“The new office is wherever we set up our laptops.” In this short interview, we take a quick look into a light-hearted project that dives into the realities of freelance design work in semi-public and domestic spaces. Anna Zimmermann—a multidisciplinary designer based in Vienna and Zurich—has created a range of tools that endeavor to improve freelancer's working conditions while also offering a speculative visual identity for their sometimes ambiguous professional circumstances.
Zimmermann's graphic system playfully references the traditional office, and her witty series of objects includes a fake shirt for video calls, a reversible vest with a "free" and a "busy" side, and a barrier to mark a freelancer's working area in a shared working space.
Freelance practices are becoming more popular day by day, even though they often lack the benefits of employed work. New Office offers to help designers claim space and declare their presence. Here Zimmerman discusses the genesis of her project and how the meaning of these tools has shifted during the global pandemic.
SOMNATH BHATT (SB)
Tell me a little bit more about New Office. What made you want to work on this concept?
ANNA ZIMMERMANN (AZ)
During my studies at Design Academy Eindhoven, I worked on freelance and commissioned projects. I was fed up with working on my kitchen table, and I didn’t have a studio space, so I found myself many times working on those projects in a cafe or a public space. Many others are in the same situation of not having a “proper” office space in a common sense. People working on their laptops in semipublic spaces have become a familiar sight, and a lot of them are working as freelancers. Self-employed designers work for various clients on hourly rates. This form of work has gained popularity especially in the creative industry.
Through working like this I have become aware of the challenges that this form of work poses. At the same time I found working this way unique and exciting. That was the starting point of this project; later it became my graduation project at Design Academy Eindhoven.
On one hand, I wanted to develop tools to improve the working conditions of people working in public spaces. To address things like the separation between work and leisure time, to claim space in a place that is not initially intended for work, or to look and perform well during a video call in such an environment. On the other, I was interested in creating a common identity of the workers in these semi-public spaces.
Can you tell me more about your use of humor? How do you think the narrative has shifted due to "self-isolation" and "working from home"?
People who work in cafes sometimes look as if they are staging a production. They take up a lot of space, speak loudly on the phone, or move a plant so that it serves as a backdrop in their video call. Do we want to attract attention so everyone knows we are working? Is it about holding the same level of importance as others? The New Office tools, which can also be understood as props, serve to perform a freelancer lifestyle better. This also has a little bit of self-criticism.
But now, in times of COVID-19, the situation has changed. The line between work and leisure time is blurring. Many have to work at home, which makes it really hard to set clear boundaries. The New Office products might offer ways to cope better with this situation.
Due to the many video calls we make, our own homes are not quite private anymore. When we participate in video calls, we inevitably give a view of a part of our living space. Our intimate surroundings suddenly become a kind of a stage, which we might design before we start our video meetings. Suddenly it has become a very normal thing to have other people glimpse into our private domains. A white wall can seem too impersonal or almost as if the person in front of the webcam has something to hide. Home clothes are not what they once were. We have to ask ourselves how casual but still appropriate should I dress? Things we don't often consider suddenly need new demarcations.
Could you tell me more about your process. What tools and methods did you use to create this project?
I begin with research, reading relevant books and articles, and I like to do field research, too. While observing, I often come up with new ideas. For the final idea, I ask myself: What do I want to achieve with my project? What is the message I want to convey? This is, of course, an iterative process. The exchange with other people is key in this stage. I like to work across disciplines, but it is also important for me to work with other creative people—that enriches my work. At New Office I worked with a tailor and a photographer; this was extremely valuable. They ended up helping me come up with forms I couldn't have come up with just by myself.
The strength and resonance of this project lies in the interdisciplinary nature of it: graphic design, fashion, product design, art direction, and photography. Could you share your experience doing interdisciplinary work? What kind of responses have you gotten?
Because of constant curiosity, I cannot commit myself to one discipline. I choose the medium based on the concept and try to find the one that communicates best what I'm trying to say. I try to take a very holistic approach to projects—everything should be coherent. This interdisciplinary approach allows me to work with experts from different disciplines and thus broaden my horizons. But it is also not easy to position myself as a designer in this way. People sometimes have difficulties describing what kind of designer I am. But I also get a lot of positive feedback on the diversity of my projects and media.
I did the creative direction and design. I was advised by Bettina Willnauer. Bianca Kleindessner did tailoring and pattern-making for all the designs. Coding was done by Angelo Zehr. Photography was shot by Erli Gruenzweil. The model was Lino Gasparitsch.
How has working from home been for you? Any advice or guidance for those working from home currently?
It was very difficult at the beginning. I have had a studio for a year—that was a real privilege. This physical separation of leisure and work is very important to me. I have become very used to getting out of the house in the morning and going home in the evening. This helped me keep my head calm and not think about work all the time. Now I work at my kitchen table, but I still try to make a clear plan for when I work and when I don't. For this, it's important to develop a certain routine. We're all in the same situation, which creates a sense of community for me. Actually, I'm just glad to still have work, even if the workload has decreased. I’m very thankful for that.
How do you think design as a field will change after the COVID-19 pandemic?
I don't dare make a prediction. I think nobody knows exactly what will change. I hope that it will make us appreciate the relationships that we have even more and lower the inhibition to collaborate and join forces with each other—less individualistic, I hope. And on a larger scale, I hope that the design world will become more sustainable and slower, valuing the work of individual humans more in order to rethink unsustainable and precarious models.