The Revolt Against Right Angles

Crowded inside a white-washed showroom in Chicago, office-furniture professionals are gawking at the cubicle of the future, which is notable mainly for the complete absence of solid walls or right angles. That absence, explains designer Hani Rashid, is the whole point of his curvilinear work tent, which comes draped in white, red and red-and-white polka dot. Called the A3 by Knoll Inc., which makes it, this futuristic office space might also be called the dot-com bubble. For it was designed, says Rashid, in the spirit of the dot-com--fun, free and, yes, bored with "the 90-degree angle."

It is hard to know whether or not to laugh, now that square business conventions like suits and profits are back in style. Knoll started designing A3 before the tech-stock crash of March 2000, but unveiled it only last month at NeoCon, an annual office-furniture summit at the Merchandise Mart, a convention center in Chicago. So Knoll's curvy creation is either one more dot-com idea doomed to the dustheap, or an enduring symbol of dot-com influence on corporate culture, even a precursor of the spaces we'll all work in someday. Right now, it's too early to tell from sales figures. But in Chicago, the A3 stood out like haute couture at Kmart--a gaudy, gauzy thing in a sea of wood veneer. NeoCon is the type of convention where salesmen argue in elevators over whether the panels are made of Formica or marble. It's tough to picture these guys moving polka-dot work tents just now. "The timing is just all off. I think it's really interesting," says a spokesperson for a major interior-design firm. "I don't know any company that we're working with that wants to order that funky product. Or that extreme."

It would be easy to dismiss the A3 as a joke if it weren't at the vanguard of the latest furniture-design movement. It is Knoll's answer to the latest from Herman Miller Inc., which virtually invented the open plan and the cubicle 20 years ago. Originally inspired by the demands of bean counters to maximize workers per square foot, the open plan has become synonymous with Dilbert, the cartoon cubicle dweller, and all the square convention against which dot-coms rebelled, says Peter Lawrence of the Corporate Design Foundation in Boston, a think tank. The dot-coms added wild color, rock music, children's toys and cappuccino makers to enliven the open plan. "They kind of shook the world up in a lot of ways," says Susan Boyle, a partner at architecture firm HLW. "It gave people in the architectural community an opportunity to create some really innovative workplaces. People really pushed the envelope."

Herman Miller took the first shot in the revolt against the 90-degree angle. Last year at NeoCon, the firm introduced the Resolve line based on the 120-degree angle, which it hailed without explanation as "nature's favorite angle for building complex structures." Shaped like a pie divided into three slices, this new space marked the transition from the cubicle to what might be called the "tricicle." It is already in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. "Something about the pie with three people instead of four offers flexibility and affects interaction among people sitting next to each other," says Julie Lasky, former editor in chief of Interiors magazine. "That was considered revolutionary. I'm still not quite sure why."

It was the new, new furniture thing, and it caught on. Herman Miller counts among its clients for Resolve Information Age trendsetters like Oracle and Cisco, as well as wanna-bes like Arthur Andersen. This year in Chicago, it introduced neon colors, plus its Design on Textile service that allows buyers to drape their tricicles in any design. You could have a tricicle with your own photo on it, if you wanted. The firm also paid homage to the dot-com spirit of fun in a space the NeoCon sales staff called the "mosh pit," tucked behind a diaphanous curtain with a big-screen TV, a couch and multicolored shag pillows.

There's still momentum left in the revolt. At the height of the dot-com era, start-ups were expanding so fast, says a top American designer, that decorators had to run out to Ikea to meet the rapidly growing demand for furniture. This was embarrassing to fashionistas, so Herman Miller came up with Red, a line of snap-together furniture that can be ordered online and shipped within one week. Herman Miller pitches Red to "fast young companies" that have "made do with furniture that's not as cool as they are," and need cooler stuff "right now." It sounds as if the bubble never burst.