There is one sacred rule at Studio 7.5, a small Berlin-based design firm that has developed furniture for Herman Miller for more than 20 years: Employees must gather for a home-cooked lunch at a communal table every day of the week.
The daily lunch ritual was established early on as a systematic way for colleagues—who work independently on collective projects that typically involve years of research and development—to check in daily with one another. Nobody likes meetings, so they tried establishing afternoon tea, but someone always came up with an excuse not to show. "Everybody needs to eat, so we used that trick to lure everyone around the table once a day. And it worked," says Carola Zwick, who founded the company in 1992 with Burkhard Schmitz and the late Claudia Plikat (who died in 2013).
When I spoke to Zwick it was noon and resident cook Katja was preparing pasta alla Genovese. Every afternoon she rings a bell between 1:00 and 1:30 p.m. to summon partners, freelance designers, interns, and guests (like Herman Miller CEO Brian Walker and head of research, design, and development Don Goeman) for lunch.
"It has the same strategic goal as in a family," Zwick said, "bringing everybody around the table to hear about his or her agenda and issues and stories." It’s also a trust-building exercise, she said, that helps build the necessary rapport to talk a client out of a bad idea, and the camaraderie to create consensus about design decisions among partners.
Schmitz added that working with clients across the world requires they put in long hours. "You might as well make it valuable in terms of quality of life," he said. "We don’t have the option to project all our wishes into our so-called free time, we have to have some good times while we work."
In the more than 20 years since Studio 7.5 adopted the all-hands lunch, various startups, design studios, and architectural firms have followed suit. A 2015 study from Cornell University offered proof that it’s more than a feel-good practice when it found that firefighters who ate together performed better as a group.
Shared meals are a means and a metaphor for expressing company values. The dishes served at Studio 7.5 reflect the group’s philosophy about the importance of food made from scratch with fresh, quality, whole ingredients. They have a no-ketchup-on-the-table rule (except on burger days) and a microwave ban. "We aim for honest and sustainable design," Zwick said. "This would also fit as a description for our lunch meals."
The pasta alla Genovese is from a rotation of favorites that Zwick and Plikat developed early on, comprised of simple dishes that could be executed quickly on the stovetop of their tiny office kitchen (or a barbecue in the backyard, until neighbors complained). They collected favorite recipes and hired a cook. Today, they gift the ever-expanding company recipe booklet—and black Studio 7.5 aprons—to friends and clients.
Katja still cooks many of those early favorites, but thanks to an oven in their current studio, she has added more time-consuming dishes like lasagne and osso bucco, as well as desserts, which formerly consisted of Kinder Eggs. While the company that has been eating lunch together since the 1990s generally enjoys the same dish, Katja prepares separate meals for guests with dietary preferences or restrictions—like pork belly for the fish-hating Polish model-maker, or kosher for the Israeli intern. And in this office, interns don’t fetch lunch, they help make it.
The solid oak table—which is used for activities such as cutting fabric and model-making before and after lunch—was designed to seat no more than a dozen people, reflecting their conviction to keep the company small and close-knit. "The concept of sharing one table is limited to the size of the table," Schmitz said. "It’s like the Last Supper—you’re limited to 12 disciples." They chose monastery-inspired benches to foster a sense of conviviality and to act as a leveler. "There is almost a democratic spirit in that simple table," Schmitz said.
The free-ranging conversation at lunch often naturally ends up design-focused including "debates about the geometry of pasta," Zwick said, or about how chopping carrots in slices as opposed to matchsticks changes the taste of a dish. "The interns learn that everything is designed," she said. "It’s about knowing that every little detail counts," Schmitz added, "and it should all be conscious decisions."
But there is one permanent order of business on the daily lunch agenda. "To discuss while eating what the dish of the day will be tomorrow," Zwick said.