Designers of New York's Subway Cars Turn Attention to Modern-Day Work Culture

Antenna's new office system for Knoll offers ingenious flexibility—which has become all-important, as our work culture has changed.

Antenna workspace

When Sigi Moeslinger and Masamichi Udagawa, the two founders of Antenna Design, first looked at designing a new line of office furniture for Knoll, they saw what most of us do: a sea of desks, chairs and dividing panels. “Everything looked the same,” Udagawa says.

At first blush, they were an unusual pick to design Knoll's new line of open plan office furniture. Austrian-born Moeslinger, 42, and Japanese native Udagawa, 45, had previously worked at IDEO and Apple. But they they had no furniture experience—instead, they're best known for hardcore industrial engineering and interactive design: They created New York's new subway cars, as well as the ticketing interfaces; they also designed the hardware and software for JetBlue's industry-changing check-in kiosks and Bloomberg's next-gen terminals.

“I didn’t want to work with someone was more entrenched [in the industry], because they come with a set in criteria that I’m not interested in, or quite frankly someone who had done an office system before," says Benjamin Pardo, Knoll’s senior vice president of design. "It’s almost like asking a child to figure something out because they always come at it with a fresh understanding.”

"Antenna Workspaces by Masamichi Udagawa and Sigi Moeslinger” launches next month at the industry’s annual showplace Neocon in Chicago. It’s Knoll’s latest take on the post-cubicle dialogue—the attempt to foster human collaboration with just a desktop and chair.

It used to be that companies, and the architects they hire, would design work environments as individual work spaces, then multiply that to match the workforce, and whatever space was left over was developed into lounge or meeting areas. But as work culture has changed to emphasize ideas rather than process—and teamwork rather than line management—companies are now prioritizing the group areas and prizing workplace flexibility.

Antenna's idea was to create a table system that can grow organically with the users' needs. The system works kind of like New York's subways: At the heart are rails, up to eight feet long, held together by cleverly design clamps. Because the rails, legs, and tabletops are separate, they can easily be refashioned into myriad work spaces—anything from desks to side-by-side “benching” work areas.

As always, Antenna takes pride in details. Data devices are hidden in baskets underneath the surfaces or in data “fences” or strips. Add-on storage is attached to the rails underneath and can be built up or down. But you'd probably never notice the smartest detail—or simply chalk it up to looks. The rails are laid at an angle, rather than flush with the table-top:

Since the corners of the rails now take the brunt of the weight—rather than the weaker sides—that allows them to be thinner. “If you design a structure cleverly, you can achieve extreme strength by using a light expression,” Udagawa explains.

Antenna Workspaces will also be among Knoll’s most versatile; it uses fewer parts than the average system and is more easily reconfigurable and simpler to manufacture. Designed with the recession in mind, the pieces allow customers to scale the furniture to their needs, through thick and thin.

“We wanted to give the product a really youthful and hopefully even an optimistic feel,” Udagawa says. “We wanted people to feel very light and free.”

[Images via Knoll; Composite image via Ryuzo Masunaga/Antenna/Bloomberg]

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