Anton Grassl Boston-based DECOi Architects paired a plywood canopy and ample daylight in its interior for a local financial firm, rethinking the conventional formula for office plans.

Office design has evolved significantly from the Dickensian counting houses of the 19th century, informed in no small part by an ever-growing body of workplace research. Yet today’s offices tend to be generally uninspiring places. The soul-sucking atmosphere of the modern cubicle farm is a widely accepted phenomenon and the subject of parody in popular media the likes of "Dilbert" and Office Space. Our supposed savior, the open-plan layout, isn’t doing much better. Roughly 70 percent of today's offices have an open floor plan, and studies of experiences in such spaces reveal higher rates of illness and distraction that often exceed whatever benefits come from working shoulder to shoulder. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Explains author Nikil Saval in Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (Knopf Doubleday, 2014), "offices were never meant to be icons of tedium," but rather "the source of some of the most Utopian ideas and sentiments about American working life."

The modernization of the workplace throughout the 20th century reveals a slow Balkanization of design disciplines. The more open the spaces have become, the greater the perceived separation between the container and the contained. This has resulted in “a massive migration of problem-solving from architecture into office furniture,” explains British architect Frank Duffy in author Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built (Penguin, 1995). The flexible, column-free work environments ushered in during the 20th century were intentionally generic, with settings defined by characterless acoustic ceiling grids, fluorescent lighting, and modular carpet tiles. Since then, design attention has shifted to focus on furniture solutions, fueling the commercial success of manufacturers like Herman Miller, Knoll, and Steelcase. Materials-wise, the wood-paneled and coffer-ceiling rooms of workspaces past have given way to the re-configurable tabletops and fabric-wrapped panels of today’s modular office furniture. This approach has unintentionally prioritized adaptable micro-environments while downplaying the importance of place. As a result, the imperative for design innovation is now placed on mobile elements rather than on the space they occupy.

A set from AMC's "Mad Men," which explores midcentury office culture and features prominently the open-yet-staid office plan that encouraged the design focus on office furniture systems.
A set from AMC's "Mad Men," which explores midcentury office culture and features prominently the open-yet-staid office plan that encouraged the design focus on office furniture systems.
That's now changing, however, as designers return their focus to considerations of architecture. At the Brooklyn, N.Y., office of Genius Media, for example, local firm Leeser Architecture inserted dichroic glass panels and polished metal laminate millwork into the existing warehouse structure. The resulting space—which sharply contrasts new and old materials—proffers a generously illuminated environment pierced with shafts of reflected, color-shifting light. Similarly, the Mamiya Shinichi Design Studio in Nagoya, Japan, eschews the column-free plan for an office space that resembles a forest (shown above). The proliferation of wooden supports defines rooms of various scales within a larger, multi-story volume and provides a framework for bookshelves and electrical conduit. 

I'll explore a third example of this trend, the Boston-based DECOi Architects’ local project One Main, in greater detail. The 10,000-square-foot space is enveloped in undulating waves of digitally milled plywood that shape both the interior architecture and the furniture. Designed for a green-building and clean-energy investor, One Main was inspired by DECOi principal Mark Goulthorpe’s previous installations In the Shadow of Ledoux (1993) and the Galerie Miran (2003), each composed of layers of milled plywood.

Anton Grassl Digitally milled plywood shapes the ceiling, walls, and furnishings in this office fit-out.

Aiming to distinguish itself from its industry competitors, the client requested a bold environmental statement that would be clear to visitors as soon as they stepped out of the elevator. Goulthorpe interpreted this directive by creating a gesamtkunstwerk of sustainably forested spruce laminated plywood. The formally exuberant design assimilates multiple conventionally separate elements into a cohesive whole: the ceiling distends downward to form a column, for example, while the floor swells upward to create a reception desk. “The goal was to execute as much of the interior as possible using this natural material,” Goulthorpe says, “and to displace as many fixtures and fittings as possible by directly milling things like ventilation grilles, light cowlings, and door handles, as possible—even eliminating any other armature for the glass walls by embedding the glass directly into milled slots in the ply-lam.”

Anton Grassl The reception desk is designed to meld with the wood construction.
Anton Grassl

The biggest challenge was developing and executing the custom computer-aided design and manufacturing protocols required for the complex spruce ply geometry. “We wrote scripts to fully automate the production of all the tool paths,” says Goulthorpe, adding that the role of the architect​ became a “critical part of the fabrication protocol” since the milling machines were all piloted from DECOi’s files. “The risks we took were not only that our efforts to code the project would fail, but that the front-loaded time necessary to produce the code would slow down the project to such an extent that the various project stakeholders would become too frustrated with the speed of progress,” said Matt Trimble, principal at the Boston-based consulting firm Radlab, who helped code the design with ​collaborating project architect Raphael Crespin. Initially the client was unhappy with how long it would take to finesse this part of the process, requiring the team to work a series of late-night shifts. “Once attained, [the process] was remarkably effective, generating files overnight,” Goulthorpe says.

Construction was relatively painless, and the onsite team was enthusiastic and determined to achieve a high-quality result. “Once we had mastered how to manipulate the large elements, it became very efficient to install with a skeletal team,” Goulthorpe says. And with only two trades involved—a millwork shop and a glass installer—the job afforded contractual simplicity. 

DECOi Architects Installing the plywood canopy.
As a completed design, One Main’s striking appearance sets it apart from generic offices, but I was curious to know if it also performed differently for its users. “The initial reaction was an uneasy one," Goulthorpe says, "with the small group of financial partners not sure how such an original form would be received within the financial community” particularly since the economic downturn had unfolded in the time since the project was commissioned. But the mood quickly took a positive turn. “It was as ​people started visiting the office that the joyous reception and laughter put everyone at ease, and it is a very warm and convivial space,” he says. “The openness of the spaces also adds to an egalitarian mood, and I’ve noticed that the doors are very rarely closed.” Despite the inherent lack of privacy, Goulthorpe says he’s received feedback that suggests the design supports individual concentration. One executive contacted him after the project’s completion to tell him that he enjoys witnessing the changing light throughout the day, which inspires him to think. “It was one of those rare calls an architect gets that gives you a deep sense of satisfaction of having lifted the spirits of the inhabitants,” Goulthorpe says.

Anton Grassl Windows on the periphery and glass walls within offer clear views to the outdoors.
Though this article has focused on the design of established corporate offices, the reality is that work today is conducted nearly everywhere, from the boardroom to one’s bedroom. The mobility that mobile technologies and ubiquitous communications networks afford is liberating, and given the typical user’s dissatisfaction with the generic office environment—preferring to work instead at a café or home, for example—today’s cube farms face imminent obsolescence. Mobile tools thus reinforce the incentive to create memorable architecture rather than meaningless containers. “Perhaps this mobility actually gives a greater architectural opportunity to create diverse spatial and material experiences that promote well-being and optimism,” Goulthorpe says. 

Certainly the material approach to One Main’s thoughtfully crafted interior is one way to reinforce the corporeality​ of place while differentiating client identity. To make a difference, therefore, architecture must not only facilitate users’ activities but also create meaningful destinations. Office design should not focus on making a better cubicle but rather on ensuring that the workplace is an environment that employees would choose freely above others—a place in which they are inspired to do their best work.

Anton Grassl The project team designed custom furniture for each of the executive offices.
Anton Grassl
Anton Grassl The ceiling canopy subtly integrates lighting, electrical, and ventilation systems.