How To Turn Your Office Into A Mid-Century Marvel
Jean Prouvé "Design Office”, 1948. Photograph courtesy of Galerie Patrick Seguin
Take your inspiration from Design Miami/ in Basel and give your workplace a <i>Mad Men</i>-style makeover – the chairs, shelves and lighting (but no drink cabinet) to make your office environment a modernist hive of industry (and user-friendly industrial chic).
In this soul-crushingly digitised millennium, there are a lot of different kinds of awful environments in which you can eke out a living. Maybe you work in a giant, open-plan hangar, next to innumerable dead-eyed individuals plugged into computer terminals (an environment that’s, all in all, a little bit too much like the bit where they all wake up in The Matrix). Or maybe you’re employed by a right-on start-up, and have found an “_ur_mazing” warehouse space, which, though it supplies the requisite amount of industrial chic, lacks a lock on the toilet door. If you’re really lucky (slash… unlucky), perhaps you work in one of those places with weird Willy Wonka candy stalls by the escalators, acid-green “idea-pods” round every corner and, shudder, a ping pong table where a smoking area should be. Whatever the case, chances are your workplace is not incredibly stylish.
Things used to be different. At least, if this summer’s edition of Design Miami/ in Basel is anything to go by. One of the themes ricocheting around the June edition of this renowned design fair – which brings together more than 40 international galleries focusing on collectable design – is designers of the past that envisioned a better workspace. One of the most dramatic iterations of the idea is being mounted by Galerie Patrick Seguin, which is exhibiting an entire office building (replete with furniture) designed by pioneering modernist Mr Jean Prouvé. The idea behind this “demountable” structure, which was first installed as the office at Mr Prouvé’s Maxéville factory in 1952, was to demonstrate to the public the beautiful and practical simplicity of prefabricated architecture. In 2016, though that’s still the case, it also just looks very, very nice.
Meanwhile Paris’s Galerie Marcel Poil is showing the wonderfully intricate bureau setup of art deco designer Mr André Sornay – an ingenious bit of built-in design incorporating a series of swivelling articulated circles – and Copenhagen’s Dansk Mobelkunst gallery has dug out a series of 1930s light fittings designed by the architect Mr Palle Suenson for the offices of the Aarhus Oil Factory (see below).
Looking at it all from a more contemporary viewpoint is Brooklyn-based architecture practice SO-IL, who have created a range of office furniture for Knoll, designed to respond “to the increasingly fluid nature of creative production in the workspace”. We have to say, though – we are keen on the older stuff. These are the timeless designs from an age in which creative innovation enthusiastically met mass production techniques; and most dreary offices of today would benefit from them. Scroll down to discover the three pieces on show at the fair (which runs June 14-19) that we’d like to install in ours:
Irving Harper Swag Leg Chair by Irving Harper, 1950s at Patrick Parrish Gallery. Photograph courtesy of Patrick Parrish Gallery and Clemens Kois
Mr Irving Harper was the design director at George Nelson Associates, the firm that created many famous designs (and a logo) for the now-revered furniture company Herman Miller. Thanks to his boss Mr George Nelson’s rather iffy methods of accrediting the company’s work, Mr Harper, who died in 2015, rarely gets linked to the above Swag Leg chair, which he designed in the 1950s. But that sad thought doesn’t quite trump the pleasure of looking at it. A fine candidate to replace that boring mesh-and-swivel thing you’re probably sitting in now. And, if you recount the above story, a conversation piece, no less.
Bookcase by Charlotte Perriand, 1957 at Galerie Downtown François Laffanour, Paris. Photograph courtesy of Marie Clérin for Laffanour
Ms Charlotte Perriand, a protégé of Le Corbusier and one of the few women that were allowed into the inner circle of the architectural modernists, didn’t specifically design her wonderful Nuage shelving with office use in mind. But, as its sleek sliding doors and box-like dividers are all modular, it’s a thoroughly flexible system that would much enliven any creative (and magazine-stuffed) workspace. The only issue is the cost – an original example like the above being shown by Galerie Downtown, Paris, would probably set you back as much as an entirely new office. But there’s also reissues available from Cassina, if you’re being cheap about it.
Pair of wall lamps by Palle Suenson, 1940 at Dansk Møbelkunst Gallery. Photograph courtesy of Dansk Møbelkunst Gallery
Northern European modernists such as Messrs Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Ms Eileen Grey did a good line in austere furniture – the kind of pieces, featuring a lot of steel, glass and black leather – that you now tend to see in the lobbies of big banks and corporations. Nordics such as Mr Alvar Aalto, on the other hand, tended to have a slightly softer touch, producing designs that were more evocative of the forms of nature than the brutal geometry of industrial mass production. Mr Palle Suenson is most definitely of the latter camp, something that’s clear to see in the range of furniture he created for the offices of the Aarhus Oil Factory in the 1940s. These wall sconces in particular have a warm, shell-like quality only emphasized by the glowing, pearl-shaped light bulb in the centre of each. Imagine passing these on the way to the vending machine. Imagine.