Posts Tagged 'Design'

The ‘Designer’ Chair


I watched Zoolander (again) last night. A film made every time the Mugatu character eats up the scenery.

Of course, as a deskhead, I always look over the shoulders of the characters in a film to see what they are sitting on. Sad. Mugatu sits on an Arne Jacobsen Egg chair. It’s over 50 years old but screams DESIGNER, hence its place under his arse. It provides an easy shorthand, is widely recognised even by non-saddos, but its ubiquity and the fact it is easy to find rip-off versions means it can be cliched.

I am I plus my surroundings


Occasionally the press will have a bit of a chew on some high(ish) concept such as asking what ‘the office of the future’ will look like or whether we must even face ‘the death of the office’.  Most of the better trade magazines steer well clear of taking this sort of stuff head on, figuring correctly that hardcore deskheads such as me have already had a bellyful of it.

Since I first tried banging on about this sort of thing in the mid 1990s, a period of time which saw a great deal of feverish speculation of this sort, an innocent world in which you still had to explain what you meant by ‘hot desking’ rather than sneer at it and before we all learned to spell Millennium properly, I’ve learned how naïve the debate can be. Whatever the business case, whatever the legislation, the demands of employees and whatever the potential of the technology, the workplace is valued far too much to be disposed of completely.

I’ve tended to frame my thoughts on this with reference to an idea from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which states that the history of almost every major civilisation tends to pass through three distinct phases; those of survival, inquiry and sophistication. The first phase is characterized by the question ‘how can we eat?’, the second by the question ‘why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘where shall we have lunch?’

I think the comparison is clear. At the most basic level, owning an office is largely about survival. You need to have an office because you need somewhere to work. It doesn’t really matter that much what it’s like, so long as it doesn’t cost too much and it provides a basic level of comfort and a rudimentary sense of style. Maybe not what you’d consider style, but if we all enjoyed the same internal quality control systems we’d never have heard of James Blunt.

At the enquiry level, people question what they expect from their offices or even why they need an office at all. This question is not as prevalent as it once was, so the inquiry stage is nowadays largely about what to expect from the workplace.

Then, at the most sophisticated level, we have a group of buyers who know exactly what they expect, take it for granted, act on it, don’t mind paying for it if necessary and then just get on with the business of whatever it is that they do.

It would be nice to think that the office design and management industry in the UK would be square behind this design-led and added value proposition, that most firms would rather not get themselves embroiled in a long term price-fight that they can only end up losing to people with lower costs and a willingness to make things a little bit cheaper and a little bit worse than them. It would also be nice to think that every UK based firm would look to talk up the industry whenever it could, through magazines and events and exhibitions and all the other opportunities it has to communicate to its customers.

Now, of course, a large part of the sector that actively does this. But I still think there is too much negativity about, too many people sniping at their own contemporaries, at the media and events, at individuals. In so doing, they are damaging the industry upon which they rely. They are sawing off the branch upon which they themselves are sitting.

A too large part of the industry needs to be more positive and it needs to be more sophisticated in the messages it sends out. It needs to do this not least because buyers themselves are becoming more sophisticated. Customers may not necessarily know at which of Douglas Adams’ three stages they currently are with regard to their property, but they do at least understand at some level that you can always be better. And that includes the desire to work in better surroundings.

Piggin’ marvellous


One of the many things the Internet was supposed to kill off was the printed word. Books, magazines and newspapers, all screwed apparently. Yet while the growth of online media has had an impact – especially on newspapers, which do look pretty screwed – the media still has a tendency to proliferate, to evolve and learn how to thrive in niches.

That is why there is such an amazing diversity in British publishing. David Attenborough may become breathless describing the biodiversity of the world, but even he might raise an eyebrow at the scale of life either thriving in the fertile canopy of British publishing or grubbing around for an existence in the dank leaf mould on its floor.

The top level figures are intersting for analysts but it’s only when you get into the detail that things get really interesting. So, while a well-known media database impressively lists some 25,000 editorial contacts and around 11,000 titles, a quick search through it identifies that 65 of these are devoted to livestock farming. Drill down further and you see there are three of these dedicated solely to breeding pigs. There is only one for ostrich farmers but that may be because you can only write so many headlines featuring the words ‘head in the sand’ before you lose the will to live.

Everywhere you look there are similar evolutionary branches. Six magazines devoted to potatoes – growing them, not cooking them. Forty-two aimed at dentists. Three devoted to pigeon racing.

And it’s no good sneering at these titles and industries because you work in a different field. We all look the same to outsiders. For all I know, in the parallel universe of swineherds there is an editorial in this month’s issue of Pig International questioning the need for quite so many office design and facilities management magazines. So don’t mock. Because if you get involved in any industry, if it earns you a living, it will quickly become interesting enough for you to read several magazines a month about it.


Edward Bernays


 Whether you can’t stand him or just think he’s a bit of a tosser, Derren Brown is clearly on to something. And if you’ve read his book Trick of the Mind you’ll know that what he’s on to is ways to tap in to our fascination with how our thoughts and actions can be manipulated using some well-defined and researched techniques and principles. You can believe in the magical and mystical if you like, but Derren Brown is a creature of the Enlightenment and has no truck with any of that. He’s got psychology and science on his side.

It’s not just Derren Brown who has used the findings of psychologists to find ways to control people. Many of our current beliefs and the very workings of our society are based on this sort of manipulation. So it’s telling that the growth of consumerism in the middle of the 20th Century – especially after the War when we first began to move from a needs based economy to one fuelled by desire – was driven by the ideas of the nephew of Sigmund Freud. 

Edward Bernays became the ‘father of PR’ by first popularising his uncle’s theories in the US then by taking Freud’s ideas and applying them to mould the subconscious desires of the American masses. He did this not just in the name of commerce but also in that of politics because he believed that society was becoming increasingly irrational, immoral and dangerous. How the father of psychoanalysis begat the father of PR is evident from Bernays’ own writings. In his 1928 book Propaganda he wrote: “if we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.”

The reference to propaganda is telling. It’s a dirty word nowadays, largely because of its association with the era of fascism and communism, but at the time Bernays wrote his book propaganda was still enjoying its heyday while sewing the seeds of our modern preoccupation with manipulation, media, the message and marketing. Bernays’ statement was very much of its time but still resonates today.

The outstanding documentary maker Adam Curtis made the manipulation of opinion based on this kind of thinking the theme of his amazing, eye-opening series The Century of the Self which was first aired in 2002. (The series is now available online at As well as describing the work of Bernays and his contemporaries, Curtis’ series brings the ideas described in this pre- and post-war era up to date and extends it to the actions of contemporary politicians, especially with regard to the government and its attempted, sometimes successful, sometimes cack-handed manipulation of opinion and thought.

What this demonstrates is that as soon as somebody describes a theory or discovers something about how people function, somebody else will take that knowledge and attempt to use it as a way of modifying somebody else’s thoughts and actions, not least while they’re at work.

A good example of this can be seen in the modish application of psychogeography. Psychogeography, as defined by one of its founders Guy Debord is “the study of the precise effects of geographical setting, consciously managed or not, acting directly on the mood and behaviour of the individual” and started life as an offshoot of Situationist thinking in Paris in the 1950s. Now while it may have originally been about the manipulation of the aesthetic and political, the idea has now been bastardised and reinvented by our post-modern sensibilities to mean whatever the hell anybody likes.

Talk of psychogeography, while at best nebulous, at worst meaningless, still has a particularly appeal given our ongoing fixation on the relationship between people and place. Which explains why the use of the physical environment to either manipulate people or enhance their well-being and moods depending on your point of view is a recurrent theme in both the domestic and commercial design press.

I can see two problems with the way this material is presented. The first is that there is often too much emphasis placed on cause and effect. We are sometimes told, for example, that a particular shade of blue will give an air of tranquillity to a room or make people more productive. Well it might, but only if the other 57 factors that make people feel calm and productive are also sorted. As well as their relationships with their work and their colleagues, these will also include some factors beyond the control of the employer; the person’s home life, what they had for breakfast, whether they like blue and that git who carved them up on the A57 on the way in. There is a clear limit to the impact that a factor such as the colour of your office can have in isolation.

The second is that much of the thinking about the way we design workplaces is still based on need rather than desire, the exact opposite of what we expect when designing our homes. Office design and management is still about rationality and practicality rather than the subconscious desire for stuff we just plain want.


Short cuts

ckeeler1We all like short cuts. This is as true for designers and architects as anybody else, which is why they so often rely on iconic products to offer a little visual clue to people, to let them know the place they are in is the right sort of place. Cool. Contemporary. Just like them.

Many of the products they use in this way are 20th Century classics. And often they are chairs. The Barcelona chair. The 3107 chair. The Panton chair. The Eames recliner. Each has not only its own integrity as a design but a widely known iconography upon which designers can draw. An elbow in our ribs, a wink wink, know what I mean? Know what I mean?

These products are also the most copied. The market is flooded with fakes. Even the famous portrait of Christine Keeler that is central to the iconography of the 3107 uses a fake chair.

Runcorn. You can come in, but you can never leave.

buzz_mobiushighwayOne of the favourite words of architects and designers is intuitive. It is one of their BIG IDEAS, even though much of what they do is nothing of the sort.

The most counter-intuitive place on Earth is Runcorn in Cheshire. It is impossible to find your way into or out of Runcorn the same way twice. It is surrounded by a Moebius strip of ‘expressways’ which are liable to pitch you up at any point within a five mile radius without warning. Particularly hard to find is the train station which your eyes tell you is there, alongside the road, but without any discernible means of getting to it. I found the town centre once, but I’m not sure I could again.

It’s the Hotel California of towns. Apart from the Mersey, the only two things I know that have ever found their way out are the translucent ginger one from Girls Aloud and whoever wrote Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please.

So baffling is the process of locating or leaving Runcorn that last year, Miss Runcorn actually came from Leeds. I’m not making this up.

Taste sensation

bennetI think we have experienced a great homogenisation of taste in recent years. One reason why is that we’re surrounded by people guiding our tastes in everything from cars to wine, food, clothes, house design, office design, restaurants, holidays, language, art, music, books and film.

The problem with a universal acceptance of what we mean by ‘good taste’ is that it acts as a brake on change and innovation.

Alan Bennett once made the point in typical style. ‘Taste is timorous, conservative and fearful,’ he wrote. ‘It is a handicap. It stunts. Olivier was unhampered by taste and was often vulgar; Dickens similarly. Both could fail and failure is a sort of vulgarity; but it’s better than a timorous toeing of the line. Taste abuts on self preservation. It is the audience that polices taste. Only if you can forget your audience can you escape.’

November 2019
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