Office Furniture, As You Like It


Winston Churchill preferred to work standing at his desk. Now, another Brit, designer Geoff Hollington, has made it easy for everyone else to follow in Churchill's footsteps. A height-adjustable desk is the centerpiece of his Relay line of office furniture, made by Herman Miller Inc. in Zeeland, Mich.

Hollington designed Relay to accommodate many individual work styles and enable quick changes in office layouts for employees teaming up on projects. Relay goes far beyond the rearrangeable cubicles of today's open-office furniture systems. In Relay, individual pieces of furniture are light and movable; some even have wheels. For privacy, Relay employs movable folding dividers similar to oriental screens. "The whole idea is user-adjustability and user-changeability, because things are in such a state of pandemonium in offices today," says IDEA judge David Jenkins, a leading seating designer at Steelcase Inc.

HOME TRUTHS. For inspiration, Hollington looked at how the typical home is furnished. Household furnishings seldom match, he noted. Most homes are an eclectic mishmash of items arranged in a functional ensemble. So, Hollington designed Relay's 12 components to mesh in a similar manner. Each is free-standing, though designed to "dock" with the others.

There is a touch of irony in Hollington's use of the home as a conceptual source for his furniture. The office, according to Hollington, originally evolved out of the home study, a room set aside as a comfortable place to work. During the 20th century, however, the office became more and more like a factory. The influence of time and motion studies and mass production turned the physical environment into a bland and sterile place. Relay turns the office back into a friendlier environment.

Hollington designed some slick, user-friendly details into Relay. The Relay desk, for example, is designed so that its height can be adjusted quickly, and it features a hinged top that forms a type of easel for propping up books and papers. To tame the tangle of electrical, computer, and telephone wires, all rectangular tabletops have a rubber-lined notch that acts as a cable guide. Then there's the pull-out "breadboard" in the credenza that functions as added work space or makeshift lunch counter.

Relay's flexibility was such a radical departure that Herman Miller used an unusual technique to test the concept. Hollington's first Relay design had been killed because its components could not be fastened together easily by office workers. So in 1989, the company gave eight employees prototypes of a new Relay system, then videotaped them using it. They quickly warmed to its malleability, shifting pieces more frequently than Hollington anticipated. Some altered the desk height as often as every few minutes. They also pulled wheeled tables and stands into tight wagon-train-like clus-ters, to create a larger work space.

The designer also used the tapes to fine-tune the components. For example, he added shelves to the credenza at heights that are handy to the adjustable desk. And it was obvious that office employees rarely used the line's small, rolling "tool caddy," so it got the ax.

STYLISH ECHOES. Visual clutter could have been a problem with such a loose-knit bunch of furnishings. But Hollington links Relay's disparate components by employing similar styling cues throughout. The credenza's feet are smaller versions of the end table pedestals. And the cantilever bases of the larger work tables echo the skeletal supports on the adjustable desk. The bases are user-friendly, too: Workers' legs can swing around easily as they scoot about the office in a chair.

Herman Miller officials figure few companies will move immediately to Relay. That's why the new system is designed to mesh with the old. But the company is also betting more people will cotton to the idea of standing at their desks instead of sitting on their glutei maximi all day.

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