Today’s Workplace Is A Stage, Not An Office

As he launches a new line of workplace furniture with Knoll, David Rockwell explains what office designers can learn from set design.


To architect David Rockwell, the best clients are a lot like great theater directors. “They know what they want, but they don’t describe what it looks like,” he says. “There’s a lot of open space and a lot of dialog.” It’s in this mindset that he collaborated with Knoll on a new office collection–called Rockwell Unscripted–which debuts today at NeoCon, the annual contract furniture fair in Chicago.


Knoll has a long history of tapping the minds of great architects: Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Frank Gehry, and David Adjaye have all worked with the furniture maker. While those collaborations have yielded some of the most celebrated design pieces of the last century, Rockwell believed that the last thing the company needed from him was another “iconic” chair for the office. Rather, Rockwell Group could offer its expertise in rethinking the office itself, much like Florence Knoll–one of the company’s founders–did in the 1950s with the Knoll Planning Unit, a unit within company devoted to corporate interiors.

“We have a new generation of [workers] who don’t want to sit in a box,” Benjamin Pardo, Knoll’s creative director, says. “The real question is, how are they moving forward?” After carefully studying the way the workplace is evolving, Rockwell designed over 30 products that fill in the gaps of Knoll’s existing offerings. “It came down to pitting together hospitality, performance, and collaboration—three cornerstones of our work,” Rockwell says.


The Changing Conditions Of Offices Today

As Rockwell Group found in its research process, the real estate market is putting new pressure on office design. Property is expensive, there’s less overall square footage allocated per employee, and there’s an increasingly diverse building stock that companies are leasing for work spaces. For example, former manufacturing sites are being converted into offices en masse throughout the Midwest–a trend Knoll saw after researching the past three years worth of building types for which its furniture was either purchased or considered.

In short, offices are less and less likely to be located in office buildings. At the same time, work itself is changing–and so is the furniture they need to make it happen. For example, fewer people need cabinet after cabinet for paper files. Not only are our workspaces changing–so are our jobs. In this extraordinarily diverse landscape of emerging work, office design is rapidly transforming.


“The office [furniture] business is the most volatile, it’s the most cyclical, and it’s also gone through a fair amount of secular change in terms of how people are working,” Andrew Cogan, Knoll’s CEO, says. “The changing mixture of how much space companies allocate individual and private areas versus group and collaborative areas has changed and shifted dramatically. It seemed to us that we had an opportunity under our brand to pivot into a more diverse and balanced portfolio.”

One of the other changes Knoll noticed was that its office furniture sales were coming from an increasingly diverse group of companies–like media, entertainment, finance, legal, and tech, among others–and no one segment dominated its business like it used to. “A client-facing banking institution has a different image they’re trying to project than someone trying to attract and retain a different generation of workers on the West Coast,” Cogan says. “And more and more of our financial-services companies want to brand their environments as young, hip, and creative.”

Knoll also saw a shift in how employees view their relationship to an office. “Younger people consider their office the entire office, particularly on the West coast,” Pardo says. “One of the things that always belonged to an employee was ‘my chair.’ It was ‘their chair’ they adjusted to make it their own. If you talk to someone who’s 20 years younger, they don’t have obsession over that. The possession of an object has gone away and it’s about the ownership of the overall space.”

To Rockwell, one of the biggest shifts was about why people even come into an office in the first place. “If more and more people can do work at home, the question is, why do they go to work?” he says. “One of the reasons you go to an office is you can work together, or you can work individually, and we’re trying to accommodate that.”



Escape From The Open Plan

Over the last few decades, open-plan offices became popular as a way to foster a team-oriented, collaborative environment and banish cubicles, an emblem of corporate hell. However, a recent backlash has emerged–fueled by noise, distraction, and privacy concerns.

“[Cubicles] created this overall 66-inch-high monotony in the architectural space–that was Dilbertville,” Pardo says. “Then we went from Dilbertville to a level of planning that said, ‘keep it low so we can see everyone.’ That brings a whole new set of problems: I see everybody’s crap, I can’t hear a damn thing, and when I’m circulating through a space, I’m confused as to where I’m going. The solution becomes about using an interior architectural framework to create smaller rooms that become destinations but are still flexible.”

For example, modular screens allow offices to place semi-private “rooms” into the workspace. Movable screens help absorb sound and also divvy up the space. Tall storage shelves and tables also offer flexibility to build distinct zones within an office. The typical open office is a sea of designs and computers. With this system, there are more diverse furniture heights, which gives an office more “landmarks” within its floor plan without the permanence or expense of building out full walls.

In its existing range, Knoll had plenty of workstations, file cabinets, ergonomic chairs, and sit-stand desks. While those won’t go away–traditional offices still need them–it was lacking furniture that addressed all of those other, still-emerging needs.



The Office As A Stage

For Rockwell, one of the “aha” moments came after his fourth or fifth meeting. “Knoll continued to say, ‘Don’t show designs yet, talk about approach, theory, philosophy, and relevance to other worlds,” Rockwell says, which got him thinking about how he approached other disciplines, set design in particular. (Incidentally, Rockwell won a 2016 Tony Award for his work on the musical “She Loves Me.”)

“I found the overlap was in a theatrical application. A set’s job is to tell a story but if the set is telling the story in the same way the actors are, it’s sort of like putting a hat on a hat–they’re both doing the same work. The set is creating the context for a story to be told. As opposed to creating an iconic piece, we could create a landscape that was iconic in its possibility.”

One of the most direct links between theater design and the Unscripted collections is that the pieces are flexible and can be used in a handful of ways depending on an office’s needs. For example, a wood “bleacher” seat could be used on its own or grouped together to create a dining-style booth–it’s stage dressing for the workplace.

To organize the collection, Rockwell Group created six diverse product categories: Seating, which includes club chairs, lounge chairs, poufs, stools, benches, and swivel chairs; Storage, in the form of lockers, mobile carts, credenzas, and consoles; bleacher-style furniture called “Steps”; Tables includes long library-style pieces equipped with power, drink rails, sawhorse tables, and wire-base occasional tables; “Borders” is composed of modular screens and walls that help delineate semi-private space.

Designers can pick and choose from a medley of products that makes sense for an office’s individual culture as it evolves over the course of the day–much like set designers carefully choose pieces that can be quickly rearranged between scenes on stage.



A Recipe For Lively, Local Spaces

Rockwell Group also has extensive expertise in designing hospitality spaces, and the design team found an unlikely synergy between the office design and hotel design.

In the last decade, the rising cost of real estate and shrinking profit margins sparked hoteliers to shift the allocation of space from individual rooms to common areas. Rockwell has helped usher in that trend of continually activating these spaces, like lobbies, restaurants, and communal spaces, by borrowing the idea of the 24-hour neighborhood from city planning. Rather than design dedicated dining areas that would be closed for a portion of the day, they conceived of areas that were flexible and could morph throughout the day. Instead of a separate business center, the architects equipped lobbies with furniture where someone could just as easily work as they could lounge.

The general idea is that any space is most efficient and lively when it’s continuously in use. Rockwell began to realize that offices could benefit from the same philosophy.

The products have silhouettes and finishes that could be equally be at home in a office, residence, or hotel. For example, the tables feature a beveled edge that’s more akin to dining table, but also have a robust wood surface that can withstand wear and tear. Drink rails–tall, thin tables–offer a place for casual, impromptu meetings. Recognizing that people are more likely to store gym bags than files at the office, Rockwell Group designed lockers. And noting that employees move around in a space, they created mobile carts that are easy to transport. Bleacher seating–a popular feature at the New York location of the co-working space Neuehouse, which Rockwell Group also designed–could be used for almost anything.


The old dichotomy of work–that it happens either individually at a desk or collectively in a meeting room–no long exists, and the collection responds to that changing paradigm. “The idea that we’re collaborating in a ‘kum-ba-yah’ session in a meeting room isn’t really what’s happening,” Rockwell says

“We have to create spaces that work for an individual, to find that ‘local’ space, whether that’s on a sofa or in a wing chair or finding a portion of a table where people are also doing quiet work,” Pardo says. He also noted that being stationary–whether it’s sitting or standing in a single space–isn’t healthy behavior. “I think that’s a really important thing. [The furniture] gets you out of your chair and makes you move through the space.”


The Only Constant: Change

The Unscripted collection is meant to be flexible enough to grow with a company and work like a kit of parts in that they can be easily reconfigured if an office relocates. This variety in the size and scale of the furniture also means that it can be adapted to fit virtually any type of space, no matter how the interior columns are positioned. When Knoll thought about the furniture, it also kept in mind that companies often like to customize things with unique textiles so the upholstered pieces are designed so fabric can be redone relatively easily (meaning simple forms and limited tufting) and look good regardless of the pattern size.

“The world and the workplace continues to change at a rapid pace and what we try and do is stay in touch with how those needs are evolving,” Cogan says. The adaptability of the collection and its ability to work in a slew of different spaces is also a way to help Knoll ensure that it will be a go-to resource for designers as they create solutions for the evolving workplace.


“There’s a lot of transformational stuff taking place in office design,” Pardo says. “If I were to tell you exactly where it’s going, you could tell me I was completely full of it because I don’t necessarily know. I could give the best informed information in terms of where I think it’s going, but I don’t know that it’s going there. What I want is an opportunity to be an influencer in terms of where it’s going, have the support pieces associated with that, but be flexible enough that a client can lead us down a path that’s most appropriate for them.”

All told, the Unscripted collection is a lot like a great character actor: a person who has the skill and versatility to embody many different personalities, shines at just the right times in a story line, but rarely upstages the lead. Knoll and Rockwell Group designed a series of pieces that will fulfill a company’s needs and can turn on a dime if–and most likely when–those demands are rewritten.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.