In 1660, the English naval administrator and MP Samuel Pepys recorded his impressions of everyday office life in his diary. Even today, these observations remain startlingly relevant: 2 January: So went to my office, where there was nothing to do. 13 January: Thence to my office, where nothing to do. 14 January: Nothing to do at our office. 1 February: This morning I lay long abed, and then to my office, where I read all the morning my Spanish book of Rome.Like Pepys, I’m writing this essay from my office. Ten minutes in and I’m afraid the boredom is already starting to bite, which seems to be endemic to offices as spaces. “Why can offices be so boring?” wrote the journalist Gideon Haigh in The Office: A Hardworking History, a 2012 study of the space.“It goes with the territory. There is a monotony to their condition, to the restricted space, constant temperature and unchanging light. There are inhibitions on behaviour – restrictions on physicality, sanctions against absolute candour – which sanitize and neuter interaction.”In other words, offices are boring because they’re spaces designed to enable work, and work is frequently tedious. “An office too exciting, of course, might conceivably be failing in its mission,” notes Haigh.
Most approaches towards contemporary workplace design, however, fly in the face of Haigh’s sobering message. At the thin edge of the wedge are tech-companies' offices, the kindergarten-cum-assault-course aesthetics of which have positioned the office as a site for fun rather than work.“You don’t get anything in those kinds of offices that feels adult and refined,” says Edward Barber, co-founder of the industrial-design practice Barber & Osgerby, whom I meet at the campus of furniture company Vitra in Weil am Rhein, Germany. Barber’s partner, Jay Osgerby, is sitting nearby, flicking through a glossy magazine of office design.“Here’s another classic,” he announces, flipping the magazine round to show off a double-page spread. It’s a photograph of an office that appears to be in deep cover as a soft-play area. The employees in the photograph are walking around purposefully and look as if they might be experiencing deep, shuddering synergies. “That’s where we are today in terms of office design,” says Osgerby.
At the October 2018 Orgatec trade fair in Cologne, Barber & Osgerby debuted Soft Work for Vitra, an office system designed as a response to the ills of the contemporary office. “The key idea was to do a system that is nothing to do with the desk, because everyone’s working on tablets, phones and laptops anyway, so you don’t need a desk and task chair anymore,” says Barber. “We felt that a lot of people are now working in breakout spaces, so why not develop a serious contender for an office built around the sofa?”“Soft Work,” adds Osgerby, “is the death of the desk”.As far back as 1952, Herman Miller’s then-design director George Nelson was advancing a vision of the office which, while not deskless, certainly gestured towards greater informality. An office, Nelson argued, should aspire to become “a daytime living room where work can be done under less tension with fewer distractions.” It’s a surprisingly contemporaneous suggestion, pointing out that excessive specificity within the setup and functionality of a space might be deleterious to its operation.
Such a vision, Haigh notes, may well fall within the historical remit of the office: “A truth of the history of the office: that it was an activity long before it was a place. The office did not come into being like the spinning jenny or the factory system. It was first an area – in a warehouse, in a store, in a home – cleared for keeping a ledger or writing a letter. […] [The] customized physical location is a far more recent development.”Barber & Osgerby’s Soft Work is an attempt to modify this physical location into a more discrete form better suited to open-ended working habits.The basis of Soft Work is a set of modular rails that are lifted off the ground to create a chassis, which can be specified in straight or curved formations. Combinations of seats and backrests, platforms, tables, panels and arm-mounted trays can then be applied onto it, with power connections that flip up through the gap between cushions before snuggling back down beneath the seam of the upholstery.
It’s an ingenious and elegant setup, and one that manages the trick of feeling casual and relaxed without falling into the juvenilia of tech companies' offices and their ilk. “The idea was very simple, so most of this project has been engineering,” says Osgerby.One result of this engineering was the decision to raise the Soft Office seating above the typical height of a sofa in order to improve ergonomics and create a more natural posture for working on a laptop.“If you think about a typical breakout space, the sofas don’t really work,” says Barber. “They’re typically too low, because they’re designed for reclining, but then you’re trying to recline while typing. So we’ve designed a sofa that’s the right height such that you can work on a table. It’s quite a radical suggestion, and it may take up to 10 years for this to fully catch on, but I think people will understand the idea right away. Every single office – whatever industry it’s in – needs this.”
Barber & Osgerby’s Soft Work, then, is intended as a coup de grâce – a killing blow for the traditional office, delivered 66 years after the hypothetical hiding that Nelson gave it in the 1950s.“Soft Work is about breaking down the very notion of the office building,” says Osgerby. “We question whether you need an office building anymore because in a sense all buildings are now offices, and even the word ‘office’ [could be] irrelevant. You can work from the minute you wake up to the minute you go to bed, and you don’t have to be at work to do that.”Here it seems that Haigh didn’t go far enough in identifying the office as not so much a space as an activity. Today, as working habits change, the office is rapidly becoming the only activity. To quote Nelson: “These are not desks and filing cabinets. These are a way of life.” Soft Work, in its challenges to the typology, is an effort to make that life palatable.