Factory Office

Factory Office

As this year’s Orgatec comes to a close and local airports shepherd battle-hardened armies of salespeople and creatives back to their respective hubs, I reflect on some themes from this year’s show.

20406721The Office: a place of industry.

Vitra have been presenting an industrial feel for a couple of years with Jean Prouve and the Bouroullecs leading the way. This show very much continued where they left off. Unfinished metal frames, warehouse style plastic doorflaps to divide spaces, metal mesh side panels and screens hanging from pulleys that would usually be found on a factory floor. The ‘start-up feel’ is still flavour of the month as everyone wants to work at a coworking desk wearing jeans and trainers with no socks, whilst sipping lattés and eating carrot cake…

The industrial feel echoed through the fair this year with many brands acknowledging a factory floor setting, either with a new modular mesh shelving product or simply with the backdrop of their set design. If the Hacienda was still around I’d tell Tony to stick some big ply desks on one side and a coffee barista next to the DJ booth and Fac51 would become a coworking mecca.

img_2054Modularity… 

An important feature in architecture and interiors; the ability to create a grid format of interchangeable blocks allowing users the flexibility to increase or decrease in line with changing requirements. The latest modular trends at Orgatec include space dividing screens suspended by a ceiling mounted rail system, allowing screens to be slid around continuously to carve up spaces (see my Office 2030 blog). Black metal styled storage systems such as Wiesner Hager’s Cage product (below) and boxy storage modules with integrated desking, acoustic panels, soft seating and other features industrialised an office planning theme made familiar by Herman Miller’s Living Office, where soft seating peels off desks, which in turn peel off a modular storage system.

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The use of modular systems on exhibition stands (whether product or prop) firmly illustrates a desire to split up a large open plan commercial space with towering high storage as both a feature and a facility.

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In general, workplace furniture fashion is beginning to look like commercial exposed ceilings: stripped back to bare boned essentials, bolts and fixings proudly on display rather than hidden from view. Solid, rigid, mesh and modular. Carefully considered, then intentionally styled to look a bit rough round the edges. A bit like Jason Statham.

And Tom Dixon’s getting in on the act, with his first foray into the workplace. Aside from a promising chunky wooden trestle-legged team desk, his Boom task light makes no secret of its industrial DNA.

tom-dixon-office-furniture-tables-chairs-lights-accessories-british-design-london-uk_dezeen_2364_col_13Soften the blow

With all this harsh, technology driven metal framed office furniture, we need some softness to compensate. And following in the footsteps of Verpan, Walter Knoll – and more recently Gubi, there was a lot of dark opulent velvet upholstery and mid century vibes. Buzzispace seemingly had a personality transplant and you’d be forgiven for thinking their stand was actually of Danish heritage, with wooden framed easy chairs and muted velvet fabrics, long curtains and screens. Large numbers of plants and foliage are also needed to offset all that tough metal, so expect even more biophilic integration in the new wave industrial workplace.

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In spite of a return to metal frames, there’s still a strong appetite for wooden furniture. Soft linoleum (or linoleum effect) meeting table tops with wooden underframes are as popular as ever, with huge numbers of wooden frame breakout chairs, tables and bar stools launched. Hussl quietly slipped in a nice family of wooden framed chairs and barstools with a rather unique linoleum backrest. Nicely done.

The Scandinavians are still doing what they do best: beautiful wood and hand stitched leather combinations, with Fredericia looking the part. Meanwhile Poltrona Frau impressed with exquisite quality leather meeting and waiting furniture for high quality interiors.

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Swoon chair in velvet

Walter Knoll displayed a range of succulent leather and velvet furniture, with a great new linking meeting table system. In addition they tapped in to another theme which was large executive V shaped electric sit stand meeting tables, perfect for group discussions and ideal for video conference.

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Aside from these themes there’s still plenty of marble, black chrome, copper and brass – plus a wave of 3D style fabrics, tiles and textiles sweeping through. As ever, halls were awash with hundreds of clever stacking, folding, flipping and collapsing solutions- and the race is well underway to embed ever smarter data gathering hardware within furniture. ‘Millennials’ and ‘Digital Nomads’ are mainstream topics now and brands like Samsung, Google and Swisscom are developing IT products to optimise the way current and future generations use buildings and furniture.

But that wraps up my general thoughts on Orgatec this year. Ultimately wellbeing, communication and technology remain centre stage in the modern office and the stripping back of office design only emphasises that. With the fourth industrial revolution looming, it’s ironic that office design chooses a factory style design backdrop to personify itself. The creation of the Factory Office, the rise of smart tech, metric data harvesting and coworking means the future of the workplace is cool, edgy and exciting. And definitely not dead.

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Stripes, Industrial Chic and Zebras

Stripes, Industrial Chic and Zebras

As I work on projects searching for the right products, trends can gently (or sometimes not so) present themselves. In the run up to joining over 50,000 trade visitors at Orgatec in Cologne next week, I’ve recently felt my ‘furniture nerd antennae’ twitch to a couple of design styles which I’ll share with you.

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Zeitraum

There’s a movement within certain design circles of simple, chunky legged, childlike design. Mathias Hahn has developed a number of pieces for Zeitraum in this style and I like the playfulness of it. He makes it look easy and effortless, but the proportions are very carefully considered and well executed.

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Okapi chair by Perez Ochando for Missana

Meanwhile Missana recently launched the Okapi chair, designed by Perez Ochando. The design studio based in Valencia describe ‘the front side of the chair reminding us of a giraffe and the back of a zebra’. Ok. That’ll be last orders at the bar guys…

Bla Station have been on this theme for years, with tele tubby forms, oversized upholstery buttons and simplified shapes. Sometimes our subconscious is drawn to a design style as it reminds us of something. If we have an inner child, then Bla Station have been waving Kinder Eggs and Alcopops at it for a while now.

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Bla Station

But there’s another theme that has caught my eye. A more grown up theme, based upon simple clean lines, 3D shapes, industrial materials and graphite shades. And I have a feeling Orgatec – and 2017 – will be awash with it…

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Zeus: Slim Irony

Zeus have been creating cool iron furniture for decades. Their ‘Slim Irony’ range is a culmination of their time-served expertise. They call it ‘Industrial Chic’. With a blend of minimalism and urban Milanese cool, the range includes rusted top finishes and a glass option that reminds me of school windows… Rusted metal finishes have been a regular feature in external architectural design for some time – perhaps they are finally creeping indoors.

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Zeus: Slim Irony

But that’s not all Zeus are known for. During Milan Design Week the lovely food served in their showroom (a converted car garage tucked away in an unassuming Milan side street) has also gained notoriety. So much so that old folks from the local neighbourhood suspiciously shuffle through the showroom doors en masse around lunchtime, hoping for a free bowl of risotto. The lovely folks at Zeus usually oblige.

Back to what Zeus do best – furniture. The pure, simple form of Slim Irony is nothing new as far as shapes go. But this cubic semi transparent ‘3D’ linear theme is something we’re going to see a lot more of.

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Zeus: Slim Irony

“Handcrafted furniture from the Industrial North…”

From downtown Milan to down the Toon (that’s Newcastle, UK if you didn’t know). Nestled amongst and inspired by faded crumbling industrial heritage, a furniture brand called Novocastrian is emerging with a style of their own. Acknowledging modern trends, with hints of art deco and inspiration from the industrial revolution, a group of metalworkers, designers and architects with a self-confessed obsession with metal are steadily growing their furniture collection. And fanbase.

I love how Novocastrian present themselves: Handcrafted Furniture from the Industrial North. In an era of Brexit, declining industry, fear and propoganda, this is a brand bursting with northern grit to turn it all on its head. Go on lads and lasses.

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Novocastrian’s Straiths Unit – inspired by industrial architecture

Aside from a growing product collection, Novocastrian turn their hands to one off commissions and bespoke products. Whilst retaining their flavour and classic style, they deliver unique elegant forms echoing Charles Rennie Mackintosh, in fabulous materials such as blackodised or bronze patinated steel.

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Novocastrian tables (above and below)

Light years ahead…

But this theme of dark lines and stripes isn’t exclusive to furniture. In recent years we’ve seen lighting designs hit the trade fairs, perhaps illuminating (sorry) this dark linear trend. Michael Anastassiades’ String lights (below) were inspired by electricity wires as seen through a train window…

A recent favourite of mine is Arik Levy’s playful Wireflow collection for Vibia which adds a decorative Gothic touch to a project. Great for a large reception space or gallery. This would look really cool over a bespoke Novocastrian Blackodised steel boardroom table.

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Wireflow by Arik Levy

In both of these lighting collections, the clever twist is that the actual light itself isn’t the main event. The power cord cuts a stripe in thin air, allowing a 2D or 3D shape to be created and make its presence known.

Another related example is Lee Broom‘s Opticality exhibition from LDW last month. With 80’s undertones, Broom plays with the senses to present his latest lighting product ‘Optical’. This is where the playful linear trend crosses over to 3D graphic design, visual perceptions and perhaps even fashion.

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Once you tune in to these themes it’s hard to stop noticing them and I could literally go on and on throwing related products at you. But I won’t. If like me you’re jetting off to Cologne next week for Orgatec, look out for cubic linear shapes, black stripes, 3D frames and industrial black metal. Oh and keep your eyes peeled for the occasional zebra or giraffe lurking in the background…

Clerkenwell V BREXIT

Clerkenwell V BREXIT

Another Brexit post. Yawn.

This isn’t a political broadcast, this is a short insight into problems and opportunities faced by the British furniture industry, brought on by volatility in the pound. Of course many of these problems are replicated in other industries such as consumer electronics or cars, but as I’m an expert in neither of those, I’ll leave that to PC World and Top Gear.

The headlines across financial markets have been “Sterling Drops to 31 Year low” which conjures up images of irritated Brits spluttering ‘how much?’ at the beach bar on holiday whilst UK exporters rub their hands together as their market takes off. There is very much a flip side of positives and negatives here, littered with dangerous potholes.

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As we know Britain has a trade deficit: net import is higher than net export. In terms of furniture, there is a complex network of furniture importers, dealers and distributors across the UK that act as trusted local agents for their clients. These businesses collectively bring in huge quantities of furniture and interior goods to the UK. The big danger to these companies is short to medium term volatility. Here’s the scene:

  1. Week 1: Regional dealer wins sought after project at competitive margin.
  2. Week 2: Quotation agreed with local client in Pound Sterling.
  3. Week 3: Orders placed with European supply chain, buy prices in Euros. (rate 1.2)
  4. Weeks 3-9: Market volatility follows, pound drops sharply.
  5. Week 9: Furniture arrives along with supplier invoice (30 days).
  6. Weeks 9-12: Pound Sterling continues to drop and hits 1.1.
  7. Week 13: Unlucky for some. Supplier invoice due…

That’s a big hit to anyone’s margin and can easily render a project loss-making. For a five or six figure furniture contract, that’s potentially a huge loss to the bottom line.

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“Many agents and overseas manufacturers are now feeling the pain of subsidising the weak Pound…”

Aside from regional dealers there are national agents who try to steady the ship by setting a rate for the year ahead. There will be many agents and overseas manufacturers now feeling the pain of subsidising the weak Pound after betting against the possibility of Brexit last year. January is the time many new 2017 price lists drop and the UK market can expect significant cost increases from American, European (and other currency) suppliers. 

Meanwhile UK exporters are hugely optimistic (unless they are heavily reliant on foreign components purchased in other currencies that is) and have to take advantage of overseas opportunities. But whilst there are always short term advantages in these volatile markets, any long term successful strategy needs to be just that – long term. It’s easy to bag some quick overseas wins when your currency is bargain basement, but if and when it returns you might need to do the subsidising if you want to keep developing that new business.

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Many British manufacturers of office desks and chairs import components from abroad so are not immune to rate volatility

Managing Risk and Exposure

So what can and what does the British industry do to repel the volatility of the Pound? Of course many importers agree a long term exchange rate in advance. The local dealer / agent would be wise to buy foreign currency in advance through a reputable currency trader (rather than a dodgy bloke in a mac at the local bus interchange…..?). Open a Euro account with your bank and spread the pain whilst exchanging chunks at better rates, in advance of that big project coming in. As risk and financial advisors will always say – it’s about managing your company’s risk and exposure.

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But is the UK Government doing enough to support the importers? New PM Theresa May is certainly taking decisive action and Brexiteers are keen to point at the export market as a response to the weak pound, but for importers who have built successful businesses on importing quality goods, volatility means sleepless nights. Is there something else that can be done to support this important sector of the industry? Could there be a relief tax for importers who can demonstrate losses generated by Sterling volatility? London is a truly global city and Clerkenwell is packed to the rafters with international furniture and interior companies. The effects of this market will be evident in the next 12 months – and not just in Clerkenwell…

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