I first attended the biennial Orgatec exhibition in 1992, the year the Aeron chair was launched. This was the first ever mesh work chair, replacing traditional upholstered foam. In terms of radical design, it remains the most dramatic and significant product launch I have witnessed. In the main, furniture shows today are rather like motor shows: everybody seems to be doing a variant of the same thing but some are applying more recent technology.
The most striking development since the last event two years ago is the emergence of the Pod. This concept – a room within a room – is an exquisite irony of workplace design. Having created open plan offices by removing partition walls, we are now creating rooms to install within the open spaces!
So significant is this segment that exhibition visitors using the South Entrance would have encountered a display of representative examples before even entering the halls. From ‘telephone box’ to training rooms, these provide acoustic defence, space definition and/or privacy for a variety of needs. Making your choice will be dependent on combining those needs with your aesthetic sensibilities, budget and technology requirements (some may require a resident ‘roadie’). Mobility is another key factor. Whilst some (especially larger) units will be a semi-permanent installation, others are available on castors for (comparatively) easy repositioning.
Inappropriate and excessive noise is another major issue of the open-plan workplace. Acoustic products now represent a significant proportion of the exhibition space. Two years ago, there was a large, focussed acoustics area but this year many more generic manufacturers included sound-absorbing designs in their portfolio. Most of the designs were passive (absorb and block) and some of these appeared to value form over function. Plantronics (best known for their headsets) offer a much more dynamic approach and introduced me to ‘habitat soundscaping incorporating biophilic science’. Although this sounds like something from Buzzword Bingo, their offering includes sensors to monitor noise levels, moving images of waterfalls and attractive landscapes, sculpture-like water features and a cloud-based system to adjust interference sound levels dynamically throughout the workplace.
The idea of linking biophilic design to acoustics was also evident at a more low-tech level. Almost all furniture stands featured plants in some form but many of these were simply decorative. Others provided living walls – or very realistic artificial plant walls – and screens to combine the benefits of both human needs. Plants can be very effective sound absorbers and the ambiance they create can be exceptionally welcoming.
No furniture event would be complete without a representative collection of sit-stand desks and at Orgatec, they were everywhere. However, if you want inspiring sit-stand designs you need to visit the Stockholm Furniture Fair (where they are trying to reinvent a twenty-year old concept). At Orgatec, designs were largely indistinguishable with a notable exception. Actiforce have taken a more holistic approach to desk design and created a top that can incorporate most of the cable management, simplifying assembly, reducing weight and construction materials and streamlining the appearance.
Finally, sustainability was a topic that made only a sporadic appearance in the exhibitors’ corporate messages. For many, such as the majority of Scandinavian manufacturers, a good environmental agenda is simply a given and hardly warrants mentioning. For others, it is a topic to be avoided. Some of the Dutch exhibitors showcased their story. This is especially relevant in their domestic market where Dutch public sector procurement encourages demonstrable circular economy manufacture. One such company, Dataflex, has now assessed all of their products and provides a Life Cycle Analysis Ecosheet for each.
My favourite story of the exhibition, however, comes from Vepa, another Dutch company. With the current press focus on minimising and reusing plastic, they have gone much further than most in the use of recycled water bottles in manufacturing materials. More than that, they encourage clients to join them on their corporate boat where, armed with fishing nets, they recover discarded bottles from the canals of Amsterdam. This may not be the most efficient way to source raw materials but it certainly makes the point!
You can view the gallery of pictures we took at Orgatec here.