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Desk nooks and whiteboard walls: What Herman Miller’s wildly popular new line reveals about the future of offices

Ironically, smaller offices mean buying more furniture.

Desk nooks and whiteboard walls: What Herman Miller’s wildly popular new line reveals about the future of offices
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The open office was designed to spur casual conversations. Then it just became a cost-effective way to cram a lot of people into a space at shared tables. But during COVID-19, the open floor plan got smaller, as most CEOs have reported leasing less square footage with the rise of remote and hybrid work.

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Following two years in development, Herman Miller’s new OE1 furniture line hit in early 2021, as the perfect design solution for the time—which is why it won Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design award for the Workplace category. It’s a collection of pieces that, rather than being prescriptively installed as part of a grand master plan, is designed to be modular and repurposed at will by employees themselves.

[Photo: Herman Miller]
After launching in April 2021 in North and South America, Herman Miller tells us that the collection is a hit for the company, selling at 150% of its original projections.

“Early indicators suggest people are really finding the product relevant,” says Malisa Bryant, senior VP and GM of global product workplace at Herman Miller. “It’s cutting across various segments of businesses . . . people are using the flexibility of the product.”

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[Photo: Herman Miller]
Bryant explains that OE1 is doing well in sectors other than your traditional office buildings. The colorful pieces include paneled desk nooks, and modular Micro Packs, which reimagine large workstations into efficient, rearrangeable work pods. Libraries are buying its (admittedly library-esque) desk nooks. Home office shoppers (which still make up less than 10% of OE1’s market) are buying storage trolleys. And colleges are purchasing those Micro Packs. “Oftentimes, you have space that’s not optimized, so you have small nooks and crannies and you’re trying to figure out how to have these touchdown spaces . . . but still have individual privacy,” explains Bryant.

Still, the bulk of OE1 sales are from corporate clients—along with the designers and architects who are choosing their actual furniture.

[Photo: Herman Miller]
Bryant points to the latest workplace trends we’ve heard about, that as of a June 2021 poll, 74% of CEOs planned to shrink their office footprint. They’re either keeping an existing space and making it smaller, or starting an entirely new lease in a new space.

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[Photo: Herman Miller]
In both cases, OE1 has found its niche. Some feedback Bryant has heard is that OE1 is neutral enough that it can be stuck inside the small, unused spaces in existing offices, with an aesthetic that blends in more like domestic furniture than coordinated office systems. “When any architect or designer is thinking about a floor plan, they’re not always married to one manufacturer,” says Bryant. “We’re seeing OE1 used in projects and applications that aren’t all Herman Miller.”

[Photo: Herman Miller]
Case in point: A breakout success of the collection have been the “agile walls,” which are basically white boards on wheels, made to double as makeshift room dividers. Bryant has seen companies buying 16 of them at a time to ostensibly build whole rooms out of white boards, which might only stand for a month for a single project, before being repurposed elsewhere in the office. “Now that companies have shrunk their footprints, they are accommodating places for people to have team meetings,” says Bryant, who notes that even though the walls aren’t actually soundproof, they still afford teams an enhanced sense of privacy. “Because open plans are so noisy, you’d be surprised that, when people have enclosures, how they speak and operate change.”

OE1 is out in the U.S. now. It launches in Europe later this year.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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