The status quota

Few design disciplines are as tightly bound up with the question of status and power as office furniture. Nicky Churchill looks at some of the best recent examples and offers some useful tips on how to keep everyone happy, from chairman down to Mac-toting

An executive is “a person or group responsible for the administration of a project, activity or business”, or so my dictionary tells me. But these days the term not only applies to the big boss (the chief executive) but also to senior management. Together they will congregate in the executive suite or dining room to discuss and solve their various administrative roles and problems in salubrious surroundings.

And what of the executive workplace? In the past those in charge kept to their ivory towers, but the shift in office culture means that today they want to be more in tune with their staff. Some managers now choose to sit in the open-plan office but tucked into a corner. This affords them a degree of seniority but has the added bonus of allowing them to keep an eye on their staff. Alternatively, the manager will operate an open door policy and retain a cellular office that is built with glazed partitioning.

This scenario has given rise to the executive workstation, an upgraded version of traditional open-plan office furnishings with the addition of a tear-drop or D-end for informal meetings. More often than not the executive workstation will be in a darker finish, implying authority. The Futura range from British company Carson Office Furniture is a typical example of this. Originally developed as cable-managed system furniture for the open-plan office, Carson has more recently introduced a cherry-stained beech finish aimed at the executive market. The workstation is wire-managed to cope with today’s increasing IT demands, particularly in the financial and business sectors.

If the executive retains a cellular office, the look of the furniture range is just as important as the function, especially if the cell has glazed partitioning. The sleek design of Mario Bellini’s Extra Dry system for Marcatré, with its conical metal leg, would lend itself well to the glazed office. Another graceful solution is Le Forme from the Italian manufacturer Origlia. Here, the upgraded executive desk is a double pedestal design that retains the tapered legs and cable-management of the system. The work surfaces are available in either walnut or cherry finish, as are the matching bookcases and cabinets.

Many specifiers now look to the system ranges to satisfy the managerial requirement within the corporate office. But there are some companies which offer ranges purely for the executive market. K+N’s new King Centra Plus puts the emphasis on individual pieces and includes various work surface shapes, full and desk-height storage cabinets, credenzas and drawer pedestals. An added feature of this new range is the high desk – a standing-height work surface (or lectern) which sits on top of a low cabinet. It is fixed by means of a rail at the rear allowing you to position it wherever you want. It’s certainly a good piece of design but I would be interested to know how often it has been specified. Again, finishes are top-end natural wood – ash, birds’ eye maple, pear and beech.

If the range on offer isn’t quite right, it can be customised, which is exactly what the British company Asher Systems Furniture (now part of Bullough plc) did to win a major contract for the Department of Trade and Industry’s offices in London’s Victoria. The brief included a number of open-plan and cellular senior executive workstations for which the company revised some of the elements and finishes of its Alto range.

Although there are systems available to meet the demands of the senior and junior executive, there is no doubt that the further up the corporate ladder you go, the more you want your office furniture to reflect your status. Top executives have different work requirements – they are generally less computer-oriented than their staff and may not need a cable-managed desk. Their offices will be used for informal meetings with clients, so soft seating can often be substituted for a meeting table. The top executive will sometimes have to play the host and therefore need the discreetly hidden drinks cabinet and refrigerator. And he or she may want a wardrobe for that quick change of clothing before going on to an evening at the opera. These things cannot be accommodated with system furniture, but why should they be when there will inevitably be a larger budget to play with?

In the past, the top executive has worked at a classic director’s desk with leather inlay, accompanied by a meeting table, storage units, a chesterfield sofa and an aspidistra in the corner.

This was carried through to the American casegood ranges – which are typically large bow-fronted, slab-end desks with bull nose edging and dark wood. The preferred options were teak or mahogany, now non-starters with eco-conscious specifiers and design groups. This change in attitude has spawned a whole new market in timbers stained to imitate endangered species.

Those after a more elegant solution should look to Europe. Two Italian companies have introduced “writing desks” aimed at home office and executive environments. Matteograssi’s Metron writing desk (by Carlo Bartoli) is a metal and wood structure with coach hide or glass table tops and matching pedestals and cabinets. The Zeno writing desk (by Massimo Scolari for Giorgetti) is an understated but formal design crafted in solid beech with ebony inlays. Zeno comes in three sizes, with various tops including ebony and a liquid rubber lacquer. Scolari has also designed an accompanying wooden swivel chair. Both are available in the UK through their respective agents Neil Rogers Interiors and Centi Progetti. Also in the Giorgetti portfolio is a range of top-end furniture and seating by Léon Krier. The Abacus cabinet, with its cherry wood frame and cherry wood or sanded crystal doors, would sit well in any executive suite. Inside, there are removable crystal shelves and optional drawers.

And lastly, what does the executive sit on? The large, padded, black leather chair is a universally recognised status symbol and is now available from most manufacturers. But for something a little different, Wilkhahn’s Modus, one of the newer ranges launched at last year’s Orgatec, stands out. And for the adventurous among you, why not offer Herman Miller’s Aeron, the chair designed by big men for big men?

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