Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Quest for a Wabisabi Office Space

One of my motivators in writing about wabisabi is the belief that there are aspects of wabisabi that can apply to business, leadership and management.  Still, there is the drive to relate this to the visual, whether it is art, pottery, architecture or the materials that we surround ourselves with.  From there, I proceed to the question about the office spaces that I have been in.

From my experiences, the workspaces that best embody the characteristics of wabisabi are medical offices based in older, repurposed homes.  The ones I recall are original, century-old homes that have found themselves in the core of a city which has evolved from residential to office over the course of time.  The original features of that house, whether the newel at the foot of the staircase to the lighting fixtures, wainscoting and even the old radiators that take the mind to another time. While these features may not be marked by the decay that wabisabi might normally embody, the craftsmanship that went into the item when it was first made merits at least the briefest of reverence for the artisanship and a touch of nostalgia for the passage of time.  The handcrafted touches that remain in those offices after the passage of time easily make those places far less institutional.

Other spaces that have had a charm despite their age are those occupied by small non-profits, the ultimate (and perhaps eternal) shoestring start-up.  In those spaces, which rarely have the burnish and gloss of a professional's office in a renovated building has a rough hewn, personal charm of a group of people who are pitching in to make ends meet and remain focused on their mission.  The touches in the non-profit offices that are eked out of old residences or old office buildings add an eccentricity that reflects the way the teams there have a sense of their identity tied up in their mission.  These spaces, whether occupied by a non-profit or a burgeoning start-up venture often embody Jane Jacobs' adage, "New ideas require old buildings." The new ideas she spoke of may not have only required low overhead, but the aesthetic nourishment of a space that was made by hand and is blessed with the attentiveness of craftsmen dedicated to their work and seizing each moment of their work to fully express themselves in their chosen medium. Jacobs likely looked at better examples of old buildings than those the 1970s and 80s have bequeathed us and line industrial park streets with their heavy duty version of the strip mall.

Start-ups probably have that same sense of mission bound up in the space they create and they are part of the appeal of those early days (when successful) and there may be something ineffable about those comforts and personal touches, whether the space they occupy is older, more modern or the garage.  The amount of attachment they have to the place may be a reflection of the nostalgia for their era of growing pains, but there may also be something about the level of unbounded creativity that defined the organization and the individuals who were working toward, as with those non-profits, a sense of mission.  However, the distinction between older and more modern spaces asserts itself in the difference between embracing and regarding the features of an older space as a decoration and accent to the workspace versus the desire to cover-up the mass-produced materials of spaces assembled over the last 25-40 years.

The meeting space available in the author's current workspace.
While there may be a charm about the older spaces that start-ups may have the opportunity to occupy, there is the chance as the evolve and grow that they move into a more corporate, linear or prefabricated office space - one that I suspect undermines the creative or innovative momentum of that older, handmade space.

As organizations grow, I am not certain of the tolerance they may have for a setting that reflects the characteristics of wabisabi.  There are a number of reasons for this discomfort with a more worn and lived-in office environment as an organization grows.  It is hard to visually articulate that an organization has made "made it" if there is a noticeable bow in the floor of a building  housng a team of a few hundred people. That "made it" vibe is something that the organization would want to communicate to its staff and to partners.  The allure of high technology and information devices would prompt or pressure organizations to go all in for the sheen of technology, even though the argument can be made that we achieve certain things far more creatively or effectively by analog means.

The lure of the technology and desire to look modern and successful may actually pose a limit on the creativity or collaborative capacity of a team that works in a linear space aimed at defining an organization's "arrival" and the accompanying sense of attainment or, that threat from the wabisabi perspective, completion (which may also suggest that potential has been achieved or exhausted.)

Furthermore, modern buildings, say, those built between 25 to 40 years ago, have been built more rationally and with a bit less flare or artisanal passion than they were 75 to 100 years ago. The goal of cost-effective construction inside and out has resulted in office spaces that do not age in a manner that is as evocative as buildings from previous eras. Currently, I work in a two-storey office building that is about 30-35 years old.

While "skin jobs" and the installation of modular cubicles and office units have been done on various components of the building to make it more modern or visually appealing, there are common areas of the building that have gone without update or rejuvenation and the decline of those 1980-era materials.
From Billy Wilder's The Apartment, 1960.

The wear and tear of materials that were made with an eye to cost efficiency and perhaps even some notion of indestructibility (vinyl siding, anyone?) becomes an eyesore and even a hazard with the passage of time and do little to make the space they define welcoming or conducive to productive or engaging work. There may be a need to leave the office to do work that is intended to be collaborative, creative or collegial rather than the linear and piecemeal.

While different organizations look to adapt work environments to contribute to creativity, collaboration, innovation and wellness, a variety of approaches and unique spaces are being implemented but it may still be worth considering the appeal of a space that was made well from materials that were made well and embody the characteristics and the mindset that are central to their mission and giving people, not the freedom, but the mandate to make their space their own.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Product Placement Optional

The melee of odd-shaped books spilling from the shelves and the scattering of toys on every horizontal surface of my home are familiar rather than overwhelming now.  After five-plus years of life surrounded by the detritus of a child I'm all but immune to it - barefoot missteps not included.

However, I do bristle at the TV-series-book-toy-tie-in corporate complexes that work their ways into the space. There is a cringe at the cynicism that goes into those marketing formulae and a small headache and the clatter of calculator keypunching that drowns out any of the creative risk that goes into the writing of a brilliant children's book that matches my son's often untapped vocabulary and intelligence is a welcome relief.  The inanity of an "age-appropriate" adaption of a Marvel comic to targeted at the lad challenges me not remain patient through the reading and treasure those moments when he lets me choose the reading.

Amongst the books I have encountered over the years are an ample selection of Fire Truck books and any parent who has read three knows of the familiar plot points: cat rescues, fires, washing the truck and calling in the fire boat, to name just a few.

Much to my surprise, A Fire Truck Named Red, took a completely different approach to the story and one that embodies many of the things that I associate with wabisabi - a pleasant shock in a contemporary children's book.  Upon the first dispiriting glance at the cover, it would be easy to resign oneself to plodding through another familiar similar set of plot elements.  A close look at the image has a few surprising touches.  The truck's paint is blistered, the ladder in disrepair and the vehicle caboosed by an old quaint bell rather than accented by the familiar wail-maker of a discreetly hidden siren.

Instead of the book being about fire-fighting, the story is about the old truck itself.  It is a gift from grandfather to grandson and may not be the most winning gift that the child might expect, but with a bit of attention and attachment to the toy, the sense of its worth its transformed by the time that the grandfather and grandson put into it and share with one another.  The story is an exceptional account of the possibility of bonding over this old object and the value of this handcrafted and hand-tended piece of childhood that sparked enough affection to be preserved for (at this count) two generations.  It also makes an appealing reminder about how a toy's value is in its activation of the imagination rather than its sheen or battery-powered cacophony.

The contentment with the wear and tear that the truck shows and the child's recognition of these badges of honour are a clear indication of an ethos that does not push toys or the typical daydream on preschool kids, but gives them a big-hearted story about the value of relationships and the passage of time rather than the pitch of the next new toy.

A brilliant and compassionate little read.