How we come to terms with the pandemic and create a new reality for ourselves is exciting to watch. It could be a coincidence, but that the fact that cafés were the first businesses to be allowed to reopen in Austria and restaurants the first in France reveals specific manifestations of people’s overwhelming desire to meet, socialise and interact with others. After months of social distancing, the need for communication and human contact is clearly discernible wherever there have been lockdowns.
We have learned from our recent experience that office work can actually be done differently than we previously thought. We have seen that there is another way of doing things, one that offers options for the future. Yet we are not about to do away with offices altogether. At least some of the time, we need the spontaneous creativity that comes from people sharing the same physical space. But, as the pandemic wanes, structural change in production and services along with the challenges of climate change remain as high up on the agenda as ever. The pressure to hold on to remote methods of working is therefore likely to be huge. The offices of yesterday are dead. But what will take their place?
When we talk about offices being the new coffee houses, we mean it both practically and metaphorically. For the office culture of the future, what matters is not just the physical space but what happens within it. Cafés have always been a type of community hub, somewhere for people to withdraw into their own space and focus on their own tasks, even if only for a short time, but also a place for social interaction and conversation.
For some years now Thonet has focussed on cafés as spaces with their own particular rules, and their intrinsic character could play a key role in the office design of the future. The design of our stands at Orgatec, the office trade fair, and at the furniture and interiors fair imm cologne, was based on a “Café Thonet” theme. Showrooms in the form of pop-up cafés are also being used to bring this idea into city centres. Meanwhile, by adding new, reworked and updated products to the Thonet portfolio, we are providing a way of introducing the coffee-house concept to the office in practice.
As workers return to the office after working from home for so long there are great opportunities for reinventing our workplace. If we make the right moves now, we stand to enjoy substantial improvements. Inertia (using the “but that’s how we’ve always done it” excuse) is no longer a valid argument. We now know what the alternatives are, although we also know their weaknesses. Digitalisation and the transformation of our lives and our workplaces are creating new structural options. We are embracing the positive effects of these and want to enshrine them in our company.
The idea that you’re only working if you’re at your desk was a widely held view for a long time. And Thonet was no different. Just a few years ago, the office was dominated by allocated workstations, which were generally set apart from one another.
These individual offices were previously complemented by the board room, used for large-scale meetings. Long meetings were in keeping with a top-down style of management. Today, conference rooms for the directors and supervisory board are geared more strongly towards communication and a changed style of leadership. The changes are even tangible in the events sector. Large meeting rooms are no longer limited to seating in a traditional theatre layout but offer a mix of open spaces and versatile layout options.
The exciting thing about the new hybrid concepts is that spaces and activities are increasingly overlapping and merging. We have now learned what to do with these new degrees of freedom, which also have an influence on architecture, interior design and organisational structures as well as directly impacting how employees behave. Just because somebody moves about the room does not mean that they have stopped working or stopped thinking about the task in hand. Compliance with the process rule of “sit at your desk” is less of a priority. More important is the result of the work, whenever and wherever that work is performed. Freedom of choice is an integral aspect of freedom. Switching between quiet, focused work and interaction is easier if employees can choose between an appropriately configured chair or sofa arrangement, which, in any case, is better than being tied to a desk.
The German-American social philosopher Frithjof Bergmann (1930-2021) considered autonomy, freedom and participation in the community as the core values of his New Work concept. Bergmann developed this concept in the early 1980s to offer the US automotive industry constructive alternatives to the mass lay-off of workers. The idea was that these workers would initially be employed as usual for a six-month period, and then work in a self-determined capacity for the same length of time. His hope was that New Work would make wage labour superfluous in the long run or reduce it to simply a partial aspect. In his view, wage labour was a bit like a mild illness. And just like with the flu, workers affected on a Wednesday would say: “I can make it through to Friday.”
From the initial project, Bergmann developed the idea of New Work together with a number of followers, promoting a new understanding of work that involves finding out what people really, really want. Bergmann used surveys of car maker employees for this purpose. The aim was to generate a form of self-empowerment to try out other forms of meaningful activity and, with them, new business models. Bergmann’s theories have an enthusiastic following today, particularly in the office furniture sector and start-up scene.
In 2006, Holm Friebe and Sascha Lobo published their book “Wir nennen es Arbeit” (We call it work), in which they paid homage to the “digital bohemian” or “intelligent life beyond permanent full-time jobs”. They presented projects that tried out new forms of work using the latest technology. The Berlin-based digital bohemian of the time was the equivalent of a freelancer equipped with a laptop who organised his global entrepreneurial activities from a café via wifi. Today, some cafés have evolved into coworking companies complete with business consultancy services. “The interplay of technology, urban development, culture, social change and politics,” say Friebe and Lobo, “will enable and produce forms of living and working that still seem utopian to us today.”
Thonet has been involved in the café scene since the very beginning. The delivery of chair No. 4 to the Daum coffee house in Vienna more than 170 years ago is considered the first order for bentwood furniture placed by a hospitality establishment. Destined to become even more famous was the Viennese coffee house chair, which is still produced today, the iconic 214. Ulla Heise, the coffee and coffee house historian, sums it up:
“Regardless of type of coffee house, whether basic or luxury, bentwood chairs and armchairs proved to be the perfect choice.”
If offices are to be the new coffee houses, then they also require the corresponding furniture. Thonet’s history includes not only the invention and introduction of bentwood technology in the mid-19th century, but also the early production of tubular steel furniture in the 1930s. This was a fundamental innovation that paved the way for new living and furnishing styles, accompanied by a changed sense of space and architecture. Pieces such as the S 32 and S 64 cantilever chairs by Marcel Breuer based their seat and backrest on the “Viennese weave” of the Thonet bentwood furniture developed decades earlier. Today, we are developing Breuer’s design language – in line with the requirements of the time – functionally into a bar stool or swivel chair.
In 2006, James Irvine took inspiration from the idea of the tubular steel daybed of the early 1930s for Thonet and,, designed the S 5000 sofa system. Due to the hybridisation of culture between our homes and our working lives, S 5000 has recently undergone another update: Marialaura Rossiello Irvine has added modular one and two-seaters to this programme in an expansion of its functionality. Her designs include adjustable partitions that can also be used to create a retreat, a meeting place or a charging and maintenance station. James Irvine once spoke about the possibility of “reinventing existing products”. His widow now refers to this concept as “ethical design”, when companies and designers take a close look at investments and production processes in order to develop existing products a stage further. This attitude has always been a part of Thonet’s history.
It is clear to us, from our experience with furniture classics, that furniture is perfect for this type of transformation. Rather than becoming a museum exhibit, a piece of furniture can become current again if given enough attention. In this way, items of furniture become self-evident and contribute to interaction. Familiar components of an office that take their inspiration from the coffee house.