WORDS: HILARY PRENDINI TOFFOLI IMAGES: SUPPLIED

Offices today are about flexibility in both private and collaborative areas. They’re healthier, people-centric and feel more like home. Three local office designers are upping the ante.

Environmentally friendly

Peet van Straaten of Raw Studios is a passionate and uncompromising furniture design whizz who has worked in the Netherlands and studied green architecture in the UK.

Having witnessed how environmentally damaging some production processes can be, he’s determined to keep his products earth-friendly. His beautifully crafted modular office furniture systems are made from birch plywood grown in sustainably managed forests in Finland.

They embody his philosophy – in tune with the new thinking – that offices should be healthy people-welcoming environments. Employees should be surrounded by natural materials that are not harmful.

Van Straaten’s simple, elegant structures can be combined in different ways and are found in the offices of companies such as I-CAT, the Pretoria environmental solutions company, Nando’s head office in Joburg, KwaZuluNatal’s legendary Africa Centre for Population Health, MTN and the SABS. He says companies serious about retaining talent are giving staff light, colourful workspaces that encourage productivity. “Office design is moving away from open floor plans where everyone is thrown into one space, towards something in the middle – not cubicles, but soft areas beyond the essential focus work areas,” says Van Straaten. “Offices are creating agile spaces that encourage change and enable new ways of working without restrictions.”

Colour is king

Alice Hutton of Alice Hutton Studios is a skilled professional who spent 23 years designing corporate workplaces for O’Sullivan & Company, including Investec offices in London and New York. Now Hutton has opened her own Joburg-based interior design studio.

Hutton says biophilic design is behind her award-winning office installation. This hot new industry topic refers to the innate need to connect with nature. “I used systems of natural colours inspired by Joburg’s urban forest,” she says, “a brightly coloured lounger as a focal point, positioned on an innovative urban-inspired moss and cobbled contract carpet.”

Usually working in collaboration with savvy and imaginative young local designers who she believes challenge top international brands with their quality and creativity, Hutton chose, in this case, Dokter and Misses and Monique Vee. She says contemporary South African offices are becoming increasingly comfortable and more human. Because they feel more like home, they lead to a more productive environment. She sees technology integration totally changing offices.

“Technology allows for freedom of movement away from the desk. This flexibility allows for more multipurpose office environments and furniture. So we can design more creative office spaces. Collaborative hot-desking and more relaxed lounge-like meeting spaces create a more approachable and shared open work space.

Moving away from the traditional

Rachel Andrews of Tetris says office walls are no longer merely functional, but an opportunity to boost productivity or make a brand statement. She is head of design at the Joburg offices of Tetris, a global design and build fit-out company, and has degrees in both interior design and mechanical engineering.

“At AIG insurance company we were asked to create an interior with a ‘splash of colour’. We took this literally on the wall in their breakaway coffee area,” she says. “The client loved this interpretation of the brief and says it helps create the vibrancy they wanted for the office environment.”

In her view a growing number of office designers are realising that diverse work models and generations require a balance of diverse workspaces. “Staff now operate not only from traditional workstations, but often throughout the office in breakaway areas which are strategic spaces for companies to heighten productivity.

“A key way to bring nature into an office is by a series of screening walls constructed as shelves dotted with plants to add greenery and light,” Andrews says. Or by creating a space for a living wall, as done for Hannover Re reinsurance group. An effective brand statement for the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills was made by embedding a section of the company’s logo into the timber wall panelling in the area where clients wait.