Workspace furniture

In conversation with Sarah Müllertz, Partner & Head of Interior at Henning Larsen - one of Scandinavia's most influential architecture studios.

There is no doubt that we could collectively learn more from individual end-user responses to furniture installed in their office. In the case of Henning Larsen’s new architecture office, +Halle has placed furniture on trial, in a collaborative quest to use furniture as vehicle for a better performing and more democratic working environment.

Office landscape 2.0

In the 1950s, Eberhard & Wolfgang Schnelle came up with the concept of Bürolandschaft or the open office landscape. The purpose was to create a social-democratic environment with organic groupings of desks, designed to encourage conversations, using potted plants and filing cabinets as informal dividers.

Its subject was egalitarianism. "It's quite simple" Sarah Müllertz, Partner and Head of Interior at Henning Larsen, says; "The open office is dead, today's workspaces are about people and how they can perform their best. Yet you cannot design anything anymore without asking people how they work and why they work as they do."

The office landscape may be dead but Schnelle’s democratic values are still relevant, considering the individual nature of human behavioural pursuit. 

"When they made the open office, back in the 1950s, the fundamental cause was a lack of communication", Müllertz explains; "but we have evolved, the end user experience is now the biggest thing. Work processes are shifting because of new devices, which means that we can be more agile than we could just ten years ago. With all the technology, the question is, how do we keep the office a human environment?"

Müllertz is leaning forward, cross-legged, tucked in a soft blue High Pacific sofa in an open atrium in the middle of the Henning Larsen office. She looks comfortable and focused at the same time. The sofa is facing an Easy Nest chair, creating a small intimate enclosure, flooded with natural light - a place where a conversation is casual but sincere. 

"We might today feel something similar to the Bürolandschaft when it comes to individual value; the difference is that we speak to each other all the time, within Skype, or using our smartphones, what we need today is perhaps more closed off social time."

"It is not about placing furniture; it is about people existing in communities where they feel good, where they interact and where they can perform their best"
Sarah Müllertz, Partner & Head of Interior at Henning Larsen

The user involvement study provides useful indicators of what kind of furniture is actually needed for specific situations and workflows.   

Open to response

Henning Larsen has a diverse and creative workforce, which are in-tune with what is going on in the furniture market. Müllertz explains: "It's a high maintenance audience, which is why it's important to try out different things. We have a tough jury examining what is working and what is not working." Martin Halle continues: "On the basis of that, we must assume that the +Halle furniture that remains can be seen as vehicles for a performance-driven landscape. But we must also assume that the pieces that are refused are not, for the company to act, iterate and come up with new solutions".

"I think +Halle is experimenting with furniture that supports this new way of working in a more agile way than other furniture companies. They are a little braver than other companies. They are open to suggestions, open to our response and that is really interesting," Müllertz concludes.

In fact, it is a dialogue, between the furniture manufacturers, the designers and the architects, sometimes baring critical thoughts or evidence to the contrary. We should not doubt that we could collectively learn more from the individual response to furniture installed in an office. And we should never be afraid to test constellations of private and social moments throughout the day, to create human, democratic, better working environments.

The collaboration between Henning Larsen and +Halle began over a year ago, driven by a dual interest to install furniture that supports the way the employees in any environment interact.

"All companies are different, and so are their work routines. Common, generic placing of furniture in an office environment is not going to reflect the way individuals are going about their day," says Martin Halle from +Halle. He sits next to Müllertz on the High Pacific sofa and together they form an intriguing brain trust, debating on how to best apply furniture as a tool for the architects that surrounds them.

At the core of Henning Larsen's architecture practice lies a systematic attempt to examine the senses embedded in a workflow, a user involvement study is applied at the beginning of every project. It is a qualitative method where the architects interview all office workers about their work process and habits, on the back of that, new functions in the office space are introduced. Now, the architecture firm has decided to taste a spoon of their own medicine, in an office workflow test where furniture is tested in relation to different needs that came up in the user involvement process, providing indicators of what furniture people actually need", Müllertz says. "Even in an era where almost everything is monitored, it is hard to give an exact account of every step of the day, we all sometimes find ourselves asking - did I really spend that long on that?"

In and around the desks of the Henning Larsen office, small clusters of High Nest chairs are places around High Nest tables. Carefully installed as informal breaks, tucked in between teams, for check-ins and short meetings. At the time of the visit, all the tables are full. "It can come down to how furniture is placed in the office, it can be where, for whom and what project team sits near bye, so these are things we look at as well," Müllertz says. "What surprised me was that people were more conservative than I thought, for instance, people were attached to their desks to a larger extent than anticipated," she admits.

 "Typically, we look at furniture that better performance throughout entire workday, what is needed in the morning is significantly different from what is needed in the afternoon. Why would you sit in the same chair all day? A workspace today, should support a change in routines, and thus, so should furniture," Halle explains.

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