Time to move out of the caves

The increasingly regular appearance of a relaxed, domestic aesthetic in highbrow offices is a trend to be applauded. Jill Entwistle asks where the trend leaves the rest of us

Many years ago I remember a lighting conference in Birmingham at which architect Piers Gough suggested that we should rethink office lighting and playfully proposed that we consider chandeliers. Not a contemporary ironic version, you understand, but the full-blown rococco crystal number. On hearing this, one gentleman noisily gathered up his plastic bags and pointedly walked out.

At the time – we were still living in Cat 2 caves, and uplighting an office was irredeemably poncy – it did seem a bit fanciful. But Gough was characteristically trying out a bit of mischievous lateral thinking in an attempt to inspire some change of direction in what had become a dreary, deeply flawed and hidebound working environment.

However, having just written about PricewaterhouseCooper’s environmental milestone building, it doesn’t seem quite so bonkers now. Admittedly the vanilla office bit at PwC is lit by what has become the new traditional fitting – the linear T5 direct/indirect job – but elsewhere it’s full of moody pendants and artful decorative touches. Not quite crystal chandeliers, but edging in that direction in a contemporary kind of way.

Working practices and the portability of technology have shaken up the whole idea of what constitutes an office. Staff structures are less overtly hierarchical, communication is key and that has led to the now customary informal arrangements for engaging with colleagues and clients – face-to-face booths and break-out spaces, team areas and staff refreshment points (I think that’s a watercooler to you and me).

And given that by 2020 nearly half of the adults in the EU will apparently be over the age of 50, and older staff will have to grind on way beyond today’s normal retirement age, I suspect that most people will also be increasingly grateful to have somewhere comfy to sit down. These developments in information technology and the move to informality both inevitably lead to a more relaxed approach in interior design, a softening of the working environment, a quasi- domestic vibe, and before you know it there are lampshades everywhere.

That bloke with the plastic bags would be apoplectic at the very thought of it all.

It’s not only PwC. Light Bureau’s award-winning lighting for KPMG’s new London HQ (January issue) also has some strong decorative elements – sassy orange and purple plexiglass pendants and Paul Smith-style rainbow pinstripes in staff dining – and Light Collective’s recent scheme for the London office of Stone Harbour Investment Partners (February issue) is lifting with Flos and Artemide. For business people on the hamster wheel it must sometimes be hard to remember if they’re in the office, a hotel or the airport lounge.

Does this herald some sort of new dawn? More fun for lighting specifiers who can run riot with something fluffier rather than always having to make do with variations on a tin box? Of course it’s always tempting for a journalist to find two or three examples of something and make an immediate leap to a trend.

And we are, after all, wrestling with weightier issues such as energy measurement, incorporation of natural light, and the balance of efficiency and human needs rather than what colour the lampshades ought to be.

If there is a trendette, it’s largely about big image- conscious corporate outfits, filthy rich financial types and achingly cool creatives. Let’s spare a thought for the sizeable majority of office staff in Britain – the people who work for the widget makers, rag traders and tin bashers – who are still living in caves.

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