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Why Aren't We All Working In Outdoor Offices Like These?

A three-year research project by Jonathan Olivares examines why we’re so, well, walled-in.

Ever lamented having to answer a work call on a night out, or regretted checking your email just after leaving work to find that your co-worker needs you to come back? For better or worse, mobile technologies have made many of us into "all-hours" employees.

But strangely, smartphones haven’t made us outdoor employees. Despite the digital mobility we’ve acquired, most of us still work indoors. A research project by designer Jonathan Olivares examines why our culture of 24/7 work still hasn’t warmed up to the outdoor office.

Olivares, whose mentors include designer Konstantin Grcic, is fascinated by why we’ve adopted certain design standards. For example, a recent piece examines why drywall has become an industry standard, while his encyclopedic A Taxonomy of Office Chairs was published by Phaidon in 2011. After receiving a grant from The Graham Foundation to study outdoor workspaces three years ago, Olivares revealed his findings in a show at the Art Institute of Chicago in February.

The Outdoor Office invites visitors to explore a history of outdoor working and learning spaces, from an outdoor office used by Haitian relief workers, to outdoor meeting spaces at the Google campus in Palo Alto. A video clip from Twin Peaks shows two characters brainstorming in the woods. Olivares seems to think, quite reasonably, that being outdoors helps us think. The problem is institutionalizing the process. He and his design team also suggest three prototypes, which form a proposal for an (as-of-yet unproduced) outdoor furniture system. Recycled rubber flooring, an easily assembled tent system, and UV-resistant shading (and a plethora of outlets, presumably) make it easy to imagine these pieces in production. Olivares, for his part, sees the project as pragmatically utopian—he notes that working outdoors would drastically decrease a company’s carbon footprint.

I recently emailed with Olivares, who elaborates on The Outdoor Office below.

How do these prototypes reflect our culture’s shifting attitudes towards work?
The designs were really only possible because of shifting work technologies and attitudes. Mobile devices, the Internet, and the Cloud have uprooted office work from the traditional desk and conference room, making it possible to work from anywhere. Simultaneously a broadening notion of how and where work can be done is giving way to office arrangements that wouldn’t have been taken seriously as a workplace even a decade ago. However the office itself plays a crucial and central role to the culture and life of a business or organization, and the Outdoor Office is envisioned as a natural and healthy extension of that indoor environment.

Do you have any plans to mass-produce the designs?
Not currently. The designs were all conceived hypothetically, based on three years of research looking at outdoor spaces within and adjacent to business and academic institutions. When I first began the project I discussed it with some office and outdoor furniture manufacturers, but none were sold on the idea because it fell outside of their typical product categories—for the office furniture companies it was too "outdoor," and for outdoor furniture producers it was too "office." So I was able to pursue the project with grant funding from the Graham Foundation, the goal being to create hypothetical designs, and circulate them in the world to promote the idea that serious business and academic work can take place outdoors. With the right partnerships I firmly believe that an individual or mass-produced Outdoor Office would be enormously successful.

The Outdoor Office is on view until July 15th.