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New Designs for Modern Workplaces


by Paul Best, via arf.com.

On a casual reading, the two-seater has the kind of modern chic one expects to find in a luxury apartment or one of those swank boutique hotels: a beautifully designed and crafted bespoke piece of furniture, with its chiselled, angulated profile and boldly coloured upholstery.

It's not, however, something you'd normally think of scattered throughout the headquarters of one the country's biggest banking groups. And yet the booth-styled lounge from Melbourne furniture manufacturer Zenith Interiors was created – along with a club-styled single-seater – specifically for National Australia Bank's Docklands home.

Known as the 3000 range, the office furniture – exclusively designed by Schamburg + Alvisse for Zenith – articulated the same design language of the building's architects, Woods Bagot: one that spoke of fissures (an abstract play on the bank's logo); and crystalline fragments (an expression of the triangulated site's basalt bedrock breaching the surface).

"You see that same geometry (of the building), with the fissures and the splits, in the furniture," says S+A principal Michael Alvisse. "It's a unique achievement in a world where more and more stuff is stripped of any identity and locality."

However, Zenith's custom-made furniture – which also incorporated workstations, booths, cafe-style huddle zones with built-in soft furniture and office meeting tables – proved more than just a philosophical response.

Companies, particularly big financial corporates like NAB, are increasingly seeking to give the modern workplace a highly individualised aesthetic. It's a chance to stamp their identity as well as differentiate themselves from their competitors.

"Banks used to have a dozen floors of uniformed workstations," explains Zenith's national sales manager, Peter Appel. "Now they are working closer with designers themselves on specific pieces of furniture."

Bespoke also adds a cool and funky tenor designed to attract and retain staff –the fickle Gen Ys most of all. One design firm had staff of a grocery giant create their own screen prints, which then were attached to their chairs.

More than this, interior furnishings also are being tailored to how companies want to function. In NAB's case, it was a series of collaborative spaces and private retreats, in which staff were encouraged to work collectively or on their own, as they saw fit.

For its new headquarters, Envato, an online technology company, similarly wanted to accommodate various ways of working. This included spaces for open stand-up meetings, formal get-togethers, collaboration, cross-divisional communication and communal interplay.

In addressing Envato's needs, Buro Architects came up with an abstract tree, spanning the building's three floors, which served as a light fitting over a communal dining table (level one roots), a reception and intimate meeting pods (level two branches) and larger pods at the top (canopy) level. "The sculptural form [of the tree] offered a new organic way of working, private but open," outlines Buro director Paul von Chrismar. "It connected all three floors…reminded people above and below you existed, that they could come up or down."

Both examples broadly tap into the contemporary idea of activity-based working (AWB), a concept very much in vogue where the emphasis is on agile and flexible environments. It may see private areas partially open or open areas with some privacy, desks that are moveable or offer sit-to-stand capability, or a large "kitchen" table for whatever. It's also about the efficient and cost-effective use of floor space, more elastic rosters and wringing the maximum from a motivated workforce.

office kitchen for employeesZenith, for instance, is launching "a pod focus system" that can be moved about. Building and design multinational Schiavellois also about to release a pod system, called Focus, a chair-like structure allowing staff to concentrate on their work in an open-plan office.

Futurespace sought to "break down barriers" between the open work area and closed meeting room by designing a light circular curtain for online travel agency Wotif's new integrated workplace in Sydney. "It was about creating a casual environment…that fed back into the greater part of the office, so people can see what's going on," explains Futurespace design director Gavin Harris.

The modern office is also likely to feature several different settings, each created for specific activities. There may be quiet areas for one or one-on-one, places for working, transition or meeting. It may offer room for a few or many, sometimes with the capability of being expanded.

Where Appel likens the modern workplace to a house, with each room performing different duties, Anton Schiavello, of Schiavello International, compares it to a small city. A key element to this is health, wellbeing and sociability.

For example, Schiavello International created "writable surfaces" for Facebook's Singapore headquarters, encouraging staff to express their day-to-day feelings. "We're starting to build so much more into the workplace," says Schiavello, on the phone from Singapore.

Phooey Architects used orange and green in their furnishings for branding company Zinc's new recreational facility adjacent to its offices – which included gym, massage room and chill-out area – to recharge staff and foster team spirit, as well as for its revamped reception.

Not everything is designed from scratch, though. Schiavello, for instance, modifies existing solutions and off-the-shelf product 85 percent of the time. DesignByThem has a magnetic modular furniture set that can be pulled apart, joined or configured to suit fluid needs, like AWB or hot-desking. Futurespace went the other way, designing a bespoke chair that worked so well, the Q chair was put into production.

Phooey took another approach again to bespoke. It reused and adapted discarded office furniture for financial consultant Nordia Group's expanded South Yarra offices, upturning old drawers to create new file and display shelves for partitions that both drew visitors into the company's meeting areas while keeping them from the inner workspaces. Old desks were also upended to form new ones. "The design gave a sense of privacy but also welcomed others to come in and inhabit the spaces," says Phooey director Emma Young.

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