The office
– a city in miniature

Office environments should be more in tune with the needs of employees – considers Kajsa Nordström, an interior designer from Gothenburg who was awarded the 2003 Jarl Andersson grant by Kinnarps. She also feels that an office should really be seen as a city in mini-format.

Many office environments are conventional and boring, thought Kajsa. Which led her to apply for the Jarl Andersson grant in order to study the more imaginative environments of visionary offices built on a human scale. She called her study ”A new social landscape”. She regards dull, cheerless offices to be the result of a routine business mindset combined with hierarchical structures. Employees are not really treated as individuals in the planning process – an approach seen much more frequently in residential environments. Her aim is to highlight this psychosocial aspect. Her own working environment is varied to say the least. We meet her at the design studio Io, accommodated in a bare cellar in Gothenburg, where she and a handful of colleagues design houses, furniture and graphics.

But she also works occasionally for CNA Arkitekter and accompanies her sister Lisa, a composer and musician.To round off her many talents, she is also a scenographer and teaches at the School of Design and Crafts (HDK). Her grant project has led to several study trips. She has written an entertaining book about these as well as other experiences and insights.When we saw her, she was trying to find a publisher for it. Her book describes what she has learned, but also includes “recipes”, as she calls them, for good office environments designed on a human scale. An office should actually be seen as a city, she feels. With a central square and private zones, connecting spaces and changes of scale – just like old towns and city centres. Planning ought to go from the inside to the outside, from private zones for individual employees to public areas.

Communal open spaces promote informal meetings and communication, whereas private zones allow individuals to concentrate and are adapted to more intimate meetings. The spatial structures inside should ideally have room to grow upwards – just like in a city. This creates dynamics and resists conventional hierarchical thinking. They should also be given a lift by a whole series of dimensions – sounds, colours, aromas, choice of material, surface layers. But obviously light as well, one of the most important things in an office. A generous flow of light – not least daylight – is essential to life.Almost equally important are plants that give a feeling of being outside when indoors. To obtain material for her book, Kajsa studied Swedish offices – such as the Post Office in Tomteboda and JC in Gothenburg – as well as some international ones.

These were mostly in Belgium and Holland, such as the colourful premises of the Droogs Design Collective in Amsterdam. “I was really lucky”, she says. When I arrived, Franck Bragigand, the artist who was responsible for the colour scheme, also happened to be there.” The whole idea behind the Droog office was to bring about change with colour – strong, bold colours.There was no particular plan for the colour scheme, but Bragigand was on hand during the work, following his feelings. Kajsa was fascinated by the profusion of colour that emerged, but also wondered what it would be like to work there. When she phoned them six months later, she was told that the employees were thrilled. The colours that they were personally involved in choosing were an inspiration to them. She was more doubtful about theTivoli, the giant Tilburg office of insurance company Interpolis that accommodates more than 2000 employees.

She recognised the scenario from the flexible Swedish offices typical of a few decades ago, where employees were suddenly expected to work from home most of the time, occasionally popping into the office to connect up their computers. How would their social life work out if they never met, she wondered. Nevertheless, the interiors in Tilburg really lent wings to the imagination. Several of the most talked-about Dutch designers such as Marcel Wanders and Atelier van Lieshout had been involved in designing the office landscape. It included meeting places like the fantastic stonehouse, and rounded furniture that resembled elephants and completely enfolded the staff at meetings. However, she felt environments that were merely visually exciting were not enough.To achieve exemplary results, an ambitious élan had to permeate the project all the way through, from the workplaces to the exterior.At JC for example, the designers seemed keener to impress the customers than to benefit the employees. At the Post Office, the individual workplaces seemed, despite the ambitious architecture, to have been left to last. Some of the offices she visited were horrific examples of unfortunate over-design. A small Internet company had tried to create an organic and natural landscape by making the floor resemble a pattern of undulating hills.

The only thing the employees dreamt of was an ordinary flat floor! She also feels that office environments should ideally be left somewhat unfinished. It’s vital for them to breathe openness. To give a feeling that change is possible. She noticed this clearly at a theatre in the Belgian town of Beurschouwburg that was temporarily located in a remarkable disused factory. Kajsa saw the rough-and-ready solution as a wonderful environment. But when the smarter and more finished premises were ready, everything became more subdued. She felt it important to appreciate the “dynamics of randomness”. She feels that disused industrial premises are often perfect for modern offices that work well in psychosocial terms.

A really huge abandoned industrial building can act as a wonderfully neutral
outer shell for generous and flexible spaces inside. As such environments are not too customised and finished, they are also beneficial from a corporate viewpoint, since they can grow and change in response to a changing company. It’s one of Kajsa’s basic convictions that the corporate and individual perspectives can be reconciled. “Much of what I advocate seems to be increasingly part of our contemporary idiom”, she says. That’s positive. Successful companies are becoming increasingly aware that they cannot neglect the wishes of their employees. Competent people are a scarce resource and much in demand.That makes it really important to create attractive working environments.

Ingrid Sommar