At Work is an ongoing series of conversations with the people who design for today’s and tomorrow’s workplace.
Sigi Moeslinger and Masamichi Udagawa founded Antenna Design in 1997. Since then, their studio has designed objects and environments that enable social interactions between people, and between people and technology. The trick, its founders say, is to nudge, suggest and support through design, rather than to prescribe.
This sensibility is at work in Antenna's designs for Knoll–from a flexible open plan "kit of parts" system built around a simple table (Antenna® Workspaces), to casual seats and surfaces for collaboration (Toboggan®), to the studio's inventive answers to the need for power (Interpole™ and Horsepower™). Horsepower, which Knoll introduced at NeoCon 2015, is a perfect example: a power conduit on an essential sawhorse structure that can meet a variety of needs and programs, including quick seating, wheelable on-demand electricity, and highly flexible workstation support.
Through its designs, Antenna Design has earned a reputation for clever and practical work that supports meaningful and spirited experiences for the people who will use and inhabit them. In 2008, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum awarded the studio the National Design Award in Product Design.
Knoll Inspiration had the opportunity to discuss Antenna's approach to design while visiting Sigi Moeslinger and Masamichi Udagawa in their Chelsea, Manhattan, studio. A sun-filled, tidy space with a small terrace (seldom used, thanks to Hudson River winds) and a clear view of the Highline, the small office is furnished with the studio's own designs for Knoll, as well as a chaise lounge and a model-making workshop.
KNOLL INSPIRATION: From your office, you have a plain view of the Highline. Did the Highline inspire Antenna Workspaces at all?
SIGI MOESLINGER: No, not the Highline specifically. The structural scheme was inspired by elevated highways, where you have a horizontal structure and vertical supports and the two do not intersect. This allows for a lot of planning flexibility. Another inspiration was our Florence Knoll dining table. We thought, ‘Why can’t a contemporary desking system be as clean and elegant as this table?’ So we kept that in the back of our mind.
The clean, essential forms you’re describing come together in Antenna Workspaces as a kit of parts, combining differently in different spaces and taking on endless configurations and personalities. How did you come to this solution?
MASAMICHI UDAGAWA: It was not straightforward. After an initial design period where we ended up with something too complex, we had a total reset on the project. In retrospect that was a good thing. In the second round we had a very clear goal of doing more with less: aspiring to something like Lego that's simple and flexible. It will stay useful over a longer period, and not carry a strong timestamp, which makes it old quickly.
SM: Sometimes you see things that are very prescribed. You use this for this purpose in this way. But if something is too prescriptive, it just may not fit. We experienced this many times even with something as simple as a pencil tray, or our home refrigerator. You never have stuff that fits the compartment, and you wish it wasn’t so exactly planned out for you.
MU: Many things are “over-programmed." So we wanted to design something that has enough flexibility that you can set it up in a way that fits your needs.
Do you ever rearrange your workspaces in this office?
SM: Our needs are quite simple compared to larger offices. We don’t need to rearrange our desks. But we do move around during the day. We are a small team, so usually we don’t need to go to a special place to get together like you would with more people. We always just group around somebody's computer screen.
Left: Toboggan in the welcome area offers a seat should a magazine pique one's interest. Right: Moeslinger works at Antenna Big Table.
How has your office grown and morphed since you started in 1997?
MU: The first three years it was just the two of us. Then we got one assistant. And occasionally we had an intern. We had some freelancers during the first dot-com time. That was the only time we were maybe six or seven people.
SM: But it was kind of crazy. We would spend the whole day just talking with everybody, and I felt like we didn’t get to our work.
What is your day like now? Is there such a thing as a typical day?
SM: Usually we are each working on our own and in between we often go back and forth discussing something. Then toward the end of the day, we meet maybe once more formally, just to check in.
MU: But it’s very casual. That’s the beauty of a small studio. You can be very fluid, and take it as it comes.
Your design for the Scribe® Mobile Markerboard—I see it in this space—reflects that kind of fluid, informal exchange. Do you use it often?
SM: [Laughs] We only got it like a month ago or so, so we haven’t had much time. We’ve used it mostly to paste up things, because we don’t want to put anything on our walls.
Do you work in hand sketches at all?
MU: Yes, but usually just to communicate amongst ourselves. We also make paper models–little, kind of crafty–scale models. And we have a 3D printer, which is very helpful for evaluating small things.
SM: Sometimes for Knoll, we also make full-scale foam core models. We’ll make small spaces that you can sit in and we try them out. It’s very rough, but it’s about testing the spatial experience, like how high can something be before you feel enclosed?
MU: We have enough space here. Having sufficient space is an important thing, first to feel comfortable, mentally open, but also to be able to try out things. To have these mock-ups around us and feel them.
What else is important to your work?
SM: I like to have a clean table when I work. During the day, it gets messy, but at the end of the day I clean up so when I come in in the morning, I can start fresh. If there’s too much laying around, I get distracted.
You have a conference table and some Toboggan, but you don’t really have any lounge furniture.
MU: We have a chaise longue, which I use when I suffer from jet lag.
Left: A workshop for making models. Right: Places to work, to talk – and a place to rest.
Just the basics, then.
SM: Yes, a mini kitchen, desks, and a workshop with hand tools and our little 3D printer.
How often do you use the 3D printer?
MU: It's helpful to figure out mechanical pieces like connectors and brackets. We used it quite a bit when we were doing some of the cable management mechanisms for Antenna Workspaces.
SM: For small stuff especially, it’s very useful to be able to feel it in your hand. Does it have a good feel and a good fit? If there are caps, are they easy to take off?
You seem very interested in these aspects, which influence how people will use a space.
MU: The important thing for us, ever since our first NYC subway project, is to use design to encourage people to behave in a certain way. That was also a very important aspect for Antenna Workspaces. We tried to make open space more comfortable and useful to people who may not be too comfortable with it at first. We used different kinds of storage elements to encourage people to get together in casual ways, but also to provide a sense of territory, a sense of protection.
SM: We try to make things that are suggestive, that say: ‘Hey, you could do this.’ It’s nudging people. We don't impose a certain direction, but make it so that people naturally gravitate to certain behavior, or a certain position.
MU: This is how we thought about Toboggan. We wanted a chair that doesn’t tell you how you have to sit, but that through its design would suggest a number of ways of how you could use it and what for. It encourages people to come together, to have informal meetings, and they can sit and have a surface where they can write and exchange ideas.
Left: Antenna Workspaces Table & Desk. Right: Antenna Horsepower.
Were there designers who influenced your way of thinking?
SM: Many… I'm a big fan of Castiglioni…
MU: Mario Bellini, Dieter Rams, of course. Florence Knoll. Corbu. Mies…
SM: People who have made things that were very unique and of their time, but at the same time these things have survived and thrived for a long time. A lot of what you see today is still referencing them and their heritage. Their work still feels fresh.
MU: In the end, even though their work may often be very rational and logical, there is always an aspect of delight, this other dimension that we think is what elevates something from being purely functional.