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Fancy being able to develop an idea and physically create it all while you’re sat at your desk.  The arrival of 3D printing has opened up endless possibilities for designers and concept development teams, giving them the ability to produce parts and concept models using a printer that sits neatly on their desk.

We live in a time where instant gratification underpins every aspect of our lives – from buy now pay later to having TV on demand and shopping at the click of a button.  Although this 3D printing is, in many ways, a sign of the times, it has the potential to change the very fabric of our lives.

3D printing takes virtual designs from CAD and transform them into thin, virtual, horizontal cross-sections, building up layers until the model is complete.  The Economist described it as technology which “may have an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did” because it makes it as cheap to create one item as it does thousands.

So it’s hugely disruptive for traditional manufacturing, but it’s the technology’s potential as a means to solve more complex problems that has really captured the world’s imagination.  Hip replacements, for tissue engineering and the creation of chemical compounds all at the touch of a button.  Other suggested applications have included archaeology and forensics, providing a new way to reconstruct damaged artefacts and evidence.

We don’t have to imagine this world – academics and designers are working on making this possible as we speak and the applications for 3D printing are clearly limitless.   These printers now cost as little as £1500 (compared to £20,000 three to five years ago) – I think it’s time we all started learning CAD.

The government’s decision to release 20 empty buildings for start-up businesses at affordable rents has been met with wide debate.

Many praise it for creating more favorable conditions for start-ups in otherwise under-resourced areas[1].  Coupled with the lack of Grade A office space putting increased demand on secondary and tertiary space, and it is a very effective way to create new, cost effective space that gives entrepreneurs a leg-up.

Others consider it a token gesture, an initiative designed to garner column inches rather than improve the climate for small businesses or reduce public spending. The real issue here is that the government’s un-used building portfolio is vast – 20 really is a fraction of its 550 empty buildings.  That’s somewhere in the region of 450,000 sq. ft. of space, costing the taxpayer £70m in empty rates taxes alone.

Although the government intends to increase the number to 300, it has actually missed an early win. Why not start with a more confident target that shows real commitment to small businesses and reassures the taxpayer that one of the many holes in the public purse is being sewn up quickly?

With such demands on the availability of office space, many of these buildings could, with effective office design, fit-out and proper ongoing management, be the answer to established businesses as well as those starting out.  That’s not forgetting other potential uses such as homes for community projects, arts and theatre groups, youth clubs and day centres.  The list goes on.  In resource hungry areas these buildings should be community assets, not reminders of what once was.

Whether or not the government has realised the real potential of its un-used buildings, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Being John Malkovich

John Cusack plays an unemployed puppeteer who takes a filing job in the low-ceilinged offices on Floor 7½ of the Mertin Flemmer Building in New York. When he asks his boss why the ceilings are so low, he is told ‘low overhead, my boy’.

Click here for the video

The office furniture design scene certainly came alive in the early 1990s. New ideas and new technologies wove themselves into the grand narrative of new ways of working. Everything was possible and there was no longer one best way of doing things. In New York, Chiat Day’s offices featured touch-down desks, garish crimson floors and walls and a reception framed by a huge pair of plastic, glistening lips. In Helsinki, Sol Cleaning Services did away completely with ideas as outmoded as desks and working hours. In the UK, British Airways gave their staff olive groves and indoor streams to work alongside. And in London a small media company called Michaelides and Bednash had offices that consisted of a room furnished with a single 20m long serviced table for its 20 staff to share.

Such workplaces were surely one-offs, mere footnotes to the grand narrative. So, while workplace design has almost beyond recognition since that time, plastic lips and olive groves are still a rarity. Little wonder that the eminent workplace theorist and designer Frank Duffy wrote the following of the Michaelides and Bednash office in his 1997 book The New Office:

‘The Michaelides and Bednash table would not work for many of the companies featured in this book. The office space is very specific to the business it houses.’

And that should have been that.

Except for one thing.

The long table with a core of data, comms and power servicing favoured by Michaelides and Bednash – now commonly known as a bench system – has become one of the great office design success stories of the last few years. Pretty much all furniture manufacturers have a bench system as their standard offering.

But why should this be? With all the space planning and product options now available to us why should such a product have taken off in quite the way it has? I ask this question with no vested interest. As designers we are free to create whatever working environment and recommend whatever products we think best meets the needs our clients. It’s also very apparent to me that the bench is a good solution in many environments. I’m with Frank Duffy on that point.

I’m also aware of the advantages of benches. I know the arguments about teamworking, space efficiency and simplicity. But what seems to me to be less apparent is why they are specified in environments where they are clearly not the best solution. Benches can be inflexible, impersonal, often make overly intensive use of space and can be too regimented. They fly in the face of the notion that the workplace is an organic environment that must respond to and encourage complex flows of people, information and ideas.

The real shame is that they have come to dominate so much of what office furniture manufacturers assume as an ideal workplace solution when there are so many opportunities to innovate. Contemporary facilities managers have a wider range of planning models, finishes and products than ever before. The office furniture market in the UK offers a vibrant range of solutions so while the bench is a useful element in the overall picture, it can also become counterproductive when it is selected as a default rather than chosen as the best solution.

Glengarry Glen Ross

In which Alec Baldwin lets rip in a familiar way to the grey people in the grey office. The writing, the acting; simply magnificent. And all rooted in reality albeit old school ‘motivation’. The Jack Lemmon character is clearly the inspiration for ‘Gill’ from The Simpsons.

Fight Club / American Beauty

There was obviously something Millennial about these two scenes which appeared in 1999. Blackmailing your boss as a way of escaping the endless drudge was the only way for these two. Above forty-something Lester Burnham rejects corporate omerta so he can get a job in a burger joint and have more time to buff himself up, smoke some weed, buy a new car and ogle young girls on his path to enlightenment.

Meanwhile the twenty-something Tyler Durden takes the more direct approach, beating himself up in his boss’s office while shouting for mercy until Security arrives.

This week we look at number 4 in our list – The Apartment.

Jack Lemmon exchanges the crushing uniformity of the open plan for a corner office in return for allowing senior managers to use his apartment as a venue for their infidelity.

…And talking of sci-fi noir movies based on Philip K Dick stories, here’s Blade Runner.

The dreamy setting here is a contrast to the grime and sleaze in the City below and also supports the unresolved notion that Deckard may be a replicant himself. Clearly the workplace smoking ban had been repealed by this time, but then where would a femme fatale be without a cigarette? Even if she is an android.

Minority Report / Clerks

We like films like this. High concept noir sci-fi, based on a book by Philip K Dick of course, full of ideas and technology that seemed cool and subversive in 2002 and are becoming mundane in 2011. I mean, who wouldn’t rather have a USB stick than a perspex panel the size of a brick?

Deskheads may recognise the furniture as Resolve designed by Ayse Birsel. They can use this fact to bore whoever they are watching the film with while anybody else would be watching Tom Cruise doing Blue Steel in the foreground. Or is it Magnum?

Of course, there is an alternative attitude towards office equipment than the one demonstrated by Tom Cruise. It is the one best depicted in Office Space, in which three guys take direct action with a printer.