When writing about the past, it’s hard not to reflexively think about the future. While no one possesses magical clairvoyance and the future will always be shrouded in mist, what is interesting is looking at what we thought about the future in the past. Admittedly, it’s fun to see old predictions of the future that grossly missed their mark, like DEC founder Ken Olson in 1977 saying, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home”; or Robert Metcalfe, founder of the digital electronics company 3Com, hilariously predicting in 1995 that the “Internet [will] soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” Sure, the future doesn’t exactly look like many thought it would, but at the same time in many ways it does, especially when it comes to the evolution of the space we all spend a vast majority of our lives: the workplace. Being not so far removed from the cave as we like to think, humans still crave gathering, purpose, hierarchy, acceptance and other core attributes of how we work. And no one is more finely tuned to the ebbs and flows of the modern workplace than those who create the furniture for it, such as four of our favourite companies, each proudly Canadian: Global, Keilhauer, Nienkämper and Teknion.
Change cannot be scripted, but to these companies, the writing has been on the wall for quite some time. Since the modern office is inextricably tethered to communications technology, as the latter shifts, so the former shifts with it. “The technology we rely on for business has a huge impact on how we work, and often changes to technology happen at such a quick pace,” says Klaus Nienkämper, founder and president of the eponymous firm. As communications technology got smaller, so too did the office. In the latter half of the century, “smaller offices and more meeting rooms were a driving change in the workplace,” he notes, an observation echoed by every one of these companies.
Along the way, all four companies have scored home runs with certain products that got out in front of a coming workplace paradigm shift, as you will see in the following pages. These are the products that either put the company on the map or propelled it to a level of dominance (or both). But of course not resting on their laurels, they are each keenly observing how the modern workplace is shifting and metamorphosing, and are preparing new products to meet the change.
That change, they see, inhabits several forms. They predict collaboration to be a top business objective in the workplace of the future, and the workforce, mirroring our nation’s demographic trajectory, will become more diverse than ever. “The next major impact will be accommodating four generations of different cultural beliefs in one workplace, from Millennials to Boomers and the in-betweens,” says Steve Verbeek, design director at Teknion. “Each has different sets of values and work styles.” Additionally, the demand for energy-efficient, sustainable buildings will continue. “LEED has changed things a lot,” says Verbeek. “Environmental impact has been a major catalyst in the current generation.”
“The ongoing automation of jobs will be one of the major workplace game changers in the future,” says John Hellwig, Teknion’s vice-president of design and innovation. “It will eliminate once-familiar jobs and create space for new ones we never thought of before. It’s hard to predict, but if you are an optimist it is a good thing. If you’re not, it’s not.”
Which is why when we hear prophets forecast an inevitable future of “virtual” offices staffed by transient workers and tiny wireless everything, anxiousness can creep in. However, while it is true that to ignore change is perilous, to ignore ageless underlying tenets is even worse. “Telecommunication technologies and power requirements have changed the workplace, but there are cultural pillars that still define how we work: the need to sit, the need of a work surface, face-to-face interactions balanced by a need for privacy,” says Verbeek. “Furniture is not a technical solution anymore. Our job now is to create meaning and value in what really are simple products. Day-to-day work function is well-understood: what we want and have to do is try to capture imaginations.”
We all know that change is the only constant and those who watch and listen carefully will be better positioned to profit from it. But ultimately, some things never change. “Every business is about selling a product to people who need it,” says Mike Keilhauer, president of the eponymous firm. “The future, like the past, will always be about people.”
GLOBAL: AFFORDABLE PRESTIGE
There are few who can speak with the authority that comes from a life lived in the industry. In the world of contract furniture, Saul Feldberg, founder and CEO of The Global Group, is one such individual.
After immigrating to Canada in 1953 at age 17 and learning the trade in an upholstery shop making restaurant chairs and benches, Feldberg partnered in 1966 with Bill Kemeny to establish what would become the present-day powerhouse in contract furniture. That same year, Global’s very first product hit the market like a missile: the Executive chair. “The Executive 105 was our first high-back executive chair in fabric and vinyl that we sold to our dealers for $68,” recalls Feldberg. “To give you an idea of how ridiculous this pricing was, one of our competitors sold a similar chair for $290 to their dealers, who of course marked it up before selling to an end user. Who could afford to buy it? For $2,900 you could buy a brand new, fully-loaded 1966 Pontiac Parisienne.”
Not surprisingly, the skeptics needed convincing that such a well-made chair could be produced at such reduced cost. But as with anything, high quality always shines through, and dealers began accepting Global and the concept of mid-lower-cost office furniture. “Those chairs were in service for 20 or 25 years and they made us an industry pioneer,” says Feldberg. “We created the budget seating market niche for North America, not just Canada.”
Feldberg has been uniquely positioned to bear witness to the evolution of the modern workplace over the decades, like few others. Manufacturing processes changed, materials changed, designs changed, but to him, one piece of technology can be credited for rewriting the map. “I believe that computers changed everything,” he says. “Offices were being reconfigured to
accommodate computers and seating was being redesigned to fit the users, [for example with] the development of the gas cylinder or pneumatic lift and the adjustability for seating posture that led to push-button technology in seating.”
Today, Global produces hundreds of contract furnishing lines that can be found in offices all over the world. But Feldberg’s original philosophy still guides the company: “I believe that price, value, and comfort weigh heavily on the minds of our customers. As in the past, Global still strives to ‘Build a product that the average person can afford.’” The Executive 105 not only lived up to that slogan, but set the company on its course.
KEILHAUER: TOM WAS BOUGHT
George Orwell had certain axioms when it came to writing: “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. / Never use a long word where a short one will do. / If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. / Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” Although it wasn’t available when he wrote his influential essay Politics and the English Language in 1946, if it was, he would
most likely have sat in a Tom.
For the first 15 years after being founded in 1981 by the Keilhauer brothers, the eponymous company had been building on its custom contract seating pedigree, and according to president and owner Mike Keilhauer, “had been doing pretty good work in the tilter- and swivel-base market.” By the mid-1990s, it already had several successes, most notably the Elite (designed by Ed Keilhauer, the partners’ father) for the boardroom and the executive office; and Respons (designed by Chris Sorensen), which took Keilhauer from the executive office to the general office. By having products in both environments, Keilhauer was uniquely positioned to see the changing needs and conditions of the workplace as a whole, in particular the growing emphasis on ergonomically adjustable seating.
Supported by a massive capital investment in tooling, the company felt the time was right to break into the U.S. market and make a name for itself. Welcome, Tom: a beautifully designed family of task chairs that while still delineated along hierarchy, was the first to include the full array of ergonomic functions in every one. After its release in 1997 at Chicago’s NeoCon, sales of Tom doubled the size of the company and firmly established Keilhauer in the American caster-chair market.
But it wasn’t just the design of the chair that the market responded to so well: a truly original and creative marketing package (the brainchild of Jackie Maze, Keilhauer’s vice-president of sales and marketing, and Toronto-based design agency Concrete) grabbed everyone’s attention. While people were still scratching their heads trying to figure out what to make of the recently debuted Aeron, which Herman Miller chose to define as “a chair that increases performance,” an opposite approach was taken for Tom. Keilhauer wanted people to view Tom as user-friendly, approachable, even your pal. (Hence its name, evoking a simple, friendly buddy. Contrary to first glance, it was not named after its designer, Tom Deacon. “If Deacon’s name was George we would still have named the chair Tom,” says Keilhauer.) The marketing campaign treated Tom as an unpretentious guy, with slogans like “This is Tom” and “Tom can be bought,” and shots of Tom with a cigar or going to Vegas. The straightforward minimalism of the campaign, in a time when task chairs came loaded with scientific jargon and tech-speak, was refreshing and influential.
While revolutionary for the company, Tom still reflects a fundamental tenet: in the earliest days of the business, custom products were made to fill niches that were not readily available in the market. It is no different today. For example, after Tom, Mike Keilhauer determined there was a niche no one had touched: a pared-down conference chair with inherent functionality. Mark Kapka was hired by the company to design a chair to fill this niche, and Simple was born to great success. And with a name like that, it’s clear that Keilhauer shares the same philosophy as Orwell.
NIENKÂMPER; LET’S TALK
Believe it or not, technological precursors to today’s notion of teleconferencing can trace their lineage back to the early 1930s (or even further, depending on how flexible you get with the term “teleconferencing”). At the time, companies such as American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) were experimenting with “two-way television-telephone” systems, but it wasn’t until AT&T unveiled the Picturephone in 1964 that the idea moved from the laboratory to the real world. As exciting as it was to behold, the Picturephone was a financial flop for AT&T, and it took over 30 years for another trailblazing company (and a Canadian one at that!) to develop a product that would firmly embed the tool of teleconferencing into the modern workplace. That company was Nienkämper, and the product was Vox.
Toronto-based Nienkämper has been designing high-end furniture for offices, public areas and residential interiors since its founding in 1968 by Klaus Nienkämper. But in 1997 the company found itself in the perfect nexus of influences: serving a major American software client just as that industry was beginning to change the modern workplace. What Nienkämper saw in this environment, essentially, was a growing need to figure out how to harness technology effectively and elegantly in boardrooms and meeting rooms. With Vox conference tables, Mark Müller designed a stylish solution for tabletop plug-in points for computers, projectors, conferencing equipment, electronic presentations, the Internet, or any other audio, video or data connection.
Vox also deftly straddles that line of a client’s desire for prêt-à-porter as well as customizability. The tables are pre-wired and arrive ready to be plugged in and put to use; but are also available in 14 different shapes, can be specified with many different styles of bases, and now can even come with a glass top.
It would almost be too hard to overstate the impact that Vox had on Nienkämper. “Being the first one out the gate with this type of product afforded Nienkämper a strong position worldwide in the conference table market, and we have been able to maintain that position,” says Klaus Nienkämper. Pre-Vox, most of the company’s business was producing products under licence for foreign companies mostly for export to the U.S. After Vox’s development in Dallas and subsequent launch in
Chicago at NeoCon, the company saw a 20-per-cent sales growth for four years in a row, and had to expand its factory
in 2002 to handle the orders.
Put simply, Nienkämper understood that despite the evolution of telecommunication technologies, there is always a need for rooms in which people can meet; and with its ever-expanding Vox collection created a niche market that not only didn’t previously exist in office furniture but, in a sense, transformed the corporate world into the globally connected realm we all take for granted today.
TEKNION: BEYOND THE CUBICLE
When Toronto-based Teknion was founded in 1983, it had one single product line: the Teknion Office System (TOS). Now, 30 years later, the company offers an array of integrated products covering lines of systems furniture, mobile furniture, architectural wall systems, seating, storage and filing, freestanding casegoods and accessories. But when asked to single out a product the VIPs at Teknion feel was their “home run,” it isn’t something from the early 1980s. Instead, they point to District.
Unveiled in 2007 at NeoCon in Chicago, District is a collection of cabinets, desks, walls and windows addressing the shift towards smaller workstations. “Over the past 15 years, we have seen the average size of the employee workstation decrease by up to 40 per cent, and up to 45 per cent for managers,” says John Hellwig, vice-president, design and innovation. District’s primary innovation was the ability to make the most out of small spaces: storage is the primary framework for workstations, and narrow, small-scale versions of traditional storage units stacked on credenzas serve as space dividers; credenzas themselves double as visitor seating or worksurfaces; and large windows starting at worksurface height open up the workstation to allow light and views.
Teknion realized that one design does not work for all needs and uses, and so the designers created a “kit of parts” that can be used like Lego to facilitate each group’s needs; for example stackable storage, as opposed to mounted to a panel, can be moved as needed but is still secure.
But more than just a functional advancement, District also signaled a keen awareness of design trends that look both forward and back. “Horizontal overlapping planes and long floating volumes recall the best of mid-century-Modern office
furniture design elements,” says Steve Verbeek, design director, and senior designer of District. “As computer hardware becomes smaller, more mobile and easier to use, workstations are becoming more like furniture.”
Unabashedly influenced by modern European residential furniture, “the use of natural veneers, glass, painted wood construction and anodized aluminum reflect these inspirations and brings the look and feel of furniture back to the open plan,” says Verbeek. In fact, that European influence is reflected in the original project name – Mid-Atlantic – which Verbeek says refers to European influence and the slow swell of change occurring in North America meeting halfway in the Atlantic Ocean. The name “District” refers to the idea that the office – like a city – can be understood as a collection of connected but different quarters or neighbourhoods.
While District is a clear attempt to get away from the old office landscape of uniformity, it is seen by Teknion as an evolutionary step, not a radical 180-degree turnabout. After all, much of District was informed by previous product lines like XM, which while not a huge success, helped presage District. “The tech industry was a huge component of Teknion’s early business, which XM was geared towards,” says Verbeek. “Although the tech bubble burst, Teknion had already connected with facility designers and designers in general, helping put the focus on design.”
It took a year to develop District, from concept to implementation, and “along the way we were carefully building reassurance that we were on to something,” says Verbeek. “By the time we had sign-off, at no point did we think we should pull the plug.” Since then, District has impacted not just Teknion’s design approach, but its manufacturing process as well: for example, Teknion used to measure week-to-week business by panel-sells, before the non-panel District became a bestseller. Ultimately, District has drastically changed the entire product genre, and of course given birth to a host of subsequent imitations, as
game-changers always do. cI