The physical environment - The implications

Why Men Like Straight Lines and Women Like Polka Dots: Gender and Visual Psychology - Gloria Moss 2014

The physical environment
The implications

What is food to one man is bitter poison to another.


The municipal swimming pool

In the early 1990s, a new public swimming pool appeared in a north London suburb. This is not the sort of area that any self-respecting tourist will ever visit but the building had a special allure. As you entered the pool area, you sensed that this was somewhere that had escaped the surrounding drabness, and that this was a mecca of space and light. Large, rounded windows poured beams of light on to a turquoise pool surrounded by brilliant white floors, walls and tables. Even the signage conveyed a feeling of lightness, with curvy lines under the yellow and turquoise lettering. As you swam up and down, you could contemplate the fine high windows, and enjoy the coherence of the design. The turquoise of the water was complemented by the turquoise and mauve of the poolside cubicles, and the light streaming through the windows was complemented by the white floors, and table furniture. Inquiries revealed that the architect was female.

As the months passed, changes appeared, one by one, into this otherwise perfect building. First it was the replacement of the white tables and chairs by dark blue ones. “They are easier to maintain than the white ones,” said the man at the council. Then it was the appearance of a gigantic orange mural (the work of a male artist) showing octopi and other sea life. After this, there was no stopping the changes. The light-hearted signage gave way to dark green signage with a more regular typeface. The square surround in the signage was echoed in the rectangular dark blue tiles that appeared across the previously all-white walls, blocking off the arched windows. As if that was not enough, I turned up one day to find the mauve and turquoise cubicles and lockers replaced by dark blue ones. The pièce de résistance came with the installation of a sandwich bar with along its length a straight line of orange. A once perfect building which once hung together visually was now irredeemably altered, and not obviously for the better.

The planning department of course produced reasons for everything. “The dark blue furniture replaced the white because it did not show up scratches,” and “the new signage had to be introduced because it was standard across the borough.” As best one could see, the need to replace a few lockers because of vandalism was the pretext to replace the turquoise and sometimes mauve doors with blue ones, and the windows needed to be blocked so that long lines of blue tiles could cover up some more of the formerly white wall.

If you looked at this objectively, you could say that the gatherer way of seeing had been vanquished by that of the hunter. The signs? Dark blue tables standing out against white floors (remember male field independence and use of dark colours), strong use of orange (men like orange), and straight lines dominating in both the signage and the blue tiling (legacy of observing a distance horizon), blotting out the roundness of the windows (appreciation of round shapes is an adaptive mechanism for child bonding). The pool had become the centrepiece of a clash of design aesthetics, hunter and gatherer. The gatherer emphasises harmony between elements, lightness of hue, non-linearity and non-containment of visual elements (all the signs are underscored by a wavy line which runs right through the script). The hunter emphasises linearity, dark and contrasting colours, regularity, and containment of visual elements.

The impetus behind this all was the world of urban planning which is predominantly masculine. In 1996, publicly available figures for the Royal Town Planning Institute in Britain showed that 78% of members were male. More than ten years later in 2008, Clara Greed, Professor Emerita of Inclusive Urban Planning at the University of the West of England, said that: “most of the planners and urban decision-makers are still men.” Had the planners known that they were imposing a hunter, or male way of seeing on the gatherer, or female view of the original architect, they might not have done this. After all, public buildings are there for everyone and statistics show that women outnumber men in terms of their use of swimming pools. However, if you are not aware that there is a hunter and gatherer way of seeing, then you might easily assume that your way of seeing is universal.

Going underground

In the 1980s, the graffiti on the New York Subway would have made a big impression. They were everywhere — on the walls and on every one of the 6,000 cars of the Transit Authority fleet (only the Midtown shuttle escaped this). The 15,000 annual felonies on the subway system deterred many of the best people from seeking employment there, and the frequent derailments and unreliable service meant that customers were unhappy too.

In his best-selling book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the measures the authorities took to turn the situation around. A new subway director, David Gunn, organised a blitz on the graffiti, while another recruit, William Bratton, head of the Transit Police, had plainclothes policemen positioned by the turnstiles to catch fare dodgers as they passed. These would be left standing on the platform in a daisy chain until the police had a “full catch”. According to Gladwell, it was these initiatives that reversed the crime epidemic on the New York subway. What he does not explain is the role played by art in winning the war against crime.

In 1991, a report on the 722 mile system recommended including painting and decoration to inject a sense of brightness and cheerfulness. The “Arts for Transit” programme was established under the directorship of Sandra Bloodworth, and has resulted in 140 works of public art. Her philosophy is simple. “The art should reflect its readership,” and the “diversity in the riders,” she says. This enviable philosophy (how many product designers follow it?) provides the opportunities for engaging in the sport of guessing the gender of artists. Probably, modern-day gender experts would be horrified at this suggestion (“reductionist stereotyping; sheer nonsense”) but they would be missing the point. Their attempts to explain everything through social influences flies in the face of important evidence on cognitive sex differences. As we have seen, these are particularly significant where visual abilities are concerned. So, we have an eight part quiz that will allow you to decide for yourself whether such a game makes sense.

New York subway quiz

Our quiz starts in the south of Manhattan at Brooklyn Bridge Station on the number four and five lines. You will find there a classic engineering design showing black railway lines and the cables in the Brooklyn Bridge. The designer? Mark Gibian.

Nearby in the passageway that connects the Broadway/Nassau Station with the Fulton Street Station is round, stainless steel ceiling lighting depicting the constellation of the stars. Several stations to the north is 42nd Street Station with stainless steel tubular lighting zigzagging in consecutive V shapes and serving — in the words of the artist — as “functional sculpture”. The artists? Nancy Holt was behind the passageway and Christopher Sproat behind 42nd Street.

A few stations north of here is the Grand Army Plaza Station with its female winged victory figure. Then at 57th Street Station are photos of male musicians. The artists? The first is the work of Nancy Spero and Jane Greengold, while the second is that of Christopher Wynter and Josh Scharf.

Close by at 59th Street, Lexington Avenue Station, is a glass mosaic mural Blooming. This shows pink trees with extended branches, and meandering trails of steam flowing from yellow mugs, all dressed up in a hazy look. The artist? Painter Elizabeth Murray who wanted an image to illustrate the neighbourhood of ’Bloomingdale’ and create what she calls a “dreamy underworld”, separate from the realities of the street above. The bright colours, light-hearted and two-dimensional quality to the work are all pointers to its female artistry. A few steps further north will take you to 66th Street on the one and nine lines with its female images of Artemis, acrobats and divas. The artist? Nancy Spero and Jane Greengold. Then, finally, go north to 110th Street Station with its glass mosaic and mural made up of squares and rectangles and featuring a man’s face. The artists? Christopher Wynter and Josh Scharf again. This light-hearted game will help occupy you as you rush onwards to your destination.

London underground quiz

A similar diversionary game is available to the 150,000 daily travellers on the London Underground system and we suggest that you start your tour at Embankment Station to the south of London, not far from Waterloo Station.

At Embankment, the platforms are decorated with isolated lines of colour arranged at different angles against a white background. This is a minimalist representation of multi-coloured streamers in celebration of the 1951 site of the Festival of Britain. Was the designer of this a man or a woman? You would be right if you thought that the relative lack of colour or linearity denoted the work of a man since the artist responsible for this was Robyn Denny. He trained in the 1950s at St Martin’s School of Art and the Royal College of Art, and completed this platform mural in 1984.

Just a short hop from Embankment on the Northern line is Charing Cross. The platforms show black on white engraved figures (mainly men) constructing the medieval Eleanor Cross with just a few women looking on. The artist behind this? David Gentleman, another graduate of the Royal College of Art. He spent much of his life designing stamps for the Royal Mail as well as producing engravings and watercolours.

Next, head north on the Northern line in the direction of Tottenham Court Road, noticing the straight line at Leicester Square Station, and once at Tottenham Court Road change in the direction of Marble Arch. Get off at Marble Arch and consider this time the rather light-hearted round archways formed from bright red tiles, filled with large white polka dots. The artist? You may not be surprised to discover that this was the work of a female designer, Annabel Grey, completed in 1985. Finally, take a trip up to the north to Finsbury Park. Here you will find large, rounded air balloons, filled with lots of detail using gold and coloured mosaics. The artist? Once again, you may not be surprised to learn that the artist was female — Annabel Grey again.

Street signage

Not a million miles from Finsbury Park lies the London Borough of Barnet. This is the largest borough in London but it is not just size that singles it out. In the late 1990s it introduced a new design of street signage that sparked off waves of protest throughout the Borough. Instead of the former Victorian street signs, unobtrusive with their simple black lettering, they imposed new signage incorporating the Borough crest and bright turquoise surround found in other corporate identity materials. As you might imagine, the objections came thick and fast. They were particularly strong in conservation areas where you cannot so much as erect a garden shed without following convoluted planning procedures. You can understand some of the indignation. Barnet Council had consulted neither the Conservation Officer, nor the Trust responsible for maintaining architectural standards in the conservation area, nor English Heritage, the body set up to oversee historical architectural standards across England.

Instead of this, the only justification for this action was presented to the press by the elected representative responsible for this, Brian Coleman. To quote:

This is the new corporate image for the Borough and will cover all signs, publications, posters, notepaper and everything else. I like the new signs as they include the Borough crest for the first time. They will be rolled out eventually to all roads in the Borough.

The Press Release added that the new style “improves the image of Barnet’s roads and give the borough a unique identity that will differentiate itself from the surrounding areas.”

Unfortunately, the councillor is falling into the common trap of taking his own preferences as a barometer of other people’s. This is distinctly unwise given all we have seen earlier (see Chapter 3). In this specific case, the fact that some men may be more field independent than women makes this particularly problematic since some men may be less sensitive to clashes in colour hues than women, and the difference between the turquoise in the sign and the green of the surrounding trees would disturb them less than it might several women.

So much for the street environment. What about buildings?


Do men and women design different kinds of building? This is a difficult question to answer since the majority of people designing buildings have had architectural training, and this is likely to influence the way people design. To carry out a meaningful experiment on men and women’s ’natural’ tendencies, as against ’trained’ tendencies, would involve looking at controlled samples of work produced by students early on in their training, as I had done earlier in the case of graphic design.

Controlled experiments

The closest we have to a controlled experiment is one referred to earlier and carried out by the well-known Swedish psychologist, Erik Erikson, in 1937. Erikson was born to a Jewish mother who never told him the true identity of his biological father. One of his greatest concerns, in his life as well as in his theory, was the development of identity and this experiment offers fascinating insights and is worth exploring in some detail.

What Erikson did, as we saw earlier in Chapter 2, was set up a play table and a random selection of toys and building blocks and then ask about 150 pre-adolescent boys and girls to imagine that the table was a film studio. The only instruction was to create exciting scenes on the table and this must have fired up people’s imaginations as about 450 scenes were constructed. From this, Erikson noticed that the boys and girls arranged their blocks in distinctive ways: the boys built towers and structures pointing upwards, while the girls built low, circular structures.

These results are strangely prophetic of the results obtained about ten years later by two American researchers, Franck and Rosen. We touched on this briefly earlier (see Chapter 2) and discussed the experiment in which they asked 250 students to complete a variety of shapes. The fascinating results showed that the men often elongated the shapes, transforming them into skyscrapers, while the women transformed them into round-shaped rooms and houses. This experiment provides a springboard into looking at buildings created by men and women in different parts of the world and at different times. A word of warning. This foray into the world of building may change the way you look at buildings forever.

The last hundred years

An Internet search on the topic of famous buildings designed in the last century produced a list of buildings all designed by men. Frank Lloyd Wright was a name that kept cropping up, whether it was in relation to his Arts and Crafts buildings in America, or to his post-1910 modernist style buildings. The leitmotif of these buildings is linearity and almost a complete absence of external decoration. When you read that Lloyd Wright’s mentor was the architect Louis Sullivan and that his slogan “form follows function” was changed, in Lloyd Wright’s hands, to “form and function are one”, you can understand how he made the journey from Arts and Crafts to Modernism. The journey was broken up by his wide-roofed Prairie Houses and abutted in the straight-sided structures seen in his “Fallingwater” House, dramatically situated by a tumbling waterfall. This building is often quoted as an example of his ideal of ’organic’ architecture with a marriage between the site and the structure, and a union between the context and the structure. Yet, dramatic though the setting is, the straight lines of the house are curiously at odds with the graceful movement of the water and surrounding trees.

The modernist movement

The doyen of the modernist movement, of course, was Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus movement. He stood firm against the use of details, so out went cornices, eaves and decorative details, and in came flat roofs, smooth façades and cubic shapes. Colours are white, grey, beige or black and the backbone behind all of this is functionality. So, if you read the arguments in favour of the flat roof, it has nothing to do with aesthetics but everything to do with practicalities — cheaper maintenance, amenity value (since you can use the flat roof as a recreation area) and rebuild opportunities. There was also a strong ideological underpinning to his work, driven by the belief that people’s lives could be improved through good design. Since the leaders of the modernist movement, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, fled to America to escape Nazi persecution — rebuilding a better future for people becoming a major driver — the modernist came with them. The American version of Bauhaus architecture is known as the “International Style” after the 1932 book of this name by Henry-Russell Hitchcock (historian and critic) and Philip Johnson (architect).

This international style is now the favoured architectural style for office buildings, and if you wanted to pick well-known examples, you might pick the famous Seagram Building in New York, a glass and bronze building designed by Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson in 1957. You might also pick buildings by the Chinese born IM Pei with the Louvre pyramid amongst his most celebrated buildings. His oeuvre also includes the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the Rocky Mountains — brown, interconnected rectangular shapes — as well as the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, a large, dark glass square-shaped building. The linearity, lack of detailing and dark colours that we see in these buildings are all typical of the male aesthetic response. Another typical feature, according to Erikson’s interesting experiment, is of course the skyscraper.

An early example of the skyscraper was the 1897 Singer Tower in the US, standing tall at 612 feet and therefore taller than the Pyramid of Cheops or Cologne Cathedral (tall buildings have ever been a male thing whether in Gothic or modernist architecture). In 1930, however, it was dwarfed by the Chrysler Building which, at 1046 feet, made it the tallest building in the world. This building was the brainchild of William Van Alen who wanted to outdo his ex-business partner, Craig Severance, and create a showcase for Chrysler and the automobile industry. Decorated with various automobile and other symbols and topped by a steel pinnacle, the building uses thousands of tons of a steel used then for the first time — “Nirosta Steel” — but better known today as stainless steel. The spire at the top resembled a sword and although Van Alen won the contest, he was pipped to the post the next year by the design of the Empire State Building which stood tall at 1454 feet. If Erikson’s experiments are a barometer then this is the ultimate boy’s own building.

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, the modernist style migrated into the domestic sphere where it became known as “Art modern”. The look is unmistakable and you can find a good example in the home that Gropius designed for himself in 1937 near the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University where he taught. You could not imagine a more beautiful spot with its setting atop a hill, surrounded by an orchard of 90 apple trees. Into this idyllic spot, Gropius placed a modernist icon, made up entirely of square and rectangular shapes. Another example is the home that the distinguished Finnish architect Alvar Aalto built in 1938—41 for friends. The house has the rather quaint name of “Villa Mairea” but, despite its idyllic forest location, it is in fact anything but quaint. Billed as “one of the finest houses of the twentieth century” its predominant shape is rectangular, even to the point of having rectangular chimneys. I think that a large proportion of the female population would argue that, location apart, this is far from their idea of a dream home. Men, however, are likely to feel just the opposite so the stage is set for a head on clash of ideals.

Do men and women like the same kind of buildings?

Someone who is exceptionally well qualified to talk about this is Dr Penny Sparke, dean of the Faculty of Art, Design and Music and Professor of Design History at Kingston University in London. She is a prolific and important writer on design and speaks of the “re-masculinisation of the world of material culture.” Although her observations are not based on controlled samples (as my own work sets out to do), many of her judgements chime with our own conclusions. Here she is, in her book As Long as It’s Pink, speaking of men’s fondness for linearity, absence of colour, functionality and lack of detailing. Women’s proclivities, according to Spark, are for roundedness, colour, art for art’s sake, and detailing.

Penny Sparke does not mince her words. According to her, the modernists evolved a language and a philosophy of design “which denied the validity of all the characteristics linked with feminine culture.” She illustrates this by discussing how the controlling hand of the professional (male) architect and the designer worked in tune with modernity, and how, since modernism was defined in masculine terms, this has not served women well. She suggests that it is only when women have “decided to join its ranks and adopt its values as their own” that they have profited. This point is very similar to those made by Tom Jordan (see Chapter 6) about what it takes for women to succeed in an advertising agency when he said that they “have to create award-winning advertising that appeals to men.”

One might ask, given the impetus to conform to the ideals of modernism, how the natural, untutored impulses of men and women can be revealed? One way, as we have seen, is by studying controlled samples of work by men, women, boys and girls, although in the case of buildings this may be less easy. Erik Erikson laid the groundwork with his interesting experiment with blocks but my experience is that obtaining controlled samples of student designs of buildings is less easy than obtaining controlled samples of other types of design (say graphic, product or web design). So, in the absence of controlled samples, all we can do is look at built structures that are not part of controlled samples. Our sketch of architecture in the last century revealed the emergence of the modernist movement from a number of male exponents. What, you might ask, would a primarily female building aesthetic look like?

Female building designs

A period of visiting art schools followed in the hope of finding controlled samples of work and comparing the male and female output. I was strangely lucky to find a project to design a tomb from students on a pre-degree foundation course and amazed to see the results. Two of the five students were women and both their buildings were rounded! One of these was a circular crenelated structure with an external staircase following the curve of the building. The second was a serpentine structure with coils of stone arranged in a spiral shape. The men’s designs had none of these features. One consisted of interposed triangles reaching a narrow apex. Another consisted of an elongated horizontal shaper and the third a filigree metal structure built around a mini Eiffel Tower.

I then tried an architecture school but had no luck there since all the students were following different projects. I don’t know that I was really missing much, though, if the experience of one ex-architecture student was typical. This woman was working in a field unrelated to architecture but recounted that, earlier on, she had studied architecture. “I dropped out after two years since my own creative impulses were being squashed and channelled into directions that were not my own.” If her experience was common, then samples of men and women’s work at degree level would not be helpful, showing the importance of sampling pre-degree work. This is precisely what I had done (described earlier in Chapter 2) in order to compare graphic and product designs produced by men and women.

These were isolated examples and it was important to compare more samples. How to find them? A passage in a book by the anthropologist, Robert Briffault, jumped off the page since he listed societies in which women were the main builders. The societies he mentioned were the nomads of Central Asia, the Andaman Islanders, the Omaha Native Americans of northeastern Nebraska, and the Seri of California, and I was fortunate that the Anthropology Library at the British Museum was just a bus ride away. What did these people’s buildings look like?

Nomads of Central Asia

The search began with the nomads of Central Asia. These people inhabited an area stretching from Mongolia and Manchuria to the south Russian steppes, and lived in portable dwellings known as yurts. These had to withstand severe weather conditions and be readily transportable on two or three camels, so an appropriate design was called for. The solution was a basic structure with a central pole surrounded by an expandable circular lattice wall, giving the whole structure a circular shape. A felt roof, often decorated in bright colours, was laid over the top and the sides.

The key question was whether Robert Briffault correctly identified women as the principle architects of yurts. According to a work on Afghan domestic architecture, published in 1991, “the yurt is erected in about an hour by four or five women.” The men in the community did not appear to know the names of the various parts of the framework, and were quoted as saying that this was “women’s business”. This is circumstantial evidence to corroborate Briffault’s supposition as to female responsibility for their construction. Moreover, although the nomadic way of life has been in decline in Afghanistan for the past forty years, traditional felt-making activity continues in the production of floor coverings. Interestingly, these are still made by women, often for their own or their daughters’ weddings, and use a profusion of detail and colours.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Next was a search for the dwellings of the Andaman and Nicobar Islanders. This group of islands lying off the west coast of Thailand, in the Bay of Bengal, was tragically affected by the two tsunamis in that region. As a result, many of the islanders were subsequently moved to other islands, and the kind of houses offered for temporary rehabilitation by the Indian Administration consisted of quantities of nuts and bolts, GI sheets and aluminium pipes. This type of dwelling stood in complete contrast to the beautiful huts I saw illustrated in the books in the British Library. The photos showed thatched homes, beehive in shape, and erected on poles, and these were the buildings that Briffault credited the women of the islands as building. My feelings were divided between the poignancy of seeing what was now lost to the world, and the excitement of realising that another female building was rounded in shape. Were these, as Briffault stated, definitely the work of women?

An old book contained a description of how the dwellings were erected and this appeared to further corroborate women’s involvement insofar as the men’s input seems to be a pretty last minute affair. Here is the relevant passage: “The Nicobarese erect their dwellings on poles. The roof framework is completed and then the men are summoned to assist in raising it to its position. They are rewarded for their help by a feast of pork.”

It is interesting that the men only get involved right at the end of the process since this suggests that it must have been women who were involved at the other stages. So it looks as though Briffault got it right after all.

The Omahas

It remained just to investigate the homes of the Omahas. The people ultimately referred to as the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska came to the Great Plains hundreds of years ago. By the late eighteenth century, the Omaha had established themselves in what is today north-eastern Nebraska, and their homelands consisted of millions of acres of land. The American government pursued a policy of pushing native peoples on to reservations and into the liberal, democratic and capitalist mainstream. Since 1960, this policy had the effect of leaving less than 30,000 acres of their former homelands in the hands of Omaha people.

Traditionally, the Omaha peoples lived in tents (’tipis’) or earth lodges, both of which were circular dwellings. The tipi had a circular framework of poles with a semicircular covering of buffalo skins while the earth lodge, with walls about eight feet high, had a dome-shaped roof. Could these be the work of women, as Briffault suggested? The books in the Anthropology Library confirmed what Robert Briffault had said, namely that all the work on these dwellings was carried out by women, with just the marking out of the site and the cutting of heavy logs carried out by the men. Significantly, both types of dwelling, whether tipis or earth lodges, were circular in shape.

The Pueblos of the Seri and painted buildings

Last on Briffault’s list were the pueblos of the Seri, a people who lived by the Gulf of California. Richard Felger and Mary Moser’s book, People of the Desert, describes the pueblo or brush house as the most usual kind of dwelling built by the Seri. These were constructed with a framework of three to six arches which were subsequently covered in plants producing a rounded type of structure. Significantly, they said that it was “usually built by women”.

It had been a useful day in the library and it was now clear that not only was Robert Briffault right about women’s role in house building, but there was a particular thread running through the type of housing women built: unlike men’s buildings which were elongated, linear and sparsely decorated, these were compact, rounded, and in the case of yurts, highly decorated. This point about decoration interested me since, in the course of these searches in the library, two other books had came to light.

One of the books, by Gary Van Wyk, described painted houses from the high plateau in South Africa below Johannesburg. This area is known as the Highveld and Gary Van Wyk’s book contains wonderful photographs of the houses, painted and decorated by Basotho women. You might have thought that the images would have taken their inspiration entirely from religious symbolism, but this was only part of the story. According to Gary, one Basotho woman was asked why she had chosen a particular motif such as suns or moons, and she replied that: “they were chosen either because they were beautiful or because the ancestors had dictated their design [to them] in dreams.” The Basotho women’s mural art is called “litema” and can consist of engraved patterns (created by carving designs into wet plaster), mural paintings, relief mouldings or mosaics. The paintings use bold colours and it is striking how little they rely on regular shapes: what a contrast with modernism!

The second book on painted houses — Painted Prayers — is also beautiful to leaf through. In the south of India, women paint their houses daily, weekly in the east of India and elsewhere less often. Characteristic of the style used are the intricate patterns as in the elephant whose body surface is covered in polka dots. The use of relief is also apparent as in the use of mud to create a carved lintel to adorn a simple doorway.

Although the houses we have looked at are all created in different corners of the earth, they have much in common. They share shapes that are round and materials that are soft and natural. In some cases, they also use detail to break up the surfaces and also use vibrant colours. In many ways, what the architects of these buildings are doing is the polar opposite of the acclaimed modernists who celebrated linearity, functionality, monochrome surfaces, and lack of detailing, and they might politely be shown the door in a school of modern architecture, bound as it is by modernist conventions. Once again, we say, neither is better than the other, just different. Hunter buildings and gatherer buildings diverge but both should be allowed to exist since we are a mixture of hunters and gatherers.

The office environment

If modernism has had a stranglehold on twentieth century architecture, it has also had an enormous impact on the office environment.

According to Jeremy Myerson, Professor of Design Studies at the prestigious Royal College of Art in London: “Behind their concrete-glass-and-steel façades, office buildings continue to be filled with rectangular reception sofas in black leather, sharp-edged steel filing cabinets and miles of lookalike systems of furniture in shades of grey and beige,” he says. “Most people would be hard-pressed to differentiate a facsimile machine from a photocopier from a laser printer at more than five paces, such is the modern technical aesthetic’s stranglehold on the office.” Office interiors, with desks carefully laid out in rectilinear patterns, have become machine-like in the modular assembly of their component parts.

In fact, not quite everywhere needs to be like this as we shall see.

A different type of office

One day, I took a turning off the grey corridor to visit a female colleague. Inside, I found a softly striped turquoise and pink dhurry, plants in ceramic pots, fine art postcards, and woven wall hangings. The occupant had been given the same box-shaped room as other staff but she had created a home and a personal space.

One weekend, I was leafing through a Sunday magazine when I came across an office interior that was not a million miles removed from this one. Located at the Danish Ministry of Culture, you saw a feast of bright turquoise with all the chairs, desks, carpets, post boxes, wastepaper baskets, lamps, hooks — even curtains for privacy — in matching hues. Adjoining offices were similar but in candy floss pink in another. There was a homely, rather than office feel to this, perhaps on account of the soft curtains separating areas, and the gentle folds of the fabric ceiling lights.

It came as no surprise to find that the people responsible for this were two women, product designer Marianne Britt Jørgensen, and furniture designer Louise Campbell. What was the main driving force? “My fascination with how furniture can affect space and people hopefully shines through in my work,” said Campbell, and an important aspect of the project was seeing how design can influence people. For the Head of the Secretariat, Jesper Rønnow Simonsen, on the other hand, the interest of the project lay in something different — modernity. As he said, “We wanted to convey the message that the ministry is modern in outlook and unafraid to try something new.”

The lure of modernism

The other two offices featured in the article were pure exemplars of modernism. One, the London offices of advertising agency, Mother, is located in a concrete warehouse designed by architect Clive Wilkinson, a native of South Africa now based in Los Angeles. The concrete fabric of the building provides a leitmotif with a broad concrete staircase sweeping up to the second level studios, and a sequence of concrete tables — 12 metres wide! — on the third. When you get to the top floor, leased to small media companies, the space is divided by heavy plastic curtains from a meat market. With this kind of environment, is it any wonder that the advertising agency’s mantra is “survival of the fittest”?

The other office was in Eindhoven, Netherlands, occupied by a firm of graphic designers and publishers. The designers were Ad Kil and Ro Koster, and they chose stacked honeycomb-cardboard components (picture light brick and you’ll have a fair idea) to reflect the type of businesses using the space. The impression is of square and rectangular blocks of space, with rectangular alcoves giving way to individual workspaces. The colours are light and dark brown, and if you were seeking a hunter office, you would need look no further!

Offices and productivity

In an introduction to workplace design for the British Design Council, Professor Jeremy Myerson discusses the link between the office environment and productivity: “Innovative workspaces can have a direct and beneficial effect on staff productivity and creativity. It’s not just staff performance that can benefit. Good workplace design can also help shape your organisation’s culture and improve corporate image, speed up information flow and nurture innovation.”

Myerson makes no reference to gender but I ask you, reader, which type of office you would sooner work in? Where are you most likely to burn the midnight oil? The homelike environment of the Danish Ministry of Culture or the concrete cornucopia that, anachronistically, is the base for a company entitled “Mother”?

I know which one I would choose but you can have fun comparing the impressions of the offices of bosses and colleagues.