To sit or to stand? That is the question of the modern office designer.
Some see office chairs as coffins on castors. And for good reason: myriad studies have suggested that being sedentary for long stretches is as toxic for the body as eating artery-clogging, diabetes-causing junk food.
The conventionally proposed solution is to stand at a height-adjustable desk. If we all toil away while on our feet, we will all be healthier and more productive. The hitch, though, is that standing all day causes sore feet and strained legs. Simply put, it's not that comfortable.
And why should we be shackling ourselves to a single desk? In an age when mobile technology means that most of us do not need to sit, stand or be in any one place, let alone position, longer than it takes to send a tweet, maybe we should just roam, perch, lie or even dangle, in any number of locations.
That kind of flexibility and variety was the thinking behind a recent, radical installation by brothers Ronald and Erik Rietveld, co-founders of the Amsterdam-based art and architecture studio RAAAF, and Dutch artist Barbara Visser. For three weeks last November, at the Looiersgracht 60 exhibition space in Amsterdam, the three built their vision: a full-scale office of the future. There were no discernible desks (standing, sitting and all things in between). No chairs or stools either. Just a twisting maze of tilted plinths: oddly shaped boxes that workers could take over in infinite ways, erect posture or otherwise.
"Our design is much more than just improving standing-desks," Ronald says. "We wanted to create a workspace that would encourage a range of movements and poses. … Support is very important in this. This 'supported standing' is important so employees stand, hang, lean comfortably and don't get too tired. People can shift easily from one position into another. It's all about having the possibility to change positions and to stay active during the day."
To do so, he, Erik and Visser worked with a "movement scientist" to understand posture and comfortable work positions. "The shapes are based on real-life one-on-one experiments," Ronald says.
But there's nothing prescriptive about the set-up: The angles allow for various heights and body types to find their niche. "Because the forms in the installation do not refer to the typical chair and desk forms," Ronald explains, "employees have to find out for themselves how to appropriate the forms and find the ideal positions for different working tasks."
To help, the boxes are made of plywood, then coated in a secret, proprietary material that is "smooth enough for the body to lean, stand and lie on," Ronald says, "but textured enough to have grip when walking or standing."
All of which sounds highly pragmatic, even if certain, sound adjustments could be made to make the office more useful in a real-world setting (such asdrawers to put purses or hooks for coats), which Ronald acknowledges. "There are a lot of practical things that could be improved."
But he's also keeping his eye on the bigger picture. He wants to learn from the successes and failures of the ergonomics, in the hopes of one day trying it out in a "in a real working environment." To accomplish that, he and his brother have invited rotating groups of workers – philosophers, writers, psychology students, designers and artists, to name a few, to feedback.
"Researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands are documenting the results and will be publishing the findings next spring," Ronald says.
In the meantime, Ronald heard some of the feedback directly – things such as "this could be softer, there's no place for my coffee cup." In other words, a sign that even when the office of the future arrives, there will be plenty of material for Dilbert cartoons.