Space Cowboys

The workplace of the future might make you want to stay in bed.

For designers, an induction into the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection is part knighthood, part Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. The most famous example might be the Herman Miller Aeron office chair, which was inducted soon after it was released in 1994. Today the chair is an icon, the resting place for the rear ends of CNBC anchors and a status symbol for dot-com kids. Generally, MoMA has done an admirable job of incorporating designs that people actually love and use: the Swiss army knife, Lego blocks, OXO tools, and so on. You probably own several museum pieces yourself.

Now a new MoMA exhibit called “Workspheres” attempts to create the proper office surroundings to house these goods. (Click here for an excellent Web tour.) The exhibit is scattered with contemporary totems of design—Macintosh computers, PalmPilots, Post-it Notes—but the centerpieces are six prototype work spaces created to make your daily grind more pleasant and efficient. These were commissioned by curators, not real businesses with concrete needs and budgets. The results are items that you’d probably rather read about in a science fiction novel than find in your office.

Take H!Bye, Marti Guixe’s proposed series of 21 mood-altering drug cocktails: one to help you “convince,” one to “combat dullness in generic spaces,” one to help you “develop IDEAS,” and so on. Now that work is global and mobile, Guixe seems to want you to create office environments within your very own bloodstream. Properly medicated under Guixe’s system, it would even be possible to “TASTE local food.” He wouldn’t be doing road warriors any favor though. Sampling the local cuisine is one of the few pleasures left in business travel, so why sterilize it?

Atmosphere, a project of the MIT Media Lab, a corporate-funded playpen that produces brilliant products with little practical use, is only slightly less ambitious: The designers merely attempt to redesign the way time is recorded. Dates and hours undulate across a wide screen, representing the intersecting calendars of everyone working on a particular project. The blurb on the wall explains that Atmosphere is a “system for accessing and manipulating personal data within a shared informational and physical space” that “resolves itself into stable nodes for input and output.” It’s far from clear how the swirling graphs are supposed to help co-workers synchronize their time or why they’re better than the inexpensive, easy-to-use online calendars that most of us use at work. As a neighboring viewer commented: “The good news is, you can communicate with your co-workers. The bad news is, they’re from outer space.”

Thankfully, Naoto Fukasawa, with an assist from IDEO, a leading industrial design shop, attempts to answer a more modest question: How can workers who lack walls around their desks achieve some measure of personalization in their space? Most open workstations have room for a family picture or two but not much else. Overhead, there’s nothing but an occasional light fixture. So Fukasawa proposes to give all workers their very own “personal sky,” customizable with the current cloud formation from a favorite beach or ski slope. This is a tool I could actually imagine using. But why stop with the space above my head? If I’m a cube dweller, why shouldn’t I be able to project art onto the fabric walls or rotating pictures of my dog?

Giuseppe Ligano and Ada Tolla’s Inspiro-Trainer aims to solve the cubicle problem outright. Open-plan offices are cost- and space-efficient but notoriously unprivate. In response, the designers propose to place each worker in converted airplane cargo containers retrofitted with padded walls, sound systems, and personal climate controls (a godsend for those who are never happy with the temperature in their office and have no ability to change it). The containers rest on movable casters, and they open up on one side so users can move them across the room and sidle up to colleagues’ pods for meetings.

One problem with the Inspiro-Trainer is that a similar concept already exists—in fact, it sits in the exhibition space along with the other trendy office objects that fill the galleries in between the six commissioned works. Steelcase, a leading office furniture maker, produced its own self-contained unit called the Personal Harbor in 1994, and it hasn’t sold particularly well. Turns out nobody wants privacy so badly that they’re willing to work inside a sealed-off space the size of a phone booth.

The best—and not coincidentally, the simplest—new idea in the exhibit comes not from the commissioned elite but from a French designer named Matali Crasset. The Teo de 2 a 3 Folding Mattress is a compact bedroll that unfurls into an attractive nap pad, complete with a do-not-disturb sign. The life-preserver orange mattress comes with a witty, Heimlich-maneuverlike diagram explaining how to use it—and suggesting that a quick nap in the afternoon might actually have the power to rescue you. Who wouldn’t want one of these tucked into an office corner? Its opposite is My Soft Office, a commission by Hella Jongerius that brings multimedia screens not only into the bedroom but into the actual bed. Her sleeping platform comes complete with two built-in screens at the foot of the bed, angled so that the terminals are visible even as you rest. This may seem like a sick joke if you’re not already shacked up with someone who works on the Web for a living. I happen to know better, having had to ban my girlfriend’s new laptop from the bedroom on the same day it arrived at our house. Trust me, you do not want one of these things invading your love nest.

But if you visit the exhibit, don’t count on being able to slip beneath the sheets. And please don’t pet the Personal Harbor or test out the chairs on display. The blue blazers are standing sentry as usual, reminding museum guests not to touch most of the pieces. But if all of this stuff is intended for everyday use, why not suspend the rules just this once? The curators have also ignored price, which is the single most important factor that businesses consider when designing their work spaces. There’s no indication of how much the various items—even the mass-produced ones—cost. For that, you have to visit MoMA’s design store next door.