Over the past couple of years, work has metastasized from an eight-hour-a-day gig to a 24-hour-a-day lifestyle. The idea has even weaseled its way into Salone del Mobile in Milan this week, where designers are presenting dozens of concepts for the mobile employee. Among them is OMA, its collaboration with Knoll, Tools for Life, it describes as "furniture for something that is in between an ofﬁce and a domestic environment."
Rem Koolhaas—or more specifically, his think tank, AMO—was one of the first to suggest the merging of work and home. In the early 2000s, AMO described "the kinetic elite," a group of professionals for whom constant travel and change was more normal than life at home. So AMO and its architectural practice counterpart, OMA, are well suited, conceptually, to take on the typology.
Does Tools for Life live up to the challenge? The anchor of the collection is a contraption called 04 Counter, three laminated plywood "beams," which are stacked to rotate from a center axis, creating a series of stools and perches. Then there are two tables, done in marble, steel, and concrete, that move up and down at the push of a big red button. The same goes for a series of low armchairs. A clear acrylic coffee table builds on the structural premise of 04 Counter.
It’s unclear how the idea of kinetics relates to the home office, beyond being able to raise or lower tables and chairs—nor how a large piece like 04 Counter works in either a home or an office. The pieces are designed to feel authentically architectural—recalling the Bauhaus as well as Gordon Gekko’s postmodern parroting of it. "The furniture is, in a way, mutable and changeable, and so for that reason it corresponds very closely to my interest in things that perform rather than things that have particular shapes," Koolhaas commented in a statement (PDF here). "So in that sense, there is a kind of seamless incorporation of the same logic, but at a totally different scale."
Koolhaas is referring to the OMA-bred notion of "cake pan architecture," where you throw a bunch of different programs and functions into a pan and see what shape they form. This is where OMA really shines: in taking incredibly complex systems and engineering them into big, powerful forms, as they did with CCTV in Beijing and the Seattle Public Library.
The problem with applying that ethos to furniture is simple: The body isn’t as spatially complex as the modern superstructure (or at least it isn’t in OMA’s conception of it). So instead of a marvel of engineering, we get interesting but simplistic ideas about kinesthesia—perhaps because there isn’t much complexity to dig into here. There are some interesting structural moves in Tools for Life—for example, an executive desk supported by a single column—and it’s not that the collection isn’t interesting. It’s simply that, for a firm behind some of the most structurally advanced architecture of the past decade, furniture might not be enough of a challenge.