This Isn’t a Job for Superman

There comes a point at which you could almost get tired of beating up on the self-defeating shortsightedness of open office designs. Almost.

The fact is, when an idea does itself that few favors, it gets what it deserves. The bad news is it encourages all manner of piling on. The good news is it also inspires alternatives that include new ideas, new products, and new design alternatives. So it is that open office spaces have precipitated the return of, of all things, the cubicle. But, to paraphrase the old ad that sought to stave off Oldsmobile’s demise but served only to hasten it by flaunting the GM line’s irrelevance, this is not your father’s cubicle.

So ubiquitous is the open-office bashing — and so rife the opportunities — Fast Company published an article entitled, “Cubicles are back, and we have open plan offices to thank”. Wow.

Who’d have imagined an idea once championed by so luminous an architectural figure as Frank Lloyd Wright would come to be the impetus for conflict, high blood pressure and increased staff turnover, to say nothing of its complete lack of accommodations for privacy and concentration.

The Fast Company article said, in part:

Call them pods. Boxes. Micro-offices. Phone booths. Cubicle nouveau. There’s no one name for them, but they all aim to fix the same problem: the misery of the modern open plan office … open offices are bad for the people who work inside of them … [because of] their psychological and social costs.

What Goes Around …

Everything is cyclical. So, it was only a matter of time until open offices went the way of dinosaurs, the Ford Pinto, Quaaludes, and pet rocks; although, open offices will be back again as soon as enough time passes and we ignore enough history.

Even our currently renewing infatuation with the office phone booth won’t last long. After all, we’re only human. And even though Superman had powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, not even he was as crazy about phone booths as we think he was.

But when the choice is between close quarters or the psyche-restoring respite of seclusion, it’s no contest. And lest we forget, Superman called his sanctuary the Fortress of Solitude.

Let’s look at it this way: The fact that phone booths went away doesn’t necessarily mean they were a bad idea. They’re coming back because open office spaces have to go.

What’s Old is New Again

The other morning, my husband and I were reading a humorous article about the days when we, as kids, could hop on our bicycles after school, knowing the only admonishment we’d receive was, “Don’t come home till supper.” After we got through laughing, reminiscing, and recalling our youthful days with a kind of wistful nostalgia, I realized how much freedom we had had back then. We had such amazing opportunities to imagine, to explore, to make decisions, and to think independently.

I’d get on my Columbia bike and pedal my way to adventure, looking to see what I could find along the way, what treasures I could bring home to my mother. I saw beauty in Queen Anne’s Lace and other wildflowers, in acorns, pinecones, and horse chestnuts. All these things I’d carry home to arrange into something worthy of my creativity. After all, that stuff was there for the picking, right alongside the road.

But the real finds were in the bulky waste pickup. Those were the days in which adaptive reuse was called dump-diving. And I was plunging in head first. I remember being so excited the time I found a really great frame. It was just waiting to come alive with a fresh coat of paint and a family picture. I got a lot of brownie points for that find.

The Past is a Present to the Future

All that fun I had creating memory lane on my bicycle informs the work we do at The ArtFitters today. We find new uses for things that frequently have been forgotten. We have a keen, practiced eye for placing unlike things together, in creating wholes that are so much greater than the sums of their seemingly disparate parts, in turning adaptive reuse into eclectic design.

As a child, I strove to surprise my mom with things that would please her. Today, The ArtFitters strive to surprise our clients with things that please them.

We all search for our purposes in and our contributions to life, to create meaning in and fulfillment through our work. Sometimes our efforts are thwarted by peer pressure, by a lack of self-faith, by misplaced desires to make others happy or to make money. But sometimes …

Years ago, I read What Color is Your Parachute. It told me to look at what I loved doing as a child.

If I’d read that book while riding my Columbia, I’d have saved a lot of time.

Talk Talk

In an odd moment of cultural and artistic dissonance, two things found their way into my senses sequentially the other day, followed by a related thought. First, in my Facebook feed, a friend had posted the 1966 garage-band, proto-punk classic, “Talk Talk“:

Here’s the situation
And how it really stands
I’m out of circulation
I’ve all but washed my hands

The phrase that struck me was, out of circulation, emphasizing, as it does, the song’s abiding senses of isolation and frustration. I wondered if the lyrics were written with deliberate irony since there seems to be some pretty clear cause and effect there: If you’ve removed yourself from social interaction — and abdicated your responsibility for that removal — frustration and loneliness are pretty much all that’s left.

Shift Gears

The second thing that crossed my neural pathway was an article in Artsy: “Visiting museums and galleries is a popular way to de-stress, according to a new study“. It was a breath of fresh hope after the bleak paranoia of “Talk Talk”:

The British nonprofit Art Fund found … 63% of U.K. adults “used a visit to a museum or gallery to ‘de-stress” … Those who do visit museums and galleries regularly … “report a greater sense of satisfaction with their lives … as well as a greater sense of their lives and what they do being worthwhile.”

My inner pragmatist recognized, of course, that it might not be practical or possible for some people to visit museums regularly. But perhaps it’s not the museum that engenders greater senses of satisfaction. Perhaps it’s the artwork. And maybe paintings in a museum might not be the only source of art that engenders relief from stress and greater senses of self, satisfaction, and sufficiency. It’s just as possible as anything else that songs or stories might make us feel similarly, peacefully fulfilled. Then I had my thought.

What If …?

As I contemplated the juxtaposition between the sentiments of “Talk Talk” and those in the Artsy article, I recalled a quote I once read from Dr. Karl Menninger:

I tell myself to listen with affection to anyone who talks to me. This person is showing me his soul. It may be a little dry and meager and full of grinding talk just now, but soon he will begin to think. He will show his true self; he will be wonderfully alive.

That made me think that the sense of satisfaction engendered by art could be enhanced by social interaction, by the exchange of thoughts, impressions, and sentiments in conversation. And it made me wonder if, rather than encouraging their people to visit museums, employers could invite and encourage their people to participate in sharing sessions.

What if, once a week, people were invited to sessions with their co-workers to share paintings, songs, stories, or other works of art? What if such sessions created opportunities to get to know each other in different ways, on different levels? What if they were able to discover — on their own, in their own ways — that the magic of business is people?

There It Is

Let’s not forget there are multiple definitions of commerce:

commerce (noun)
  1. an interchange of goods or commodities … trade; business.
  2. social relations, especially the exchange of views, attitudes, etc.
  3. intellectual or spiritual interchange; communion.

If we treat #2 and #3 as being at least as important and meaningful as #1, we’ll be putting some seriously substantive commerce into our businesses. If we enable our people to show their true selves, to be wonderfully alive through the discussion of arts of all sorts, we’ll be doing our selves, our people, and our businesses a true service.

And we’ll be walking the talk talk.

Keep the Change

Change. I can’t think of anything so inevitable or so vital to our growth, to our fulfillment as human beings. But as human beings, our natures often tend to resist change. Why is that?

In part, it’s fear of the unknown. If you’re familiar with the expression, the devil you know is preferable to the devil you don’t know, you’re aware of the fact that our fear of change often supersedes our desire to change. Maybe we’re afraid of making bad choices. Maybe we’re afraid of failing. Maybe we’re overwhelmed by the sheer number of our options.

Since we have so many sources of information, of new ideas, of products, services, or anything else we might want, how do we know which one’s right? The challenge of making a decision, of selecting an option, of choosing to change takes on a life of its own. That’s as costly as it is unfortunate.

But what if there is no right or wrong?

That’s Life

What if, rather than right or wrong, we accept change as being constant? What if it’s simply an element of life and living. Maybe change is not a choice. Maybe it just is. Maybe it’s not just one choice. Maybe it’s an ongoing series of choices. Maybe it’s not a challenge. Maybe it’s actually an opportunity to do everything differently, again and again, to keep everything fresh, engaging, and new.

As an artist who paints in oils, I can tell you no stroke I apply to canvas today will be dry tomorrow. I can change it. What could be more liberating than that? If I like it tomorrow, I’ll leave it. If I don’t, I’ll change it. I just roll with my thinking and make changes (or not) without pressure.

You can think the same way about your space (or your life, for that matter). If you don’t like what’s on that wall, change it. If you don’t like that wall, get rid of it. If something worked for you once and doesn’t any longer, replace it. If anything at all makes you uncomfortable, fix it.

You’re Not Alone

Part of the reason we resist or fear change is that we think we have to face it alone. We don’t. If you want to change your space and don’t have the time to wade through all your options, call us. We’ll help you narrow them. And we’ll help you bring your taste and style to reality.

But whatever you do, keep the change. If all of nature were so resistant to it, we’d never have butterflies.

Let There Be Light

I’m worried. Are you?

I’ll tell you why I’m worried: Progress and evolution are beautiful things. If we’re not marching forward, we’re moving backward. I get that. But what I don’t get — and what worries me — is that all of our ostensible progress and some of the directions in which we’re evolving are taking us away from our own natures, from our own biology and physiology.

Does that sound overstated? Does it seem crazy? Maybe. But overstatement and crazy don’t explain this: “The #1 Office Perk? Natural Light“:

Access to natural light and views of the outdoors are the number one attribute of the workplace environment, outranking stalwarts like onsite cafeterias, fitness centers, and premium perks including on-site childcare … the absence of natural light and outdoor views hurts the employee experience. Over a third of employees feel that they don’t get enough natural light in their workspace. 47% of employees admit they feel tired or very tired from the absence of natural light or a window at their office, and 43% report feeling gloomy because of the lack of light.

It Gets Worse

As if that kind of statement-of-the-obvious being positioned as reportage weren’t alarming enough (it is), there’s this: “The Growing Influence of Biophilic Interiors“. I can’t even tell you how much I wish I were making that up. I’m not:

Biophilia can be described as an affinity with nature and natural environments. In relation to interiors, biophilia brings the outside in by placing elements of nature within a hospitality environment. Examples of this are allowing a greater amount of natural light into the space or developing green environments including horticulture as this can create a fresh ambiance.

The logic of that piece is something along these lines: We as human beings — as creatures of nature — want and need other elements of nature like light and plants. Really? If we’ve reached the point at which we need to be told those things, I’m even more worried than I thought I was.

Let’s Fix This

Creating the right working or living space doesn’t need to be anywhere near this complicated or pseudo-scientific. All we have to do is:

  1. Start from the awareness that we’re creatures of nature with natural biological and physiological needs.
  2. Agree on the elements that will best meet those needs and suit our individual tastes and styles.
  3. Work together to create the space that fulfills 1 and 2.

If we do that (we absolutely can), it’ll definitely be a ray of light, won’t it?

And I’ll be much less worried. Won’t you?

Back to the Future

Three things are true:

  1. Some things are more obvious than others.
  2. Some things are more obvious to some people than they are to others.
  3. The cyclical nature of everything doesn’t care what’s obvious or to whom.

Case in point: We’ve written about open office spaces before. Their drawbacks were obvious, at least to us. But as is unfailingly true of everything in every cycle, open office spaces had their inevitable turn on the Big Wheel. But if there’s anything more inexorable than the constant revolutions of the Big Wheel, it’s human nature. So, here we are: “The Best Spot in the Office Is a Phone Booth—If You Can Get Into One“:

The sleek enclosures … are popping up in workplaces with open-floor plans. To workers flanked by the constant banter of their colleagues’ business dealings and personal dramas, the booths represent their best hope for any semblance of privacy.

Proper Psychology

Whenever someone refers to the proverbial Three Ps (not counting the two Ps in the subhead above), they’re typically referring to the prevailing wisdom about the prioritized way in which businesses should value their assets. In that context, they’re referring to:

  1. People
  2. Process
  3. Product.

We think those priorities are perfectly appropriate for businesses in industries that make things. But in our industry, in which we create comfortable, functional environments, we only agree with #1. So, our Three Ps are:

  1. People. Since people occupy the environments we create, this one was easy.
  2. Preferences. The environments in which we live and work should be flexibly accommodating enough to afford people the things they prefer, including privacy.
  3. Prerogative. You might have expected us to have made this one privacy. We could have. But we think privacy should be people’s prerogative, based on their preferences.

“You can’t crank out something with good grammar when the person behind you is slurping their soup.”

Don’t Jump

According to the old saying, what goes around comes around. Since that’s true, maybe we can make each turn of the Big Wheel a little smoother and a little less jarring (to say nothing of expensive) if we temper the jerking of the collective knee with a little forethought, a little moderation, and a little patience. The only way to distinguish what seems to be a good idea from what turns out to be a bad one is to take the time to tell the difference.

Open office spaces seemed like a good idea at one turning of the Big Wheel. They saved companies money by accommodating more people in less space and by reducing the expenses of walls and doors. But they kept the people who worked in them from fulfilling their human need for privacy. And what now feels like grinding dissonance (“Hey, wait! We thought …!”) is another creaking turn of the Big Wheel in response to reality, human nature, and the time we could have taken before jumping at the idea.

Let’s slow down. Sometimes the best way to get ahead is to go back to the future.

Is This Seat Taken?

The other day, a request came in from the Tall Order Department: “We need the perfect office chair.” At first, I didn’t know whether to quote Quick Draw McGraw or Tonto. Then I thought it might be worth taking a crack at trying to find the perfect chair. After all, the customer is alway right, right? Maybe not.

My first attempt constituted a Google search on the phrase comfortable chairs. (I thought searching for perfect out of the gate might be shooting a little high.) That search returned 694,000,000 results. Okay. Next, I tried ergonomic chairs, which narrowed the field to just 65,300,000 results. And when I teed up lumbar support, I got a mere 7,700,000 hits. This turned out to be a tougher nut than I’d bargained for.

And it turned out I wasn’t the only one to try to crack it — not by a long shot. In fact, for all of his studies on evolution, Charles Darwin likely had no idea of the evolutionary line he became part of when he cobbled his own office chair in the 1840s.

Different Strokes

From this undertaking, I learned a number of lessons, each of them equally valuable, all of them equally predictable:

  1. Every body is different. I don’t mean everyone. I mean every body. The chair that suits mine may not suit yours. And so it goes.
  2. It’s out there. Based on the hundreds of millions of hits I found during my Google searches, I’m sure of this: If you want it, you can find it.
  3. There’s no accounting for taste. Grandpa O’Brien loved to say that. He also loved to celebrate the differences between us by saying, “That’s what makes horse racing.”

To summarize: There’s no right. There’s no wrong. There are only preferences. And every preference can be satisfied.

Try, Try Again

There are some things you can know: You prefer a certain style. You prefer a certain color. You prefer a certain fabric. You prefer a certain type of cushioning — or none. You prefer arms to armless. You know the environment in which the chair will be used and the purpose it will serve. But there are other things you can’t know until you have a seat.


That’s right. Find some chairs that appeal to you. Sit in them. No. I mean sit in them for a while. How do they feel? Is the seat comfortable? Is the back comfortable? Are the legs the right height? Do you feel any pressure points? Is the circulation in your arms or your legs affected? Are you sure? How many hours a day will you have to sit in that chair?


Choose Patiently

The popular admonition, of course, is choose wisely. In this case, patience equates to wisdom because if you’re not patient enough to determine how a chair really suits you, you’ll wish you’d been wise enough to spend more time in it. So, don’t rush. Given the amount of time you’re likely to spend working in any given chair, the time you spend being sure you’ve chosen the right one will pale in comparison.

Remember: There is no perfect chair. But if you try enough of them, you’ll find the perfect chair for you.

All photos compliments of Rouillard.

For What It’s Worth

Let’s face it, business is business. And we’re all looking to get our fair share. But when it comes to real estate, we may not be getting it. I’m not sure if this is due to people’s lack of imagination or if it’s because some people just aren’t visual thinkers. But it seems pretty common that if a space isn’t perfect as is, it gets a thumbs down.

Whether it’s commercial or residential, I love architecture. And I love to see people enjoy what the architecture in their properties can give to them. But even if I put my architectural euphoria aside and focus on the business aspect of real estate, rather than its aesthetics, the as-is-is-no-good mentality still puzzles me.

Follow the Money

I recently tracked three condos that were on the market in the same complex. One listed for $349,900 and attracted an offer in less than a week. A second one listed for $339,000, hung around for a couple of weeks, and sold for $337,000.

The third one is still on the market. After starting at $337,000, it recently took another price reduction. It’s now down to $314,000 and is still sitting. All three units had relatively the same square footage. And the one that’s still sitting even has a finished basement.

Why is the third one still sitting? Presentation (or the lack thereof).

Foresight, not Hindsight

This first condo was clean. Detailed in every way, it left little to the imagination. Boom! Sold. The second one had been empty. It took a little time and sold for $2,000 below the asking price. The third one … well … it wasn’t staged. It wasn’t clean. Little thought or effort was put into its presentation. So, the seller will take a loss, and the realtor will earn less commission. Call me biased. Call me self-serving. But that makes no (dollars and) sense.

Instead of spending $500 to $2,000 on styling advice and staging costs, someone will take a bath to the tune of $23,000 and counting. That never has to happen.

Real estate is an investment. A properly staged piece of real estate is an asset. Both can be maximized with a little time, a little care, a few dollars (you’ll more than get back on the sale), and a little style.

Happy seller. Happy realtor. Happy buyer. That’s the ideal trifecta.

What Cost Do-Overs?

There are many ways to calculate cost. But if you want to have some fun with the monetary costs alone of demolishing buildings — residential, commercial or industrial — play with this calculator for a while. If nothing else, it’ll help you understand the tens of thousands of dollars or more required to be spent before the architectural, cultural, and community costs even start to be estimated.

That’s why I was so grateful when I came across this article in the British publication, Workplace Insight: “Refurbished industrial buildings provide perfect modern workplaces”. It turns out there are reasons aside from simple sentimentality or tendencies toward indiscriminate conservation to re-use some of our spaces. And some of those reasons equate to discernible value:

Refurbished industrial sheds provide the perfect space for the creation of modern workplaces … The key characteristics of these buildings can be summarised by the “Three Vs”: Volume, Versatility and Value … [these refurbished sheds] all have a much higher ratio of volume to floor area than typical purpose-built offices.

Are You Listening?

One day, I was in an older industrial building with a colleague. The first floor had been refurbished and devoted to retail for years. We were scouting the second floor, which had been been converted to office space, for a client. As I was taking stock of the place, I heard my colleague say, “The architecture was talking to them. And they didn’t listen.”

He wasn’t talking to me. He was looking up at a spot in which a metal door frame had been placed in a beautiful brick arch, the spaces around the frame sheetrocked into common sterility. I was struck by a mix of emotions: At first, I felt sadness for the lack of vision and imagination the space manifested in its present incarnation. Then I felt a rush of excitement at the prospect of restoring the space to its original character and charm.

Calculate Carefully

Some spaces are so decrepit they have to be destroyed. I get that. But so many more spaces are waiting to tell their stories, to have you create new chapters for them. Before you undertake your do-over, assess all the costs. If one of them is distinctive, differentiating integrity, don’t pay it.

Some costs can never be recovered.

Same Apples, Same Cheese

If you can’t imagine that perspectives, tastes, and styles can make significant differences in staging a space — in evoking a particular mood, in reflecting a personality, in conveying a vision or a perspective — I conducted a visual experiment to share with you: I took the same four apples and the same two pieces of cheese and arranged them in different ways with different elements. Here’s what happened.

Setting One

In this version, I staged the apples and cheese as part of a simple coffee service. The setting is relatively informal. One coffee pot. One plant. Two cups. Some autumn leaves. The image suggests seasonal comfort, cordiality, and collegial warmth. It implies the desire of the space to create a setting of ease, openness, and sharing. And it manifests the intention to be inviting and hospitable.

Setting Two

In contrast to Setting One, this setting evokes a slightly higher degree of formality. The wine bottle and the accompanying glasses hint at friendliness, perhaps even romance. The cutting board, which replaces the plate from Setting One, connotes hospitality and the serving of a guest. The reflections in the mirrored surface complement the bottle and the wine glasses while adding the dimension of depth.

Setting Three

This setting creates an air of Asian rusticity. The unfinished wood, the copper accents on the board in front, and the ceramic pot with the copper-wire accent combine to suggest a kind of Eastern mystique. The overall effect is one of inviting intrigue, a hint of uncommon ornamentalism, and subtle touches of engagingly unorthodox, unpretentious flair.

It’s All in the Presentation

Same apples. Same cheese. Different results. Regardless of what your elements are, new or adaptably re-used, their presentation is the key to creating the environment you desire.

Before you decide to do, design, or discard anything, talk to us. The conversation won’t cost you anything. The results may save you more than you imagined they could.