The Vitra Workspace is designed by Los Angeles-based designer Jonathan Olivares and London-based architect and designer Pernilla Ohrstedt. The project marks the first time that Olivares and Ohrstedt have collaborated. While Ohrstedt specialises in creating interactive spaces and installations using unconventional materials, Olivares’s work spans industrial, space and communication design.
The 1,700 sqm, open-plan Workspace comprises clusters of Vitra product groups that demonstrate various arrangements of contemporary office interiors. Among the pieces on show are the UN Lounge Chair designed by Hella Jongerius in 2013 and chairs by Jean Prouvé, and Charles and Ray Eames.
The space also features a workshop area, a material and reference library, a café and four office-based installations designed to articulate Vitra’s key values, and its historic and contemporary approach to office design.
In April 2015 at Palazzo Clerici in Milan, Olivares and Ohrstedt joined Nora Fehlbaum, co-CEO of Vitra, to discuss the Vitra Workspace in a conversation moderated by architecture and design writer Tamar Shafrir. Disegno is delighted to publish an edited transcript of the conversation below.
Can you explain a little bit about the genesis of this project, what the intention was behind making a Vitra showroom for office furniture?
Nora Fehlbaum When we opened VitraHaus, which is the home of the Vitra Home collection, we set a new standard in terms of how we present our furniture and our brand on the Vitra Campus. So we felt that we needed to bring our presentation of office furniture to a similar level. We had showrooms for this purpose but they were spread across the campus.
From the beginning we said that we didn't really like the term showroom, because it is too passive. It's a room where you show stuff. And how boring is that. There is so much opportunity to engage people and so much content that we can share and thinking that we can hopefully entice. That's what we wanted to do: to allow more active conversation in this space and provoke people to think a bit more about their own spaces.
Pernilla Ohrstedt Very early on, Jonathan and I wanted to treat this as a spatial project, but also as a kind of information and communications project. So we started to think about the showroom as a kind of tool, as a flexible and active space where you could learn. And that's really what we have been working on together for the past year, to understand how we can very tidily weave the kind of spatial design, the information design and the ever-evolving and expanding furniture collection into one story.
Jonathan Olivares We thought about how this spatial learning tool could serve the visitor, but also help Vitra to learn and grow over the life span of the showroom. We felt that the only way to do this would be to create opportunities for importing information about present and past workplace culture into the showroom, so that the soil is always being turned so to speak.
What you were dealing with here and what your design reflects are two very different scales of time. One is architecture, which is extremely permanent, and the other is showroom furniture, which has an accelerated time scale. As a result I understand that flexibility was part of the design approach?
NF From the beginning there was an emphasis on creating areas and tools within the space that can be updated on a regular basis. It was also very important that we connect the showroom with other spaces on the Vitra Campus. The showroom sits in the centre of an axis made up of the VitraHaus, the home of the Home Collection, the Citizen Office, where we test out our office concepts, the Vitra Design Museum, the cultural heart of the campus, and a production facility, which is in the same building as the showroom. The showroom happens to be directly in the centre of all of this.
PO What was also super exciting architecturally is that we were able to rediscover the space, which was a production hall designed by Frank Gehry in 1989 that up until now had been partitioned into smaller offices and showrooms. We knocked down so many walls, and opened up this incredible space.
The open space lends itself to the kind of flexibility we wanted to have. Vitra has a very expansive range of furniture, but just because a new office system comes out you can't suddenly rip down half of the showroom.
We took a reductive approach, leaving an open stage that is defined by strong spatial elements at the perimeters, and these organise the space and create a navigation through it. For instance the 30m long seating bar that we use to display Vitra’s chairs is anchored along the window bay, and the 25m long revolving billboard acts as a backdrop to the office systems.
JO Flexibility demands a lack of specificity. So not only do we provide numerous open spaces that can be adapted over time, we also give those spaces real life functions that go beyond display. The seating bar not only displays chairs, it functions as a place for visitors to sit, charge a phone or laptop, and have a coffee. This allows the visitor to experience the range of chairs in a casual, real-life scenario. The display features numerous chairs, all mixed together, which creates a dynamic and exciting discovery process.
PO As an architectural element, the bar organises the informal arrangement of chairs, allowing for a great deal of change as visitors move chairs up and off the table for viewing or sitting, or if the selection of chairs is updated. All furniture areas are treated in a similar way. The office systems are highlighted by a light well in the space, and are simply divided by screens but that can be shifted if a new system is introduced, or another is removed.
JO Being adjacent to one of Vitra’s production facilities, we felt that we could embrace the attitude of a production environment, which is driven by lean principles, the Toyota Production System, and the ability to change on demand. For Meet & Retreat, the furniture for individual and teamwork within an open plan office, we placed a 2x2m grid along the floor. This helps the visitor imagine the furniture within dimensions of their own offices, but also helps the staff rearrange furniture. As a learning and planning tool that adapts to change over time, the floor grid is a metaphor for the whole showroom
A very interesting aspect about the Vitra Campus is how there are so many actual workspaces in use, and how these are used as testing environments. Did you address that concept within your own space, using the existing mechanisms as information?
JO We commissioned an architectural photographer to document three offices that were recently furnished by Vitra, two on the Vitra Campus and one at G-Star headquarters in Amsterdam. These photographs occupy a 25m long, three-sided, revolving billboard in the showroom, which creates a contextual backdrop for the office systems and office seating on display, and acts as window into these workplaces. The plan is to update the billboard periodically with recent offices furnished by Vitra.
NF The showroom also has a very playful, almost a childlike, way of looking at things. We have a view onto the factory from the showroom, and Pernilla and Jonathan had the idea to install a scrolling LED text which hangs inside the factory, so that the factory can speak to the visitors. It tells them how long it takes to make an Aluminium Group chair and how many workers are working on it. All of these facts are actually really nice and tangible.
PO The factory window reinforces the idea that the workspace has many windows to the outside world. From the Workspace you have windows towards the Vitra Design Museum, the Citizen Office, the factory, and with the three-sided billboards you see Vitra’s furnishings in the real world. These elements act as props for discussion and contemplation.
JO These vistas empower the furniture conversation, and are indicative of Vitra’s curious and non-insular culture. George Nelson once said something to the extent of “study life, not just design,” and by positing the showroom against what’s happening outside of it, we foster that attitude.
There are many metaphors and resources of information on the Vitra Campus that are pertinent. You have the factory as a metaphor for how offices were planned and managed in the late 20th century. You have Vitra Home, which reflects this very contemporary way of working in your bedroom or in a coffee shop. How does the visitor navigate all of this information?
PO The layout of the showroom suggests a choreography, and each area of the showroom offers its own distinct messages. It’s also possible to take shortcuts through the space, which will edit the sequence of messages.
NF The CEO of a company may visit and only have 20 minutes to see the space, so what are the points you are going to walk them through? You have somebody who has three hours, what are the stories you will tell?
JO We did a lot of thinking early on in the project to make sure that each type of visitor had the content they need and corresponding choreography. We also have a good rhythm of information throughout the space. Most of the time we rely on visual perception and common sense, and other times we involve the visitor to create something more immersive.
Perhaps the most immersive experience is the Office Perspective, where we convey the decades' worth of accumulated knowledge that goes into every product at Vitra. The Office Perspective is a 10m-long wall that portrays the history of the office over the past 16 decades across architecture, office interiors, popular culture, science, technology, and Vitra’s own legacy within this history.
This Office Perspective is actually another hugely important window in the showroom, because it is a window into the past and window into gaining perspective on what happened before.
PO Yes. When you see all of this, and you pick up on an event here, or another there, you also realise that there is probably never going to be an overarching solution to the office. We shouldn't necessarily be looking for this overarching solution. We are not going to arrive at one; it's the journey that's important. The showroom is a tool to develop our understanding, and to give each client who comes into this space the tools to plot their own course.
NF Yes, and all the things that have happened bring you to the decision whether to take that or this table, or that chair or this chair; there are actually so many things that happen which guide you to that decision. The space gives us the chance to look back, but also to look forward, but of course, we have no idea what will happen and we would never say that we know what the future of the office holds. Nobody knows.
JO That's the best answer, because you never know what the world will do to the office. And that’s what makes this subject so exciting.