A Designer Reimagines Contemporary Office Space

Installation view of Jonathan Olivares’s “The Outdoor Office” (image courtesy Art Institute of Chicago)

CHICAGO — Given that most of us labor in virtual space these days and our work requires little more than a desk, a computer, and a keyboard to get done, why do we stick to such outmoded concepts as cubicles and cafeterias? A current exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, The Outdoor Office: Jonathan Olivares Design Research, imagines how the office of the future might look.

Jonathan Olivares Design Research (JODR) was founded in 2006 as a creative office focused solely on industrial design, exhibition design, and design-related research. In the Art Institute show, Olivares examines the ways the office has been portrayed in pop culture, TV, film, and art, laying out a diverse array of workplace iconography. A spiffy, if not overly neat-and-tidy, arrangement of images, this exhibition will surely open up the eyes of weary office workers whose cubicle-confined lives feel more like prison and less like an opportunity for personal and professional growth. Curated by Zoë Ryan and John H. Bryan, this is the first public viewing of Olivares’s new works-in-progress.

From Jonathan Olivares’s “The Outdoor Office” (all images by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Olivares’s display is located behind the Modern Wing’s sleek café area. This oddly located gallery serves as the perfect space for a show that, while strong in its conception, isn’t necessarily about a finished product. If it were, I’d argue that it take over the gallery next door, where the exhibition Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects is currently on display.

The show is anchored by three large-scale, 12-by-8-foot billboards (seen at top) that present possible designs for outdoor workspaces. In one of the images, workers sit in office chairs around a long table. They are sheltered by a half-circle canopy structure. The weather appears fall- or spring-like. It must be, because otherwise the people depicted in the rendering would be wearing more than just long-sleeve shirts. In another image, a man sits on a yellow chair at a white table outdoors in a field. He is hunched over a laptop. A single screen protects him from the natural elements. If it rains on this man, well, that’s too bad for him

Olivares’s designs present the beginnings of possible outdoor offices and raise questions: how could the roofless structures function in a city like Seattle or Portland, for example, where rain is one of the few constants? These images, the viewer should assume, are less literal architectural plans than theoretical proposals or critical expositions on some potential futures of workspace.

From Jonathan Olivares’s “The Outdoor Office”

A third image reveals the idealized office or classroom of the future, a space in which happy citizens sit at a wood table positioned in front of a black chalkboard. The New York City skyline serves as an immediate backdrop — the iconic urban landscape is not mediated by a giant glass window as it usually would be. The only element that obstructs the view is a clock, positioned on a white pole. It stands as the single barrier to the tall Manhattan buildings.

Here are a few of the modular elements that Olivares imagines as part of the quintessential outdoor office: recycled rubber flooring, wood-plastic composites, UV resistant shade cloth, and cast and extruded aluminum. These new offices are a utopian fantasy come true compared to the horrible, fluorescently lit cubicles of our current world, where skin looks yellowish-green and the odor of stale office coffee sticks to parched wallpaper. In fact, Olivares’s office of the future doesn’t even have coffee in it. Imagine that.

On the opposite wall from the billboards, viewers see excerpts from Olivares’s research on the outdoor office. Scenes include Anna Lora’s portable outdoor classroom (2010), a Monty Python film still of a man sitting at a desk on the bank of a river (1969), and a 1945 image of the signing of the surrender of Japan at an outdoor desk. Like an artist displaying their sketchbook, this collection of images feels like a peek into Olivares’s brilliant mind. Through these scenes, he points out the obvious: The outdoor office isn’t actually a new concept; it’s just not something the corporate world has seriously considered.

Left: Apple’s new office plan (courtesy Apple); right: Google’s office in Milan (via

The current exception to the stifling state of contemporary workspace might be the offices of start-up technology giants like Apple, Google, Twitter, and Facebook. These companies have innovated hugely on the traditional office design, emphasizing wide-open spaces, flexible and functional organizational systems, and social interaction. Google even has an outdoor cafeteria — but still, none of Olivares’s desks.

Through his conceptual prods and analysis of creative innovations on the real or imagined workspaces of the past, Olivares turns his eyes to the future in order to change the present. He imagines a better world for the office worker of today.

The Outdoor Office: Jonathan Olivares Design Research runs at the Art Institute of Chicago (1111 South Michigan Ave, Chicago, Illinois) through October 14.

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