What could possibly link Monty Python's Flying Circus with the surrender of Japan on the USS Missouri that ended World War 2 in 1945, or celebrated US television show Twin Peaks with the steps of the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow? The answer is they all produced scenes of office work or teaching being played out in the open air. These examples are from the research benchmarks collected for a project entitled The Outdoor Office by American studio Jonathan Olivares Design Research, being exhibited at The Art Institute of Chicago until 15 July 2012.
Olivares, a protégé of Konstantin Grcic, is well established as a designer (his Smith storage cart for Danese won the Compasso d'Oro in 2011) and a writer and researcher (his most recent book being A Taxonomy of Office Chairs, published last year by Phaidon Press). Combining his talents, The Outdoor Office presents research and design on the subject of outdoor work furniture for corporate, institutional or educational contexts, made possible by grants from The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. The exhibition, as the accompanying text by Zoë Ryan, John H. Bryan Curator and Chair of Architecture and Design explains, "synthesizes the result of Olivares's findings, from inspirational images drawn from film, television, and existing offices and conceptual projects, to models he developed for new types of offices and furniture systems, which are inventive tools for studying and working in both public and private spaces".
The initial impetus for the project came from a stalled commission for cast-iron outdoor furniture. When the idea of pursuing work furniture was raised, the client would only consider the leisure context. Similar resistance came from other furniture and playground manufacturers, their argument being that they did not have, or did not perceive a market for it. Olivares, however, was undeterred.
His confidence came from what he describes as "a chain reaction of logical conclusions", in particular, the ratio between how much time is spent working indoors in relation to how much good weather is enjoyed in many parts of the world. Add to this the cost and energy savings of cutting down on air conditioning and lighting usage and it becomes easy to see his point. And while companies may not have specifically marketed outdoor work furniture, Olivares has found numerous examples that show people adapting existing outdoor spaces for work. He recounts cycling through Old Harvard Yard (an area of parkland in the centre of Harvard University) in Spring 2010 and seeing Fermob steel chairs there for the first time. "At first you 'd only see people out there taking the sun but slowly you started to see laptops. By the time the chairs had been there one year we went to take photographs because everybody was out there, professors, students, on their laptop in the shade, working away. This said to us, there may be no perceived market but there is definitely a market".
The Graham Foundation funding enabled Olivares to pursue the idea through further research, travel, teaching workshops and ultimately the design, modeling and presentation of three speculative outdoor furniture installations, the intended result being to build consumer interest and bring office furniture manufacturers around to the notion by showing realistic examples. These self-imposed constraints explain the somewhat restrained nature of the final proposals. Olivares chose to work within the hypothetical framework of an imaginary office furniture client, building a design language that spans all three installations and defining a palette of materials including wood-plastic composites, UV resistant shade cloth and cast and extruded aluminum components.
The results clearly reflect Olivares's Modernist sensibility. A work-tent that offers shade for laptop and tablet use was inspired by agricultural high tunnels, an insight that brings to mind Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius's love of American grain silos. It is also no coincidence that healthy outdoor living – central to the Modernist way of life — is part of Olivares's underlying motivation of the project. "The Outdoor Office is a very utopian idea, a very Modernist idea — in the early sense — of doing something that will benefit society, benefit health and show how enjoyable life on earth is!"
The three designs show distinct scenarios; a group meeting, an individual at work, and a small class being taught. Expertly modeled at 1:15 scale, they are photographed and presented on huge 3,5 x 2,5 metre (12' x 8' foot) banners, enabling visitors to easily imagine themselves approaching the spaces. It is an impressive illusion and a reminder of the power of the scale model to transport us to a new reality, which is precisely what Olivares wants to achieve. "My ultimate goal with this project" he says, "would be that in 50 years an outdoor office is something that is just as common as a gazebo or a patio. Every corporation or university has one. When students ask 'can we have class outside today?' the teacher replies 'yes, I've booked the outdoor classroom'". Tim Parsons (@ObjectThinking)
The Outdoor Office
The Art Institute of Chicago, Modern Wing
Through 15 July 2012