Profile: Otto Williams

For most of us, work is life, life is work (or at least a very large portion of it). Here’s the problem, though: for most of us, our work spaces don’t work.

We work at the dining room table or in even in bed. Or inspired by Martha Stewart or Real Simple, we create bijou, unusable offices from closets. If we’re “lucky”, we have home offices. But often, these are bleak little spaces combining the unholy trilogy of a Herman Miller Aeron chair (Craiglist), a table from Ikea (a bit past its sell-by date), and a weirdly yellow file cabinet from parts unknown. (But we have great color-coordinated file holders from the Container  Store. Of course we can’t remember what the colors mean.)

Meeting with virtual teammates means caffeine, bad carbs, dodgy wi-fi and a barista giving you the evil eye when you’ve overstayed your welcome. And if you have a small office….well, it’s often a variant of the home office….with Starbucks as your conference room.

For big companies, large swathes of expensive real estate lie empty–because we’re all at home. And when we do go into our offices with the fluorescents and the greige and the late 1990s color schemes, we want to run right back to our homes again (but only after we dish about the latest episode of Glee).

The truth is that we are more than knowledge workers/slaves who require nothing more than a broadband connection and the latest crack from Apple. Environment matters. Stuff matters.

And that’s where Otto Williams comes in. He’s a thoughtful, nuanced, very human-centered designer who thinks a lot about the intersection of thinking and doing, and the problems of people and work and making meaning. He works on challenges that come from the way we’re working (@home, in co-working situations, @ offices large and small)…from the practical things like storage and ergonomics and meeting needs to the issue completely overlooked by many of the organizing advice books and quickie makeover shows on HGTV: inspiration.

And he really nails it, turning cookie-cutter, un-inspirational, bland spaces into lively, engaging, work-friendly spaces (with functional, comfortable products)!

Otto’s Work – Products and Environments


Photos by Coalesse

The basics: RISD, Industrial Design with an emphasis on furniture. Designed for Steelcase (via Metro/Coalesse). Now an independent furniture designer specializing in furniture for the new way we work. His true specialty–understanding how people work, from the inside out, and crafting solutions that actually work.

How’d you get into thinking about the world of work? I studied some sociology, which got me interested in people. But as a designer, I found workspaces more interesting than pure residential spaces: you have to really understand how people work as well as how technology is evolving. But it’s also about what makes work meaningful, since it’s what we spend so much of our lives doing. We all have to be creative at work today but there’s so little inspiration…we could look to great artists’ studios…if you go to Paris, you can see the Brancusi space…it’s chaotic, but there’s deep order. I think we all need that level of inspiration.

Co-working is a big trend. How do those spaces work? Do they? Some are better than others–it’s all about being thoughtful about the environment and how/why people are there. Some are really sterile; there’s no sense of community. Some have, maybe too much community. It’s all about flexibility, and understanding how people actually do work (not how you think they should work.) And some places, like The Hub aren’t just about work: there’s a social mission with what they’re doing, and whenever I go, I feel that.

And what about working at home? It’s so personal. The brand is you–you’re not supporting someone else’s brand. But then a lot of people don’t know what they want, or what their own brands are. And there are no established design metaphors. We need personal, intimate spaces that help you get things done….and places for contemplation and inspiration.

So how do you figure that out? The same way you figure out how to design space and objects for a larger enterprise: you watch how people work, you see what their needs are. (And you don’t just rely on what they say.) You also need to figure out what’s meaningful, what inspires, what opens up opportunity. Designing is all about observation. (We reflect on how we’re all so bound up in old myths about work….maybe work is 95% collaborative…so why do we get so exercised about perfect offices?) We have to be flexible.

People–whether in large companies, or private clients–don’t usually get this, though.  People want to rush through to the drawing, the production, the final product. But we’re talking about meaning…and productivity here. It’s important.

So, what is good design–other than the listening and observation? It’s about the marriage of the maker and the designer. The two can’t be divorced from one another and be truly successful. In artisanal/craft world, it’s the same person, and it’s straightforward. But you need the same of type integration when you’re talking about sending designs to a fabricator or production house. In design education right now, there’s such an emphasis on the virtual. It’s fine in theory but not in practice. There’s nothing like learning on the shop floor for testing theories.

What inspires you? Identifying needs that need to be solved, dealing with the human condition. Really inspired by things that are tangible and human and rooted in history. I love Shaker design style and craft style: it’s got that essential quality and modern flavor–it’s timeless.

And what things reflect, or define you the most? I think it’s really related to what inspires me.

  • Sea-going kayaks: I’m fascinated by the design of these small vessels that hold a single person safely on a big body of water. It’s design and performance and beauty. There’s something called a Whitehall rowboat that’s been used since the 1800s. The Dolphin Club in SF maintains these–I’d love to help restore them. I like my kayak as an object, but it inspires me most because it represents an idea – freedom and self-reliance.  I like the perspective of the landscape and built environment that I get from that vantage point —  the photographs that I can take from sea level.
  • Vintage typewriters: Shortly before we all had laptops cell phones, I shlepped this baby around. It was my main communication tool when I was off-the-grid in New Mexico on my way to California from RISD.
  • Vintage cameras. I’ve retrofitted these with digital components, and I like to patch together unconventional tools that capture a moment. Photography is a passion.
  • Artifacts from my work: I have some plaster negatives that came out of the lost wax casting process we used for prototyping process at Metro. They remind me of the work from Rachel Whiteread, which I love.
  • Vintage sand casting molds for locomotive parts. They’re really abstract, but when you know what they were used for, they have a deeper meaning. They show the evidence of their use.

I like the lost wax and sand cast molds as objects because they make the invisible visible, they represent the space around, the space left behind, the space that an object occupies.  This is what Rachel Whiteread explores in her work.  When Brancusi bequeathed his studio to the city of Paris upon his death, he stipulated that every object had to be placed exactly as he had left it.  He believed that the spaces between his sculptures were as meaningful as the sculptures themselves.

Do you think of yourself as a collector? Not really – quite the opposite, in a way.  I don’t collect.  I’m more interested in paring down than collecting. It’s funny to be a maker and to be so suspicious of stuff.  I like going to the Alameda Flea Market and coming home with nothing but the images on my camera.  I want the idea, not the burden of the thing. My design work is driven by research and observation.  My job as a designer is to articulate the clearest and most elegant solution to a need that exists.  I don’t like to fill spaces with my designs but would rather help make them feel more spacious– more contemplative — kind of the opposite sensibility than that of a collector.

Vital Stats

Otto@OttoWilliams.com

www.ottowilliams.com

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