Magazine Contact #15 - Magazine - About us - Concept Wiesner-Hager

The desk as stage

Magazine Contact #15

It’s not only by the way we dress that we reveal - consciously or unconsciously – something about our attitude and our constitution. Our desks, too, reliably reflect both the status and the personal preferences and aspirations of those working at them.

Statistics has revealed that office people spend a full seven years at their workplace, and the lion’s share of this time at their own desk. That was reason enough for the Köln International School of Design (KISD) to carry out a broadly based study about desk culture. Over a period of six months 700 desks of women and men working in the four sectors banks, call centres, administration, and design offices in eleven countries on five continents were photographed and closely scrutinized. On each desk more than 12 objects were found that had nothing to do with the workflow proper.


Uta Brandes and Michael Erlhoff, the publishers of the study (My Desk is My Castle. Exploring Personalisation Cultures, Basel, Birkhäuser Verlag 2012) interpreted this as a clear ex-pression of the fact that we look for ways to act out our individuality and to mark our territory even in our fast moving working world. The basic human need for identification and security have become quite evident.


When evaluating the material, both intercultural and industry-specific as well as gender-specific particularities were identified. The impressive photographs clearly show the many different ways that desks all over the world are appropriated by their users. Quite often, this behavior is absolutely fitting the well-known clichés. Women love to be surrounded by more objects - and sometimes plushy ones - than their male colleagues, and they like a pastel ambience, whereas men prefer dark colours and mark their workplace with sports accessories, toy cars and martial figures.

On comparing the sectors it turned out that desks in administration are furnished “homelier” in the long term, those in call centres are rather neutral, with several persons working in shifts at one desk. Design studio desks present themselves rather “clinically” white in Europe and Western countries, but very colourful in Asia. Comparison with Asia, in particular, revealed big cultural differences. In Taiwan, desks were covered with 20 objects on average, in Hong Kong even with almost 40. The explanation of this phenomenon: “Asians usually live together on much less space than Europeans or Americans”, Brandes and Erlhoff said. “Therefore, their understanding of fullness and emptiness is quite different.” Today, many experts don’t predict much of a future to the desk as individual workplace. The tendency is, so they say, towards “office nomads” searching a new workplace again and again, even several times a day, depending on the situation. A point of view that design theoretician Michael Erlhoff cannot share. To him it’s clear that working people need a territory where they can feel secure. His credo: “The nomadic is an illusion.“

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