Open Plan Irony

So we just knock all the walls down right? Get Dave in to sort the M&E out, order a few carpet tiles and we can cram everyone into one big room. That’ll sort it.

Open plan remains the default setting for office design. Often criticised. Often misunderstood. Frank Gehry hit the headlines by creating the largest open plan office to date for Facebook in 2015, sending keyboard warriors into a clickety frenzy.

Facebook’s Menlo Park offices house 2,800 employees in a single 10 acre building

“OMG. Just looking at this gives me anxiety” commented Tyra96 in Clitheroe

“This totally sucks” said Archidude in Wyoming.

The open plan office has been around since Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building in 1903 and whilst the cost benefits of open plan flexible spaces continue to add up for growing businesses in fast changing environments, the baggage they bring along with them can cause headache and debate for employers.

Noise & distraction at work is hugely stressful. We’re delicate little snowflakes nowadays. Stress can lead to time off and illness. Illnesses can allegedly spread more easily ( if you’re sick, stay home!). According to recent studies, people in open plan are actually less sociable with their colleagues, not the other way around. And whatever you do, don’t mention Hotdesking if you’re doing a client pitch. They’ll rinse you like you’re Donald Trump at a feminist rally.

Dancing Walls by Stephan Hürlemann for Vitra

But open plan offices created opportunity for shrewd furniture designers and makers who recognised the need for sensitive zoning, flexible partitions and acoustic solutions. Walls stripped out of the fit out package now find themselves taking other forms in the furniture schedule. Let’s have a nosey at a few examples.

Vitra launched their eye-wateringly expensive Dancing Walls (above); a multi faceted dividing wall on wheels, allowing users to reconfigure spaces at a moment’s notice, with integrated acoustic panels, whiteboards and storage.


Kvadrat and Creation Baumann (amongst others) developed plush new curtain fabrics with high sound absorption qualities, used with modular curtain rail systems to create areas of soft privacy and quiet focus, which can be quickly reopened to re-integrate the area back into the wider office.

Storage brands have launched modular systems to act as room dividers, whilst integrating greenery and… erm, storage. Who knew?

Bisley Be storage system

Stockholm Furniture Fair 2020 begins this week and an increasing number of visitors this year are expected to contract Pod-blindness during their visit. This increasingly common condition is borne from exposure to an excessive amount of telephone cabins and room-in-room solutions, specifically at design exhibitions. It is linked to the condition Acousticitis. Both strains have been linked to open plan office design.

The irony is that now we’ve stripped all the walls and rooms out of our office design, we’re delivering them pre-fab.

Boss Design’s Aspect Pod

The rise of the high back sofa: because….open plan office design. Soaring sales of acoustic panels and baffles: because….open plan office design. Could it be that open plan offices have been the single biggest driver in modern commercial interior and product design? More than flat monitor screens, more than the iPhone? More than computers?

COR Chart room divider by Relvaokellerman

If I’ve left you in any doubt, let me say this. There’s nothing wrong with open plan offices when they’re done right. Right?

It is crucial for the client to appoint a professional design team that understand the challenges of modern workplaces and how to combat them. The open plan office brings benefits and challenges. Solutions are available for every problem, but clients need to be guided along the journey and take a long term view. Cost and corner-cutting can lead to reduced output, employee stress and general dissatisfaction. And in today’s talent war, this is false economy.

If you need me I’ll be behind the curtain with my AirPods on trying to get some bloody work done. Further reading and links below.

Herman Miller Action Office 1965
“You think your open plan office is noisy, back in my day……”


Are open plan offices truly evil? Mark Eltringham 

Disturbed. Neil Usher

The dark side of hip office design. Judith Evans, Financial Times