Commercial Interior Design (CID) magazine previews the recently opened Steelcase Learning and Innovation Centre in Munich, and speaks to its VP of Global Design, James Ludwig, about the latest developments in workplace design.
Furniture brand, Steelcase, has recently opened its new Learning + Innovation Centre in Munich, Germany, bringing together more than 230 employees, previously dispersed throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA). A 14,400m2 space was designed by an international team of experts, including Munich-based Henn Architects; Paris-based Patrick Jouin and Manku Design; and the Steelcase design team, led by its vice president of global design, James Ludwig.
The new centre is located close to universities, museums, and architecture and design bureaus with a global reach. Explaining why Munich was chosen as the new hub, Ludwig tells CID that it was necessary to find an international city that boasted both excellent transport links, and a flourishing creative and design scene.
“We went through a process to understand those business factors and the intangibles, and we landed on Munich. It’s a dynamic, vibrant culture. In a way, you could almost say that Munich is one of the main design hubs – if not the design hub – of Europe today. We felt like that was a natural fit,” says Ludwig.
The three-building campus is designed to promote collaboration within the organisation, and to also give customers a first-hand look at how space can have an impact on work. Moving away from a typical furniture showroom layout, here the products are not presented without context or in simulated work situations. Instead, they are used by Steelcase staff in genuine, day-to-day working life. Materials such as American walnut, oak, glass, concrete, varnished and stainless steel, copper, and lava stone feature in the interior.
Commenting on the designer-client relationship, Ludwig says that finding partners that shared the same values of curiosity and empathy was paramount. The entire process, he says, was one of interactive, intensive, and creative collaboration.
Patrick Jouin and his team were primarily responsible for designing the specific areas of the building that are open to visitors. His approach, which combines flowing organic shapes and the use of natural materials such as wood, is perhaps best illustrated in the WorkCafé area, which aims to revolutionise the traditional corporate cafeteria space. Steelcase introduced this concept a few years ago, after realising that such spaces were only occupied during peak hours, thus presenting a lot of unused real estate.
With a coffee bar, and seating options ranging from dining tables to couches and lounge chairs, the WorkCafé covers two levels, and is designed as a place where staff can eat, interact, and also work or hold meetings.
“We wanted to give them freedom,” explains Ludwig. “By providing tables, power, data access, and a nice work environment, we find that more people are now choosing to work in these spaces. There is something about food that is magical in human experience – it lowers boundaries between people and creates comfort, [and] the social aspect and dynamics of work change.”
Back in 2010, Ludwig and his team knew that their new model, which allowed employees the freedom to work away from their desks, initially needed to be adopted by the top management. Being one of the champions of this concept, Jim Keane, the chief executive officer of Steelcase, asked the design team what he could do to encourage staff to buy in to the concept.
“We told him to check his e-mails [in the WorkCafé]. He started having some of his meetings there, too. When the staff saw him meeting there with his executive team, or having one-on-one meetings over a cappuccino, they thought: ‘I can do that, too’,” explains Ludwig.
The change in management function is a “bigger barrier than choosing the floor finishes”, according to Steelcase’s VP of design. Ludwig emphasises that architects and designers need to have greater support from clients’ human resources teams. “Supporting transformational ideas from within [an organisation] is vitally important, and we are no different. It is a sociological change, not a visual or spatial change,” he says.
In line with this concept, Steelcase’s executive team is situated near to the WorkCafé, on the first floor, in an open-plan space where people regularly meet or simply pass through. As Ludwig explains, its location and informal design were intentionally planned to make the executives more visible, encouraging frequent interactions with employees and visitors, and helping the leaders stay closely connected to the business.
The office’s massive stairway creates a continuity of space between all the upper levels. Here, interconnected and interdependent spaces were specifically designed to meet the requirements of both individual and team working processes, while seamlessly integrating the necessary technologies. People can choose where and how they want to work, without being isolated from one another.
“Creative work and innovation happen when trust is built. So, we designed a place where people could come together from all over Europe to build relationships, learn, fail, and grow together,” says the CEO, Keane.
“We believe this is central to innovation, but it’s not just for us — it’s for our customers, too. It gives them a place to experience real work as it is happening.”