Kiwi is the color of the moment. There's no escaping it, not even in the august galleries of the Museum of Modern Art. With its "Workspheres" exhibition, there was little to distinguish the museum gallery from a retail furniture showroom elsewhere in Manhattan–except that it was almost impossible to try out the merchandise.
Curated by the cosmopolitan and well-connected Paola Antonelli, the recent show seemed to suggest that if you're not enchanted by a gelatinous computer keyboard or a desk that looks like a surfboard, you're just not cool enough to triumph in the New Economy. The Workplace of the Future is a place where everyone is empowered, everyone is a road warrior and everyone has a boss–or investors–more than willing to buy desk chairs at $800 a pop.
Offices have captured the imagination at least since Bob Cratchit with his fingerless gloves grasped a ratty quill pen and cowered under Ebenezer Scrooge's demands. Contemporary Western offices are places where (mostly) adults read, write, compute, analyze, market, sell, argue, solve problems and display their know-how, power or impotence–their own and that of the company–generally acting in ways they hope will contribute to the company's bottom line. Offices can be located in landscaped "office park" cul-de-sacs off major highways or leased out within the skin of urban skyscrapers. They can be wedged into multipurpose buildings and malls. Increasingly, they are built into settings that whisper of other traditions, like renovated mills, warehouses and industrial lofts. With work forces that swell and shrink–the business-world term is "churn"–full-time and contract workers make temporary alliances that often mirror a company's rising and falling stock price.
It's interesting–and telling–that MoMA made a deliberate decision to focus on office work and the office-type work that is done at home and on the road. Antonelli and her colleagues excluded manufacturing environments, hospitals, stores or schools from their survey. Unlike "production" work, it's hard for an outsider to tell what, if anything, is being produced in most office environments. Formal offices are the most abstracted of work environments. This may be how MOMA got away without being seriously challenged on its rhetoric.
Because the "Workspheres" exhibit was not about workers at all. It was not even about work. First and foremost, it was about R&D for a new generation of high-tech toys. Look for the Snowcrash Netsurfer Computer Divan–essentially a souped-up Jefferson chair–and the smart pillows embedded with stereo speakers so you can do your business in bed (just right for the Yoko Ono wannabe on your block) in a Sharper Image catalogue coming to you. The MaxiMog Global Expedition Vehicle System is an SUV on testosterone, for off-road trips on Mars. "Workspheres" is a justification-in-design for the ways that corporations and business theorists rationalize their employment and labor decisions. Working longer hours? Your hydraulically operated padded room offers a side of entertainment along with the requisite data-crunching. No time for lunch? Eat in the company cafeteria on digital placemats so that you can surf the net while you dine. Tired out from twelve-hour days? Here's a nap mat with its own LifeSaver-shaped "Do Not Disturb" ring you can hang from the door of your office–if your office happens to have a door.