s, lots of people were dreaming of lofts, of huge open-plan apartments. Suddenly all the walls had to be demolished, only to be replaced by micro-architectural elements adapted to different tasks – a cube in which to cook, a cube in which to sleep and a cube in which to watch television. So people still wanted privacy and shelter.

So you wanted to give people a little niche into which they could creep to escape the big wide world?

Exactly. The whole story actually began with a sofa that was rather unsuccessful. It was about the same height as the low Alcove and was designed for living environments. But for some reason it was not particularly well received. Perhaps because it wasn’t a sofa that you could sink into. You sat more ‘on’ the sofa. And then during a meeting with Rolf Fehlbaum in Birsfelden, we were standing around the sofa when I spotted a piece of cardboard and wedged it between the tubular steel frame and the upholstery to form a high screen. Rolf Fehlbaum, Erwan and me found this idea very interesting and suggested developing a version with high back and side panels. That was just a few weeks before the Orgatec furniture fair. Vitra decided to present the sofa at the exhibition and put it right in the middle of the stand.

How did people react to your idea? Was it immediately understood?

Business matters are seldom discussed directly at the stand during trade fairs. There are screened-off zones for this purpose, or discussions take place in the corridors between the stands. However, at Orgatec, people went and sat in Alcove to talk finance. They apparently felt it offered enough privacy. That proved to us that our idea worked and that we had obviously fulfilled a need. The great response that the product subsequently received confirmed our first impression.

Were you surprised that a sofa, originally designed for the home, sparked so much interest in the ‘office world’?

Not really. For me, a good sofa is simply a good sofa. And it can function equally well in offices and homes. The office landscape of the early 2000s had a similar appearance to the loft apartments I mentioned earlier. While the workplace used to consist of individual offices or separate rooms for small groups of people, now everyone was working in the same space. The last walls had come down, but the need for privacy did not disappear with them.

But sofas in the office were still rather unusual at that time.

Many companies first had to learn to trust their employees and realise that a sofa in the office would not just encourage them to take a nap. And they had to understand that a better, more ‘home-like’ atmosphere in the office also shows appreciation to employees, who in turn may then work better. The sofa question was not least about relationships within a company. So, I also believe that Alcove’s success is not simply based on its functionality and form, but just as much on the attitude it embodies. When a company shows that it is not always about performance and profit, but that it also cares about the well-being of its employees, it sends a strong signal.
An Alcove Sofa in the middle of an office functions like a teabag dipped in hot water. It generates a good spirit, positive energy.

Were you then also aiming to change behaviour and work methods in the office?

Absolutely. With the Joyn table that we designed for Vitra, we had already had the idea of turning work processes in the office upside down. The aim was to get everyone sitting around one big table, quite compact. We wanted to save space, not to pack even more people into one room, but to create space for other things that have since become very important in many jobs. For example, for meetings, concentrated work, informal exchanges. Alcove emerged from the same thought process. It was to create a room within a room, which could be modified without much effort and flexibly adapted to current needs.

You have been working on the Alcove collection since 2006. What keeps you interested in this product?

The fact that it is still relevant or perhaps even more relevant than ever, as we mentioned at the start of this interview. It’s about continuing to support people and provide them with the best possible spatial solution for each work step and task. I always find it very interesting to see the different situations in which Alcove is used. Recently an architect told us that he had used the system in a police station, for the purpose of hearing victims of violent crimes, particularly sexual assault. Alcove provides a very good framework for this because people feel protected and can talk more easily about what happened to them, he said. I was extremely touched by this and it also showed me how important it is to create a good atmosphere. I am aware that a sofa does not change the world, but I would at least like to contribute some form of positive development.

There is now a new generation of the Alcove family. What was there left to improve after all these years of success?

We asked ourselves why not transform Alcove into a holistic solution. So we made some adjustments and expanded the system to cover practically all the needs of a contemporary office, an office that still makes sense during and after the pandemic. Of course, a lot can be done working from home, provided you are in a situation that allows you to concentrate on solo tasks. But developing ideas together and discussing them in an informal way is simply not as easy when it is done remotely. I therefore think that people will come back to the office mainly out of a need for social interaction and communication. But this also needs to take a physical shape. With systems such as Alcove, it is possible to create a situation similar to that in a bar. People come and go, sit down with others with whom they need or want to discuss something, or retreat again for a telephone conversation with a client. This type of flexibility is becoming more and more important.

How do you go about creating this flexibility in concrete terms?

We have fitted some models with castors, for example. The individual installations can then be moved around very quickly. We’ve taken the topic even further with the idea of screens, which I particularly like. It makes perfect sense, because in this way you can construct a room with just one sofa. It also adds an organic aspect to the relatively strict grid layout that is formed when grouping sofas together.

You mentioned working from home. By now, many people probably want the Alcove for their homes, to isolate themselves from their partners, children and other housemates for a moment. Does this also apply to you?

I like having my family around me when I am working. Their presence doesn’t bother me at all, even when I need to concentrate. Alcove is ideal for this type of situation as it is serves as a sort of filter but is not a wall. This filter works both ways. Anyone outside the Alcove knows that I’m working on something when I’m inside it. It sends out a signal. Besides, my daughter is now 13 and doesn’t run around the apartment anymore.

And what about your studio, do you have opportunities for quiet retreat there?

To be honest, I don’t find it that important there. During the first lockdown, when I sent all my assistants home and could only call them to find out how they were doing for two and a half months, I realised that I really missed them. I need lots of interaction and like being surrounded by my assistants. I love this chaos of 3D models and leftover cardboard, this exchange of ideas and continual movement.

How should we imagine your favourite position when working?

Picture a tiger in a cage. I walk about, thinking, looking at what my assistants are doing, discussing concepts with them or rejecting ideas. You rarely find me sitting down. That’s why I have never needed a height-adjustable desk. I feel privileged that I don’t have to stay in the same position for hours on end.

Publication date: 17.6.2021
Author: David Streiff Corti

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