Reflecting on the merging and morphing of contract sectors

As workspaces are looking more like living rooms, and many of our homes have a workspace in them, Grant Gibson looks at the phenomenon of contract sectors merging

That our work-life balance has dramatically shifted over the past two decades is hardly an original observation. Worlds that were once separate are continually bleeding into one another. So hotel lobbies look like co-working spaces, offices resemble living rooms and homes have dedicated places to graft out of hours.

That said, the internationally renowned dance-circus company Motionhouse moving into the British furniture manufacturer Vitsoe’s new factory in Leamington Spa is genuinely fascinating. On one level at least it makes a strange kind of sense: Vitsoe’s naturally lit and ventilated building, which opened in October last year, is 135m long, 25m wide and 6m high. It’s the perfect rehearsal space. While manufacturing and dance aren’t generally seen as natural bedfellows, the notion is that both sides will come together each day to share lunch and ideas. ‘We wanted to create a space that was adaptable and enabled us to explore cultural interactions and connections,’ explains Vitsoe’s managing director Mark Adams.

‘Experiencing dance can have a powerful, transformative effect and Motionhouse is a creative force whose work is truly breathtaking. Our collaboration brings together creative minds from different disciplines, offering new perspectives that enrich our working lives.’

Haller side unit and table, from USMHaller side unit and table, from USM

It all seems a long way from the ideas of efficiency espoused by Frederick Taylor at the start of the 20th century, breaking tasks down into tiny, often unskilled, fragments that could be easily analysed by a new breed of management and adopted so enthusiastically by the likes of Henry Ford.

It can probably, however, be considered as being at the radical, experimental end of a trend that arguably started with ‘dress-down Fridays’ in many workplaces sometime in the Nineties, coincided with London’s Terence Conran-inspired restaurant boom and a general relaxation in British attitudes – perhaps best epitomised in 1997 when Britain overwhelmingly voted for the young, electric guitar playing Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Scroll forward to the present day and the workplace has seemingly become so laid back that another British contract furniture manufacturer, Orangebox, has even created an office version of a deck chair.

So why has this happened? The glaringly obvious answer of course is technology. As the computer shrank from being a huge beige box that needed to be housed in a whole corner of a desk, so benching systems became de rigueur. Likewise the advent of laptops and broadband has made it possible to work pretty much anywhere. This is allied to a new generation of white-collar workers arriving in the workplace after parts of the UK (though it’s important to point out by no means all) underwent this lifestyle revolution.

They grew up after the launch of magazine Wallpaper* in 1996 and the first airing of Grand Designs in 1999 and have an expectation of what an interior should look like and how it should function. In short there is no longer any stigma attached to being the sort of person who ‘buys his own furniture’ – a remark that former Tory minister Alan Clark is reported to have directed at Michael Heseltine as an insult.

It’s a theme Alan Towns, CEO of Knightsbridge, which makes soft seating for the contract market, has noticed. ‘I do think with all these co-working spaces that have popped up all over the place that they’re more for contractors or millennials,’ he says. ‘It seems to me that they have more recognition of design. I think they’re used to working from home and are more used to lounging and interacting in a different way as well.’ In terms of his business, this change has meant bringing two divisions together. ‘The enquiries we’re getting now from the hospitality and workspace are almost exactly the same. There used to be a real difference between the two but now we’ve lumped hospitality in with office.’ And from his perspective the current trend for relaxed work spaces, collaborative offices and co-working is a genuine boon – the company has recently worked on a project for PwC in Manchester, for instance, and is slated to do two more in London this year. ‘For us it’s really positive because, as more offices become like hotel lounges, we’ve had some really significant growth,’ he says.

The Dizzi Lounge Blackleg chair, from KnightsbridgeThe Dizzi Lounge Blackleg chair, from Knightsbridge

While the soft-seating market may well be benefiting from the changing work styles, one would imagine the office storage sector might be finding it more of a struggle. Not so, according to Bisley’s director of business development Helen Owen, but the game has certainly changed. ‘I don’t know that we need less storage, I think the type of storage has changed,’ she explains. ‘What we’ve seen is a switch away from filing – storage for longevity – to the kind of storage you might find on an aeroplane. In the same way that you would store your bag for the duration of a flight, the equivalent is now happening in the office environment.’ This has meant a move away from lateral file drawers and hanging pockets to lockers and personal storage in and around collaborative areas. ‘The need to store things is, if anything, growing,’ she says. ‘Whereas the need to file is significantly declining.’ And like Towns, she’s seen a blending of environments. ‘The trend for us is providing personal storage, not just into the corporate world but also into hospitality, into airports, into education.’

One way to avoid falling victim to the fluctuations of workplace fashion is to create a classic that can be specified in virtually any environment, as USM’s UK CEO Ian Weddell points out. ‘Because of the nature of our product – it’s a modular system [based around a single joint] – we’ve always been involved in both furniture for the home and the office,’ he says, adding that 30 per cent of the company’s turnover is in the domestic sphere. ‘In effect we haven’t had to adapt the product for the changing market because it can do a variety of things. We can make little home desks, we can make breakout spaces or double-sided storage.

Generally people are storing a lot less now but what they want is quality storage that looks great, adds to the interior and that they can change… You can use the product in a different way and build it in different configurations.’ But USM, and for that matter Vitsoe, are in the minority, for most the products they produce will have to adapt to the way our work morphs and mutates – be it millennials tapping away at their technology in deck chairs or even dance companies sharing factory space with a high-end shelving manufacturer. These are fascinating times.

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