'EVOLUTION favours monkeys. Eventually humans will be kept in cages as pets,' a pompous chimp taunts Dilbert, the endearingly beleaguered anti-hero of the eponymous comic strip.
'Impossible,' Dilbert replies indignantly. 'We humans will never allow ourselves to be treated like that.'
The strip concludes with the third panel of the satirical triptych showing Dilbert's office, a gallery of identical cubicles, resembling - you've guessed it - cage-like boxes. Comedic irony, certainly. But most of us will realise that there is a grain of sardonic truth in it.
An unflattering comparison maybe, but 'cage' seems like a downright polite analogy when you consider that the traditional office set-up has been bluntly described by one interior designer as a virtual 'slave galley'. For too many, the office is a place where the individual is denuded of their individuality and put into a cubed mould to facilitate productivity.
But that is anachronistic thinking. In the new knowledge-based industry, workers have traded in their hard hats for thinking caps. Blueprints have been replaced by blue-skying. A new office model is needed to reflect that renovated paradigm. And interior designers are starting to step up to the plate.
Set against the actual blue sky is mining giant Rio Tinto's 32nd floor Singapore office at Centennial Tower. Its interior design has every element one would expect of the regional headquarters of an MNC - clean lines, warm colours, generous applications of glass panelling and expansive windows that serve up a captivating view of the CBD and Marina Bay area. It is a veritable image of modern corporate chic. But what sets this office space apart from most isn't what has been included in its design, but rather what has been omitted.
In the main work areas there is an unfamiliar absence you initially cannot put your finger on. The heads of staff bob at their workstations as they make phone calls. Chairs swivel as they take a break from their computer screens and reach for mugs of coffee. Everything and everyone seem apparently in place. Then it occurs to you - that's precisely it - the very fact that everything is immediately observable in a single glance. There are no cubicles here. Muralled monotony has no place in this office. Everyone works in an open environment, with personal spaces demarcated by partitions between desks rising to mid-riff level at most. The result is a space that is brighter and more vibrant (thanks in part to those huge windows). And there is an almost contagious energy that emanates from the deliberate display of individual productivity. Even the air feels a little fresher.
William Ng, the company's regional general manager, explains that the decision was made to adopt a new office design about a year-and-a-half ago to infuse the office with more synergy. While privacy is sacrificed for a common sense of corporate purpose, according to Mr Ng, this new way of running an office is producing the desired results in efficiency.
'People can share ideas and collaborate more easily,' he says. 'Sometimes they even shout to one another across the room.'
It is this level of informality that helps to nurture a degree of personal comfort conducive for people to be collectively innovative and develop a sense of belonging to the culture.
Chrisandra Heng is the design director of SCA, the interior design firm responsible for Rio Tinto's new look. Her firm is a fast-growing local company that specialises in office design. She says this new open concept is catching on. According to her, more companies are realising that their bottom line depends on the mental and emotional state of their workers. And they are starting to embrace the interior designer's mantra that our physical environment influences our psyche.
Rio Tinto's Singapore office is just one example of how local interior designers are redefining office environments by introducing concepts and trends popularised overseas to local clients. This is possible due to the fact that Singapore itself is becoming a regional hub for international interior designer firms. More and more international design firms are setting up shop here, according to Perry Ng, president of the Interior Designers Confederation of Singapore (IDCS). While this means more competition for local firms, it also results in an influx of ideas, cutting-edge designs and the consequential honing of their professional craft.
Singapore is also becoming a significant market for the building and construction industries. Fuelled by an abundance of large projects such as the two integrated resorts, several petrochemical plants, the Sports Hub and the Marina Bay Financial Centre, industry spending is expected to hit a whopping US$55 billion by 2011. All these new buildings have insides that need prettying-up - and that represents a potential bonanza for interior designers.
A sign of Singapore's growing importance to the international interior design industry is the upcoming Asia Pacific Space Designers Association (APSDA) Congress that will be held here for the first time on May 21 and 22, on the sidelines of BEX Asia, a major exhibition showcasing building and construction products. APSDA will feature a cast of international industry luminaries who will speak at the event. One speaker will be Andy Hong, a prominent member of the Shenzhen Association of Interior Designers.
On how the event will benefit the international interior design community, he said: 'The congress will be a good opportunity for us to know the current design situation in each country and establish cultural identities and gain consensus of (what constitutes) harmonious design.'
This is echoed by Tai Lee Siang, president of the Singapore Institute of Architects. He believes the event will 'allow designers worldwide to exchange ideas and share their learning experience'.
Such conventions also help keep everyone up to speed on the latest industry trends, which can be rather fleeting, according to Mr Tai. 'The shelf-life of interior design is generally short. For commercial projects, it is a free for all. Themes change almost every six months,' he said.
But while Singapore becomes a point of congregation for the world's top designers, smaller local firms are venturing overseas where they believe they stand a better chance in larger and less saturated markets. Perry Ng of IDCS believes that for such firms, true competition lies abroad. China, India and Dubai are popular hunting grounds. While he encourages them to seek less crowded pastures there, he maintains that they should continue to use Singapore as a base. He wants to see the industry add more value to the nation's GDP and come to be seen as a more significant economic contributor.
One firm setting such an example is A-I Associates. Jeff Choo is the director and founder of the company. Since starting the firm four years ago after selling his shares and leaving as partner of another successful design firm, he has established offices in Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai. He is looking to set up another one in Dubai. Mr Choo's motivation for branching out overseas also has to do with strategic economic considerations. He reasons that if an economic downturn were to affect Singapore, he would have other markets to fall back on. Nonetheless, the bulk of his current business consists of local projects.
This not only makes good business sense, but has also brought benefits to the local industry.
Says Mr Tai: 'They ply their trade locally and use Singapore as a spring board to provide service to the region.' This has resulted in the quality of local designers improving, after their exposure to ideas and concepts overseas. This, combined with the growing popularity of the profession, has helped to shore up the profile of the industry. He cites the example of how the interior of the Esplanade as a national icon was designed by a team of local designers.
The outcome, he says, is 'modern and reflective of regional culture', which makes it 'extraordinary, considering that it is easy to rely on tried and tested solutions'.
But while the industry brims with prospects, it is not without challenges. IDCS is working towards establishing a recognised industry standard among interior designers, something practitioners like Mr Choo believe the profession desperately needs. Currently, there is no official body that regulates the industry, meaning anyone can claim to be an interior designer and consequently provide less than desirable service to clients. This reflects badly on the rest of the industry and tarnishes everyone's reputation, says Mr Choo who has heard his fair share of such cases.
Another issue is the green movement. Interior designers are facing more environmentally-conscious clients who want their living and working spaces to be ecologically-friendly. Designers need to re-look at their designs borne of traditional material and techniques and accommodate these new demands. But this could be a cloud with a sliver lining. Mr Tai believes that while the interior designers have some catching up to do in their professional knowledge and competency by looking at their craft through green-coloured lenses, he doesn't believe it will hinder their creativity. If anything, it may well 'open new avenues for exploration and create new designs and forms'.
Looks like Dilbert may get the last laugh after all.
This article was first published in The Business Times on May 6, 2008
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