In conversation with Aurel Aebi and Reto Ulrich, atelier oï
Generous and open office layouts support informal communication. In this context, an open discussion culture is an essential prerequisite for the New Office. atelier oï, one of the most renowned architecture and design studios in Switzerland, designed the "Velum" business lounge furniture for Girsberger. In this interview, Aurel Aebi and Reto Ulrich provide insights into the conceptual approach to the development of this furniture concept and how important it is to express gestures with spaces and furniture.
Had atelier oï previously been involved in designing working environments in the conventional sense?
Although we haven't publicized it much, we have delivered various agile working projects, some of which involved a change management component. But lately this area has really taken off for us and we are currently planning a number of projects from large Swiss companies, drawing on the very latest insights.
In your opinion, what are the “cosy office” criteria that a modern office should fulfil?
The prevailing view used to be that spaces had to be multifunctional. Nowadays, we assume that different zones are required, to satisfy differing requirements. You decide in the morning what activity you want to do then choose the ideal environment for that. Co-working, co-living and so on, all of these concepts flit between the physical and the digital. We’re also straddling the space between working and living. Over the next decade, there’ll be a lot of focus on the “in-between” area, as many professions have yet to fully embrace the digital. Right now we’re at the interface, with working and living space becoming less distinct from one another. Part of this involves asking ourselves, do I have to go to the office or can I work from home? One thing, however, is always true: the more you work at a computer, the greater the desire for a soft environment. Because of this, the gestures made by spaces and furniture, such as a lounge, are very important.
With creative dialogue in particular, you feel freer in a setting that doesn't scream office. Feeling comfortable is important in order to be efficient and make progress. But there are activities that demand a different environment and different spatial characteristics to ensure a pleasant, collaborative atmosphere.
The rules of sentence structure also apply to a space: you enclose within brackets – insert dashes – and full stops. The open-plan office gets smaller when you split it into a cellular structure. In the atelier, we’ve used curtains in places to solve the zoning issue, and the effect is very nice. You can create spatial separation yet still have proximity, a certain warmth and a more pleasant atmosphere than in a conventional meeting room.
As the nonsense poem by Christian Morgenstern goes: “One time there was a picket fence, with space to gaze from hence to thence. An architect who saw this sight, approached it suddenly one night, removed the spaces from the fence, and built of them a residence.” What we demonstrate, however, is that something can also be created from the space in-between.
Our workstations, for example, are located in the former motel rooms in which we can work intensively but which are open to the corridor so people can look in. On the opposite side of the corridor, we've created recesses in the façade in which we display material samples, details and even finished products. So the storage space is removed from the immediate vicinity of the workstation, but also provides an opportunity for participation and discussion. It acts like a display window which everybody passes, while doubling as the closing bracket.
The moments are what matter, generally speaking, and that calls for broad-minded thinking. You also have to think about what the space is like before everything is tidied away. Filling empty space is what we do. But a space must facilitate fluid changes and not be static.
»Filling empty space is what we do. But a space must facilitate fluid changes and not be static. We show how the space between can be turned into something.«
Are there any concepts and solutions to spatial problems which you were keen to lift from atelier oï and use as a model for other office structures?
From my perspective as an employee, it's this big space in which we are sitting. This is where we get together to discuss the completed work steps in a design process and where we get direct feedback from colleagues. The dialogue is very organic, because our break room is next door and people are forever popping in, trying things out, expressing an opinion. Businesses need to foster an open discussion culture if they want to create a “new office”. A fancy lounge with cleverly arranged furniture and other gimmicks won't, in themselves, encourage people to have impromptu discussions. You have to lead by example and cultivate it.
Superficial, fake-playful elements are all the rage these days. But we're not children. Of course it’s important to take breaks. But we prefer the idea of a stage on which various scenarios can be played out. We use this space here as a presentation room, a photo studio, for meetings and for work discussions. Everything is completely flexible and can be quickly stowed away again. When planning an office, you really have to dematerialize things and create a setup that accommodates lots of different scenarios and can be reorganized without the assistance of a facilities department. We pick up our own chairs and tidy them away. The whiteboards attached to the walls can be taken back to your desk after the discussion, complete with all the notes made on them. At the end of the day, we need a mobile phone, a computer and some paper – that's it. Everything else is for sharing knowledge.
A table is helpful, as long as it's round and doesn’t create a hierarchy. Nobody should be standing up running through a flipchart, as this implies a managerial role, explaining to other people what the better or correct option is. In our office, for example, we adopt a transdisciplinary approach and every team member with his or her specific background has a great deal to contribute. We explain and discuss everything from all kinds of perspectives and through the eyes of lots of different professions.
You've now designed the “Velum” business lounge for Girsberger. Was there a specific brief? What was your starting point?
The briefing was pretty open. When we were looking for a central theme, we decided on a soft approach, a design that doesn't shout at you. After all, the aim is to provide protection and security.
In Japan, they say that space is defined by four pillars. Nothing more is required. So it is conceivable that a space can be opened up by a defined corner. It’s more about planning the emptiness than the fullness, perceiving both the environment and the space within it. Is something a self-contained unit or does it comprise spatial aspects?
Here in the large space of the atelier, for instance, we have these curtains which are held in place by something that resembles a large paperclip. This creates an architectural pattern like waves repeatedly breaking. It almost has the appearance of corrugated iron. The simple fold of the curtain creates a “half space, half furniture” effect. This is thrilling for us, because it allows the material a certain freedom.
We soon decided on the “horizontal brackets” design approach. It was a matter of finding the right form for Girsberger, rather than just adding yet another new typology to what is already available on the market. It had to be something quite standalone and be a good fit for the company. With its warm appearance, wood is the ideal contrast material. This initial idea had to be translated into a system which would offer the end customer and users a degree of flexibility to explore the space on offer. We also had to consider all the technical and structural issues. Where are the base columns, what does the layout look like, how can we create an environment that is as versatile and fluid as possible.
»The gestures made by spaces and furniture are very important!«
How would you sum up the essence of your design approach? When you are designing, are you guided by a fundamental approach that has always served you well?
We think with our hands and find the solutions in our interaction with the materials – by feeling, experimenting and making models. Our materials library in the basement is an invaluable resource of around 20,000 materials of every conceivable kind. Often, we have an idea of the materials before we start thinking about the form; the form emerges from the materials. So our approach is like that of a chef. If we want to improve on something, we change the ingredients. That’s exactly how we operate. If the material doesn't want to play ball, it tells us. We build 1:1 models so that we can accurately check the spatial conditions and we will often look back at archived ideas and solutions from the past which can be repurposed, in an altered form, in an entirely different context.
Because of the wooden structure, finding a static solution to the wide spans in the business lounge proved very challenging at times. We didn't want the outcome to be perceived as industrial. We wanted people to be enthralled by the hand craftsmanship and we wanted it to be evident that not everything was machine-made. If a company clearly has a particular flair for something, a certain “savoir-faire”, we show this in the design. In the case of “Velum”, this is reflected mainly in the use of wood for construction. But we also wanted to avoid over-designing. The world doesn't need any more technoid furniture. It’s nice when a bench looks like a bench, without aerodynamic feet which would be equally at home on a car. Even the seat cushions make no statement other than that they are there to be sat on.
Girsberger's DNA is craftsmanship combined with an understanding of the fact that users must be won over by the work-related features and the associated ergonomic requirements. So we also integrated storage options, such as extension tables and adaptations to technical connections.
Girsberger is undoubtedly influencing notions of how we will work in future and this is very much embodied in the design. “Velum” was the result of a co-creation process. We're not a one-man show at atelier oï. In the creation process, lots of people are giving the best of themselves to the project. So we welcome it when experienced experts and designers like those at Girsberger provide clear inputs during the process.
We also find it really helpful to engage with our market. It's a challenge adapting to the prevailing conditions without having to make compromises. A detailed knowledge of the production options and their implementation is essential to us and, ultimately, resulted in a product which we can all stand fully behind.
»The way we see it, simplicity has an aesthetic quality all of its own«
What's the attraction of using solid wood for the frame structure?
To begin with, we had various approaches, including with regard to the material used. It was always our intention to use solid wood but not, initially, in quite this way. Of course the company is hugely skilled at handling solid wood and now, with the verticals carrying the screen, the whole design has a cohesive materiality.
The privacy panels are formed by gathered fabric, a solid cloth ...
Curtains are a leitmotiv in the Moïtel. The structural solutions are minimal and everything else is sorted by curtains. Ultimately, all you need is a special structure, but not really anything more than a “paperclip” which holds things together. We didn't want to overdo the interior fittings here either. The building is essentially a box with a front, laid out over two floors. In fact, our office is like the “Velum” furniture on a macro scale, simply a receptive space. “Velum” now serves as a planning tool which can be used to design spaces. The form offers something familiar and doesn't scream brand new. This business lounge is intentionally simple and, the way we see it, simplicity has an aesthetic quality all of its own.
When approaching the design of the lounge furniture for Girsberger, do the feelings of the people who will be using it figure in your design scenario? How do you want them to feel?
Our aim was to make the visitor feel welcome. In architecture, we also call this the “language of angles”. An open angle is welcoming – like open arms. Depending on how the angles are designed, the statement they make ranges from affection to aversion. This aspect is also important when using this furniture in business: if you were to come across this business lounge at a company, the management – even if not physically present – would nonetheless be showing its presence by making a strong gesture of welcome. A visitor perceives this and gets the sense of being welcomed and invited to take a seat. The user must feel accepted and safe.
Our motto isn't Form Follows Function, but Form Follows Emotion. We don't design products, we design moments. In this case, it's about the moment of arrival!
Thank you for talking to us!
Interview: Dorothea Scheidl-Nennemann
Photos: André Bolliger
atelier oï was founded in 1991 in La Neuveville, Switzerland, by Aurel Aebi, Armand Louis and Patrick Reymond, The name oï is derived from the Russian word “troïka”. A troika is a Russian carriage drawn by three horses. The designers use the middle section of this word to represent the idea behind their collaboration – a creative triumvirate driving projects forward. The transdisciplinary atelier, based in the Moïtel (a former 1960s motel), is a creative place that unites intellectual expertise and craftsmanship. The work of the internationally sought-after designers ranges from architecture and interior design to product design and scenography.