Communication is King
A Gensler designer conceptualizes the office of the future at NeoCon
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 5/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
A newcomer to Gensler, designer Alexis Dennis has a flair for drama. And not just when designing sets for Off Broadway plays during spare time in her student days. (She earned her undergraduate degree in set design from Pace University and her master's in interior design from Pratt Institute.)
Before moving cross-country to join Gensler's Los Angeles office, Dennis was on the workplace beat at TPG Architecture. Projects to her credit include the New York headquarters of Deloitte Consulting, offices and conference facilities for New York University, and an L.A. office for law firm DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary.
For NeoCon in Chicago this year, Dennis designed "The Art of Interaction," an exhibit that explores ideas about the office of the future. But her 1,200-square-foot pavilion—installed in the south lobby of the Merchandise Mart—is no grab bag of contract furniture. Instead, she takes a more thematic route, examining human collaboration as the key factor in the workplace. Ideas, not products, are design's currency.
What does the exhibit look like?
Because it has to engage busy people, it at first appears sculptural. Aluminum poles support an elliptical canopy made of a PVC membrane by Newmat. Inside is the interactive portion, developed with media artist Scott Snibbe's company, Sona Research. Black lounge seating by Arne Quinze rings the platform.
Did you have a budget?
No, everything was donated. It's advertising, of course.
What's the interactive part?
It has to do with white incandescent light projected on the platform's white retroreflective surface. When one person stands there, nothing happens. When two occupy the space, a line appears between them. The more people, the more lines. But if one person engages another—shaking hands, for instance—the line between them is broken, and the space becomes shared.
What does it all mean?
It's a study in connections. In moving from the owned to the shared, the environment improves. Interacting with another individual allows one to expand one's boundaries.
How does this translate for the workplace?
Today, employees are problem solvers and idea generators, not data processors. So collaboration is essential for the future.
What are your thoughts on collaboration?
Now that we're in an age of instant communication, we have to think about what works and what doesn't for us as human beings. What do people want in terms of noise level or constant questioning or rules of engagement?
Sounds like workplace psychology.
Yes. In the past, the rules of engagement were supported by the environment. Now, we need to be more careful and learn how to read a situation.
Is anything else part of the exhibition?
Just in case people don't get it, the space's columns are wrapped with posters displaying statistics and anecdotes derived from the workplace- collaboration research we gathered.
Where did you get that idea?
It's inspired by Jenny Holzer's work and the outdoor pieces at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, New York. Lounges and gathering spaces by young architects influenced me, too. What I didn't want was an exhibit like the Museum of Modern Art's "Workspheres" from 2001. I loved it, but it was about products, which get dated.
What do you hope to achieve?
I'm trying to tell a story about what we at Gensler see as the trends. We're interested in process, which comes out of the environment. But the work process is less clearly defined than it has been. This piece becomes an object lesson. The point is to get a reaction, not to tell someone what the results are.
You said that the text is research-based, though?
In the U.K., Gensler commissioned Vanson Bourne to survey hundreds of businesses to learn how people collaborate and how they perceive the workplace. In the U.S., Gensler completed a similar study, conducted by D/R Added Value. We learned clients feel that open offices don't always equal collaboration.
Could you cite some actual Gensler offices designed around interactivity?
At Corinthian Television's 80,000-square-foot headquarters near London, there's a break-out lounge next to a traditional conference room. It's great for the editors who work alone in long shifts. Also, Discovery Communications in Silver Spring, Maryland, is a 54,000-square-foot campus organized into neighborhoods, each with a central kitchen—a natural gathering place. Off each kitchen, a walnut-slat screen defines a nook set up as a semiprivate work area.
In your own real office, what from the NeoCon installation would you implement?
For me, it's a study in remote collaboration—we used designers from Gensler's offices in Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. And I learned that we can put together the best people for a project, even if they aren't all in one place.