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Reworking Our Notions of Office Space

Design * A MoMA show features concepts that mix the familiar with the futuristic. Of course, technology plays a part.


NEW YORK — In a clean sweep of conceptual design, the Museum of Modern Art has dismantled the office as we know it.

Out with regimented workstations lined up in conventional rows. Goodbye to industrial ceiling vistas that have kept the lid on creativity. Who needs an office anyway, when computers can be built into beds or wrapped around the neck in a "smart" scarf?

Such questions are lighting up the desktops at MoMA's ambitious design show, called "Workspheres." A five-year undertaking organized by Paola Antonelli, the museum's curator of architecture and design, the show mixes the familiar with the futuristic. Even the outlandish examples use technology available today--which means design concepts could become workaday companions with no more warning than, say, the arrival of cell phones.

The show speaks directly to Information Age culture and people who find their work suddenly portable and omnipresent.

"We are dealing only with the problems of affluent knowledge workers," whose offices, Antonelli says, may be little more than "a bubble of pure concentration."

The question is how design can weigh in to create better tools. More than 200 examples of classic and whimsical office equipment are on display--from Bic pens to the Itty Bitty Booklight to the Aeron chair. They support the museum's central premise--that designers can "mediate between technology and human beings."

But the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week worker is a new creature with a new lexicon: nomadic, global, flexible, personal. Thus the show includes "field offices," privacy compartments, whimsical carryalls, even a computer cart with shot glass holders.

The show lifts off from there. For intellectual heft, the museum commissioned six conceptual "offices" from some of the edgiest designers on the globe. They were required to use available technology, and the museum agreed to forgo participation in any eventual market successes.

A team led by the MIT Media Lab's John Maeda devised an interactive graphic flow chart to manage people and time. A pulsating cloud of information, it could render grids obsolete. Spanish designer Marti Guixe proposed "worksphere seeds"--capsules containing reminders, thoughts and maybe even nutrition. (For a pick-me-up, one capsule contains fresh Swiss air, and another called "Go Crazy" contains metal to provide a jolt when it reacts with dental fillings.) Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa and the industrial design firm Ideo went the poetic route, dreaming up an all-white room with mystical overhead light panels called "Personal Skies." They projected images of passing clouds according to mood. The point is to let workers create individuality in a corporate environment.

"That could be real," says Antonelli. "If a company got behind Personal Skies, it could happen."

The New York firm LOT/EK Architecture designed a decompression chamber called an "Inspiro-Tainer," which could be rolled into conventional offices. The designers observed that today's most creative offices are often carved out of nontraditional spaces such as spare bedrooms, industrial sheds and converted warehouses. For MoMA, the team retrofitted a modular cargo container with DVD, stereo, phone, projection screen, computer and cushy foam chaise for workers in need of psychic recharging.

The workstation is revisited as a swirl of wired furniture called "Mind'Space," by a team of industrial and digital designers from the Haworth office furniture company, Optika Studios, Studios Architecture and Digital Image Design. The piece could be an executive desk circa 2020, with chic touches of aluminum, porcelain and terra cotta. The spiral shape is symbolic of deepening thought. Hidden electronics lets the desktop serve as an adjunct brain. For instance, putting a business card on the work top will cause the system to light up with related files.

Jeff Reuschel of Haworth explains, "Most office inhabitants really can't tell you what they expect their space to do for them." As the desktop becomes a portal to the mind, one can imagine the desk in charge.

The museum's text begins optimistically: "In the future, the workplace will be able to provide a balanced environment that will attract, keep and motivate employees."

People might well be more innovative if they could pad about in stocking feet on a squishy chartreuse vinyl floor or escape occasionally into a portable cocoon. Others might prefer to pound on the steel-and-silicon "Sugar Ray" hanging lamp, which is shaped like a punching bag. Even today, a kindly boss could take the edge off industrial fluorescent light fixtures by ordering gossamer canopies that would shield the desks below.

Balancing work and home life may be more complicated. Dutch designer Hella Jongerius was commissioned to take the office home. Instead of revisiting spare bedroom or basement settings, she reinvented furniture in ways that take the 24-7 workweek to a disturbing new level. Her "Bed in Business" has a computer screen built into the foot of the bed. A keyboard is disguised as a plush pillow. Speakers are stashed in mini-cushions on either side. While the setup might be convenient for watching late-night TV, the idea of building work tools into the most private sphere in the home raises questions "Workspheres" doesn't address.

"It could be a recipe to become neurotic," Antonelli says. "Technology doesn't solve anything. It doesn't absolve people of responsibility for managing their lives."

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