Office work today is becoming more fluid, fast-paced, and collaborative. In response, Herman Miller—the century-old furniture company that first invented the modern open-office plan in the 1960s—is releasing a new concept of user-hackable furniture so workers can tear their cubicles down.
The company's Metaform Portfolio, a system of stackable blocks, boundaries, work surfaces, and tools designed largely with a strong, lightweight plastic, is intended to allow employees to easily mix, match, and configure their work spaces based on the needs of their current projects. Once those needs change, the workspace can be easily rearranged. That could mean project teams setting up large tables of team meeting spaces that adjoin a whiteboard and later re-arranging the same furniture grouped into small clusters or even in an arc or circle. Later, the space can be put back into cubicles, with sitting or standing desk, when people need to plug away at their individual work.
"Today, people are coming together for a project, and taking spaces, and making it their own. But most furniture products not only don’t allow it, it’s almost as if they were designed to prevent it," says Ryan Anderson, director of future technology at Herman Miller. Instead, Anderson likens the system to a set of Lego.
The Metaform line, designed by the German firm Studio 7.5, is part of Herman Miller's concept called the "Living Office," which embodies the idea that the future of work won’t involve rigid office spaces in which one person is assigned one spot to do all of his or her work.
Herman Miller is now beta-testing Metaform furniture at a handful of organizations. The plan is to release it on the market in 2015. The goal in testing, says Anderson, is to see what configurations office workers will create with the mix-and-match components and what instructions and guidance they might need.
Once the designers had the concept for Metaform, they had to figure out a material that looked good and was durable and light enough to be easily and safely moved around by average office workers. They settled on a plastic foam called expanded polypropylene. It’s typically used in packaging, auto, and industrial applications, but to use it for furniture, materials scientists created the largest-ever mold of the material. Experts told Herman Miller that it wouldn’t work, but they managed to figure it out and make a product that didn't require a finish.
"Materials innovation has actually been at the core of most of our major breakthroughs," Anderson says, citing the thermal comfort features of its popular Aeron ergonomic desk chair to the unusual molded plywood in the company's famous Eames chairs.
To Anderson, the company’s Metaform products will help companies usher in a new way of working that forward-thinking businesses such as Google and Quicken are already experimenting with today. "Projects are getting faster and faster, and more and more agile," he says.