The world of work is changing – at least that’s what we’re constantly being told. But is it changing in the right way? More and more companies now champion the notion of “flexible” working, pushing their employees to hotdesk and find their own little corner of real estate every morning. Indeed, some businesses are taking away personal workspaces altogether. While this might ostensibly be dressed up as a measure to encourage cohesion, collaboration and creative exchange, the main aim is almost always to cut costs.
Yet this shift is often a staggering example of corporate myopia. Yes, you might well be able to move into smaller headquarters next year and true, you might not have to fork out quite as much on heating bills during the winter. But what about the downside: what does a company lose when its workers give up their perches? At its best, the desk is an expression of who we are. After all, we’ll spend more time sat in front of it than in our own carefully decorated living rooms. And it is a place to show off too, with a few well-chosen objets d’art and hardback books. It’s a place to sketch out bold new ideas on a grand scale and a reassuring spot to linger and contemplate the future.
With so many people turning against the desk we think it’s time to reassert some perspective. As such, we’ve dropped in on leading architects, ambassadors, illustrators and businesspeople around the world to have a nose around their offices. Unsurprisingly, at the heart of the empire there’s often a pleasant slab of cool, white marble or a beautiful block of warm American oak. So please, take a seat.
“I love working,” says Duangrit Bunnag, head of architecture firm dbalp. “I can do everything at my desk. It’s the most comfortable place in the world for me.” The well-lit, 16-seater, black-marble-topped behemoth from his own furniture line Anyroom may not look cosy but it’s necessary for his profession, he adds. Drawings of residential buildings and commercial projects, plans for boutique hotels and art galleries: all pass under Bunnag’s trained eye across this desk. The surface is relatively tidy, apart from one corner that’s piled up with the tools of his trade: pens, pencils, tracing paper and an architect’s scale.
The room itself is more chaotic. There is vintage furniture and a bench made out of stacks of The International Herald Tribune; a Vespa for the occasional ride out for noodles; and musical paraphernalia, from boxes of LPs to a record player and a guitar. Bunnag alone selects the tunes. “Only then am I a dictator,” he says.
“We didn’t have our own desk space for some time,” says Jay Osgerby of Barber & Osgerby, which has created pieces for the biggest names in furniture since 1996. “As the company grew we donated our space to our staff,” adds business partner Edward Barber. “We used to float around but it didn’t work; finally we have our own space again, which is fantastic.” Their latest work is the Pacific Chair for Vitra – and they claimed a pair to match their desks (also from Vitra). “It’s called the Wood Table,” says Osgerby of the design he created with Barber in 2014. On and around the desks lie books and prototypes. “It’s chaotic but that’s how we like to work,” says Barber. “If things are too clean and tidy it kills creativity.”
“It’s important to have a space where your thoughts can wander,” says Karen Heumann. The advertising agency she co-founded in 2012, Thjnk, recently moved to a new building in Mitte, designed by Barkow Leibinger Architects; she is still putting the finishing touches to her office. Most of the furniture has been delivered and the walls are a deep petrol blue. Business cards, invitations and notebooks are scattered across a white desk, while colourful vases and oil paintings decorate the room. Spending much of her time on digital projects, Heumann appreciates tangible objects. “I created my own still life,” she says, pointing to a rattan sideboard topped with a majolica plate and a miniature version of Rodin’s “The Thinker”.
As you’d expect from the head of one of Italy’s biggest furniture makers, Giorgio Busnelli sits at a desk produced by his own company – under its Maxalto brand, to be precise. Yet the furniture sitting around this wide white-marble tabletop is (perhaps surprisingly) sourced from beyond the walls of the brand’s headquarters in Novedrate. His own chair was designed by Antonio Citterio for Vitra, while the armchairs are Knoll classics by Mies van der Rohe. With its neatly stacked papers and books, this office is an orderly, calming space: the views onto the garden of the building, designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, certainly help too. Busnelli started working at the company, which his father founded, as assistant to the production manager in 1973, becoming its CEO three decades later. On the wall is a sculpture by Milanese artist Fabrizio Pozzoli, a gift from his daughter Francesca and her husband.
Christoph Niemann is an illustrator, author and artist whose work has been published on the covers of The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. His illustrations (and books) can be found all around the world but you’ll most likely find him in his Berlin studio, sketching away. “I like a tidy workspace – a preference that sadly conflicts with my messy working habits,” he says, pencil in hand. “The essentials I always need are 2H and 2B pencils, vast supplies of paper, decent light and, sadly, no music. I’ve tried working with all sorts of background music but I just can’t focus.” Right now he’s concentrating on turning sketches from a recent 28-hour trip from Venice to Berlin into a visual essay for Zeitmagazin.
Just as in his creations, there are elements of both flamboyance and sophistication to be found in the office of Belgian fashion designer Dries Van Noten. A bunch of flowers picked fresh from his country garden sits on his desk and brightens the otherwise clean industrial space in a repurposed warehouse on Antwerp’s dockside. At the head of one of the world’s most fiercely independent and much-loved fashion brands, Van Noten spends his time here fastidiously selecting fabrics and patterns for his collections, while keeping an eye on the numbers for his global brand. Escapism comes by dipping into the art and design books that line his office walls. It’s a pursuit he encourages among his staff: “I often say to the people in my team, ‘Today it’s a no-computer day,’ so they close their laptops and go back to books.”
James Cuno’s job is a constant stream of emails, phone calls and policy papers. Or, as he puts it, “The preservation, presentation and interpretation of the world’s artistic heritage,” he says. His shelves are filled with tomes of Near Eastern, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Chinese and Central Asian art. “They represent the foundation of much of the world’s art history,” he says. “I access at least two or three of the books every week.” Cuno – who joined the Trust in 2011 from the Art Institute of Chicago and has pictures of his family and inspirational artists behind his desk – isn’t into drawers or cabinets. Which explains the collection of papers (and yes, more books).
“We work quite a bit here because the light is lovely,” says Jasmin Sohi, sat at a circular wooden table in the studio space she shares with her partner (in life and work) Tom Holberton. Sohi and Holberton founded SoHo+Co, an architecture and design studio, in 2014. They travel a lot for their business – often to Japan, which Holberton says is a great source of fresh thinking – but in London they spend their days in the studio. The duo are currently working on a project for Japan House, a cultural embassy with bases in LA, London and São Paulo. “As an architect there’s a lot of production and drawing,” says Holberton. “But when you’re just trying to think of what you’re trying to design, it’s nice to sit here together.”
Sweden’s new ambassador to the UK, Torbjörn Sohlström, arrived in London last year and quickly made himself at home in his Portland Place residence. When he’s not at the embassy he does most of his work in the library of the 18th-century house designed by Scottish neoclassical architects Robert and James Adam. This is where he likes to spend his time: sat at an antique desk, surrounded by walls of books, reading the newspaper and hammering away on his laptop. “I have a more modern office but whenever possible I work from the old library of the residence – an inspiring room right in the heart of London, full of history, books and traces left by my predecessors over the past 100 years.”
Kathryn Gustafson has been practising landscape architecture for more than 35 years. She co-founded London-based firm Gustafson Porter + Bowman in 1997 followed by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol in Seattle two years later. Splitting her time between Washington state and the UK capital, Gustafson has worked on countless projects the world over. Highlights include the new Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, Seattle City Hall Plaza and the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain in London’s Hyde Park. She’s currently realising the Bay East Gardens by the Bay in Singapore and Valencia’s Parque Central – plans for which were drawn up at her desk.