My Desk is my Castle - Exploring Personalization Cultures

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Table of Contents

About This Book

— 9

Action Space ‘Office’ — 13 Research Methodology The Places

— 23

— 33

Four Representative Business Sectors The Clusters

— 43

— 47

Little Number Games

— 51

Intercultural Comparison

— 55

Object Worlds as Gender Staging

— 91

Comparative Analysis of the Business Sectors The Desk as a Thriller

— 127

— 169

Personal Office Upgrades

— 177

The Desk as a Geodesic Space

— 187

King-chung Siu: The Desk as a Miniature World of Events and Identities: Musings from Hong Kong — 197 Tina Engels-Schwarzpaul: Gobalised Desktop Skirmishes? Reporting from the Colonies — 210 Visions

— 229

The Concepts of ‘Public’ and ‘Private’ — 231 Mara E. Martìnez Morant: Reflections on Anthropology and Design — 239 From Chessboards to Monopoly Games

— 253

Anne-Mette Krolmark: The New York Experience — 261 Potential Practical Design Implications — 301 Bibliography Authors

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— 313

— 318

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Cairo, Administration, Female


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About this Book The office is indeed a meaningful space: a space of action, a space offering possibilities for communication and consultancy and much more besides. That’s why there are numerous books and studies on the subject, why many design studios work in the field of office design, why there are different trade shows on office management and design and why there are very many companies focusing on office interiors. But what might be even more important is a different perspective on office life based on the fact that most of us are familiar with offices, be it as workers or clients. This not only entails a routine ‘knowledge’ or experience of how offices work but also – especially as a visitor, client or customer – the frequent impression of having entered a private space upon which you are intruding. And those who work in these offices know (at least secretly) that these spaces are indeed formulated in very special – and also somehow in very private or at least individual – ways.

Cairo, Administration, Female

It is exactly this privatisation and individualisation of office space with all its complex dimensions that is the subject of this book. Or, looking at it from a different angle: these forms of privatisation represent, in terms of research and design, an exciting opportunity for the observation, representation and analysis of cultural diversity, the differences between the various business sectors and special characteristics based on gender-defined connotations. Especially when looking closely at how we use all these designed things on or around our desktops, we become aware of the differences that have developed on the basis of socio-cultural and gender aspects and in various strategies of appropriation. So the findings presented in this book should allow us to better understand our own workplace or, at times, simply be amazed by how others make themselves at home in the office and what kind of virtual individual dramas are played out on our desktops. Simultaneously, however, this book provides exemplary and well-grounded insights into an important area of design research that, with its unique social and analytic abilities, provides significant support in understanding our present-day societies and their complexity.


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About this Book

Barcelona, Administration, Female

It is also important to mention how this book came about: it was created in the context of a student project at the Köln International School of Design (KISD), during which the concept and, based on initial studies, the questions for further research were developed. We then used our international network to select other universities offering qualitative design education, and asked the respective faculties whether they were interested in participating in this study. Such an intercultural comparison is extremely important in localising the reality of everyday life behind the more general theses on globalisation. Getting such a project off the ground certainly was a lot of work, and we had to circumvent numerous bureaucratic hurdles. But, as you can see by the results documented in this book, eventually students and faculty from five continents and from 11 countries participated in this project with a great deal of enthusiasm and commitment. Participants came from Auckland (New Zealand), Barcelona (Spain), Cairo (Egypt), Cologne (Germany), Curitíba (Brazil), Fukuoka (Japan), Hong Kong, Milan (Italy), New York (USA), Pune (India, formerly known as Poona or Puna) and Taipei (Taiwan). – You can find the complete list of schools and participants at the beginning of this book. This list contains an unusually large number of names appearing in connection with various roles, because we wanted to explicitly name everyone who has contributed to the creation of this book: students who took photographs and cooperated in organising the material, workshop leaders who provided introductions to our empiricist approach in many countries, faculty members at the various schools who made the project possible and supervised its implementation and, of course, everyone who contributed any texts or visuals. As you will see, this cooperation has resulted in fantastic studies, visuals and analyses. We hope that, besides being an entertaining read, this book will provide the reader with new insights and perspectives and might even contribute to a more thoughtful and humane future office design. We would like to thank all students and faculty of the participating universities, the International Office of the Cologne University of Applied Arts (which provided the bursaries to cover the researchers’ travel expenses), and we would also like to thank Susanne Dickel and Tim Danaher for the translation of the German articles and Robert Steiger for supervising the production of this book. Uta Brandes, Michael Erlhoff 10

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Barcelona, Banks, Male 11

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Cairo, Administration, Female

Barcelona, Administration, Male


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Action Space ‘Office’ – and the Many and Mysterious Ways of Customising Desks Design and Use Regardless of which area of everyday life you focus on, you will be amazed at the high degree of designerly capability involved in the practical use of objects, processes, services and also documents. Whatever designers, manufacturers or engineers might have intended, more often than not the practical appropriation in use significantly changes these intended forms. This is best made possible within a design frame that allows a certain openness in use. There are two reasons why it is very important to precisely observe and demonstrate this: on the one hand, this is proof of our, at times quite idiosyncratic, human abilities or of the aspirations, desires and real problems of the people who interact with these objects, processes and documents and, in so doing, change or appropriate them. We use a chair as a wardrobe or ladder, for instance, we open letters or clean our fingernails with a paper clip, we turn mustard jars into pen containers, we sit on stairs that were not initially designed as seats, we use newspapers to protect our heads from rain or sun and so on. In other words: usage is an intervention in which we appropriate our designed environment according to our immediate needs, and this has to be understood as a very creative human skill (see Brandes, Stich, Wender, 2009 and Brandes, Erlhoff, 2006). It is very important for designers and companies alike to be aware of these everyday acts of conversion because, on closer inspection, they would not only discover potential shortcomings in their products, but also many new and realistic ideas for a more accurate and humane design. This is because design, by definition, only comes into its own in the context of social activities, i.e. in use. It would otherwise be obsolete and merely circle around itself. Therefore usage research is an indispensable element of design practice and of the critical reflection of design. Studies about real office life, i.e. about actual forms of privatisation or customisation, can substantially contribute to this area of design research because, in the developed countries, the majority of people (almost two thirds) work in offices – a trend that is still on the increase. The single most important object in each office workplace is doubtless 13

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Action Space ‘Office’

the desk. Therefore, it makes sense to focus this research on the desk and on the personal objects on it, as we have done in this study. Since customisation in the office mainly happens on desks, additional questions regarding the interior design of the office space or looking at what items have been attached to the walls or inspecting the contents of the shelves would not be tremendously useful. However, looking into the top drawer (the ‘secret’ drawer, as it were) and below the desk can at times be quite enlightening since, together with the desktop, these places frame the private space of the desk owners. It is obvious that the desk represents much more than just a practical, functional work tool, a fact that has not been changed by the digitisation of the office. The desk is highly charged with subjective-emotional connotations: it marks the territory of its owners and informs us about their status, their private preferences and desires. Practical-operational and emotional-communicative layers are blended, resulting in a twofold identification of the desk: it is both a material and a symbolic thing. And furthermore: people do not work at and live with these desks as neuter beings but as men and women within specific, sociocultural constructions of gender, i.e. cultural identifications that are mirrored in surprisingly distinct ways in the various individual forms of desk design. In particular the visible desktop, but also the hidden contents of the drawers, display to a greater or lesser degree proprietary characteristics: ‘this is my personal space and this is how I organise my work’. They become archives of factual and emotional memory. The desk as a stationary object reveals to the external world something about the (gendered) individual who works there and owns it. However, the number and type of the so-called private objects that are not subject to the practical demands of work can vary considerably depending on the prevailing corporate identity and explicitly – in spite of globalisation – on the respective cultural context: the spectrum of the private, at least as far as the visible desktop is concerned, can range from almost nothing to something approaching a reliquary. That is why the observation and analysis of desks can yield illuminating insights. Desks tell us something about the people who work at them, but also about the type of work, about forms of communication and the degree to which the official display of privacy is tolerated and individually desired. Leaving aside ubiquitous items such as computers and peripherals, it is especially interesting to look at the collection of objects on desktops and their arrangement on this surface because, and this is documented 14

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Action Space ‘Office’

in this study, individual concepts of organisation and appropriation as well as cultural, work-sector related and gender differences reveal themselves in these aspects in particular. It goes without saying that, as should be the case in every research study, we should take nothing for granted, but should instead constantly ask ourselves why things are the way they are and happen in the way they happen. This, together with an awareness for the permanent strangeness of everyday practices, is the only way in which particular characteristics reveal themselves to us, or can be discovered by us, thus providing a basis for a deeper understanding. Globalisation and Regional Cultural Differences It is understandable that companies and their marketing departments like to talk about globalisation because, if we assume globalisation, then we do not need such a variety of products, services and designs. If all people are the same, then everything can be marketed in the same way. Even the most general empirical observation shows that products and services that are intended to be ‘global’, do indeed exist globally but are appropriated in markedly different ways depending on the culture under investigation. The product ‘espresso’ will serve as a simple case in point: in Italy, you go to a bar, stand at the counter, order and receive your espresso. You add some sugar and within a minute or so you drink it and leave. In Germany, however, you sit down in a café, order your espresso, add sugar, stir it properly and stay maybe for an hour. In the US, you often get your espresso with lemon peel and sometimes with cinnamon, in Tokyo and in some Chinese urban centres your espresso will cost you fives times the amount you pay in Milan since it is regarded as a status symbol. Thus a product labeled as ‘global’ is substantially altered in use and the cultural appropriation of use. This can easily be substantiated for many objects, services and other design products. The first-and-foremost ideological thesis of globalisation must be contradicted in order to recognise, to acknowledge and also to stress the social and, therefore, human dimensions of regional cultures as guiding principles for design. The thesis of globalisation only serves to subject human beings to a general standard – a tendency that can be observed in both the business and the design world. This is, however, inhumane and, like Taylorism, turns human beings into mere appendages of machines and marketing.


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Action Space ‘Office’

So, besides the entertainment value, we should take seriously what happens on our desks and should understand it as a common, everyday articulation and expression of our cultural ties, our education and also our desires, fears and dreams. In this respect, the ‘privatisation’ thesis (with regard to desks) proposed in this book is not quite correct because privatisation would simply subject these phenomena and their verisimilitude to a somewhat pale arbitrariness (comparable to mere opinions or personal views). Instead we will see that – considering different cultures, business sectors and, significantly, cultural constructions and forms of gender – although there are certain commonalities, these are by far outweighed by the differences. The reason for this study was to research these differences, to look at them seriously and to regard them as a means to better understand human life in all its various forms and cultural characteristics and also to use this insight for a more intelligent future design. States, Nations and Cultures Since the exploration of cultural differences forms a significant part of this study, one important initial question was that of which countries should be included in the research. The authors are aware of the fact that classifying cultures by nations always involves a certain degree of abstraction since more differentiated regional aspects cannot be taken into account. After a deeper discussion – and for practical reasons – it seemed fair to limit the focus to the context of ‘national’ cultures (for a more detailed discussion see chapter ‘Globalised Desktop Skirmishes?’) since this already implies a broad variety in each case, sufficient for the purposes of comprehension and illustration. The final choice of countries was based, on the one hand, on existing intensive relationships to particular schools or faculty members and, on the other hand, on the goal of wanting to integrate all continents and, in so doing, considering a number of very different regions – a goal that we think we have achieved. Business Sectors After initial discussions on the question as to which business sectors we should look at, we decided to focus on different forms of work organisation in the office, resulting in the following selection: – Banks and insurance companies: in these cultures, we can assume a certain rigidity and hierarchical order and at least limited public access;


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– Administration departments within their broad contexts: employees usually stay in these jobs for longer periods of time and therefore have a greater inclination of making themselves at home in their offices. Additionally, the administration sector accounts for a large part of office work in general; – Call centres: presumably the most anonymous workplace of all, since workers do not have any direct contact with customers and have to work in shifts without any guarantee of working at the same desk each shift, something which allows only very limited and temporary forms of privatisation; – Design studios: here we can assume a certain level of design expertise and therefore a high level of awareness in terms of desktop organisation and, if there is any public access, clients will expect a ‘designed’ environment. These initial assumptions have been confirmed, and the results of the study show very clear differences between the sectors, although, as documented in the analyses presented in this book, the particular characteristics of these differences were, in parts, quite unexpected. Finally, we should note that it was not possible to study all four sectors in each country: due to time pressures, some of our research partners were not able to include all sectors and in some places access was denied due to legal regulations or restrictions. Altogether, however, this had no adverse effects on the study since we were able to collect sufficient material to justify our conclusions. Gender So far, we have defined two variables that guided our research design: different countries (intercultural aspect) and different business sectors. However, the study would have been incomplete or, even worse, would have resulted in skewed representations and interpretations had we not introduced the third variable ‘gender’, because the genderisation of desks – in the sense of Butler’s ‘doing gender’ (see Butler, 1990) – is obvious in such a blatant way that it is almost stunning. At times, this aspect overpowers and dominates the two other variables and it permeates through cultures and business sectors: the aspect of gender is an omnipresent one.


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Action Space ‘Office’

What is special here is the fact that we do not identify ‘genderisation’ by directly looking at individuals, their behaviour, appearance, interactions or by interviewing them, but exclusively by the objects people surround themselves with at work. In this study, the activity of ‘doing gender’, i.e. the permanent creation of gender for oneself and others, is observed on the basis of objects and not on that of the acting subjects. We observe and interpret interaction indirectly via things that tell us a lot about the social gender conventions of their owners. The term ‘convention’ is an operative one in this context, because the personal desktop designs confront us with a double dilemma: they embody the social construction of bipolar gender affiliation (the desks of men look like male desks and the desks of women look like female desks), while our interpretations also follow these bipolar affiliations. The gender stereotypes, implicitly yet subconsciously created and externally exhibited by the desk owners, are repeated by us, the researchers, by applying the same stereotypes: in other words, by using the social framing of ‘typically male’ and ‘typically female’ and, on this basis, evaluating ‘genderconforming’ behaviour and interaction. This is an inevitable contradiction. ‘Gender attribution’ (Hirschauer) results from the ideological general knowledge of two alternative, biological sexes, which in turn creates the cultural imperative of clearly delineated gender identities. Hence, for the interpretation of gendered actions and object appropriations there are no other categories at our disposal than those that define these genderstereotypical actions and object appropriations. Gender attribution derives from two imposed responsibilities: on the one hand, from gender presentation, meaning that each individual must present their gender using a socially accepted repertoire such as clothing, gestures, voice, names, designations and specific activities. On the other hand, there is gender attribution that results from gender presentation: a sexualisation process of people, objects, names etc. is required in order to create gender (doing gender), which Hirschauer refers to as the “circular creation of the context of meaning” (transl. by the authors). This process not only applies to the interaction between people or between people and objects, but can already be observed by simply looking at the objects themselves: “The context of meaning of such heterogeneous cultural objects is created in a circular fashion: the characteristics and behaviours attributed to a specific gender are themselves implicitly attributed a gender. And, conversely, the sexualisation of many cultural objects carries the meaning of the person-gender.” (Hirschauer, p. 103, transl. by the authors) 18

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Action Space ‘Office’

Hence analysing private objects on desktops on the basis of gender aspects is only possible by accepting existing gender constructions and, in so doing, applying criteria that simultaneously expose themselves as gender stereotypes: many pastel-coloured or pink objects on a desk make this desk a typically female one, whereas many dark or metallic objects indicate a male desk. This is not only true for colour schemes: genderisation is created by a vast repertoire of aspects such as materials (soft or fluffy: female; hard: predominantly male), type of object (mirrors, handbags, photos of children: female; car keys, car models, tech-toys: male), the number of objects (women have more objects than men), etc. The object worlds in the action space of the desk comprise “telling objects” (Mieke Bal). However, these collectively generated visual worlds are also gendered telling objects. And in this respect, the gender aspect, some gaps still needed to be filled, which we hope we have achieved with this study. “While (…) the gender coding of specific object types, groups or relationships has been sufficiently researched, there are still gaps in the systematic and also theory-driven study of gendered objects with regard to object categories (…) and also regarding the related knowledge systems.” (Humboldt University, transl. by the authors) Structure and Implementation of this Study The study started as a project at the Köln International School of Design with a group of some 14 students (for a detailed description of the methodology, see chapter ‘Research Methodology’). After an initial literature survey, first assumptions were formulated on the basis of in-depth discussions. Furthermore, different potential research methodologies and, using examples, the particular characteristics of design research were discussed intensively. We then selected the approaches that seemed most suitable for this study. In a next step, we carried out a pilot study in Cologne to collect initial experience in dealing with the companies or institutions from the different sectors, in explaining the project to them and in gaining access to their offices (which was not as difficult as expected and often even met with keen interest by those who worked there). Simultaneously, a first systematic observation sheet was developed to facilitate the analysis of the material. This included precise instructions for structuring the photographic material so that other researchers would be able to adopt the same format. 19

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Action Space ‘Office’

During this research stage alone we gathered some 400 photographs that were then structured and discussed in the project group. And, of course, the participating businesses and employees were guaranteed absolute anonymity. (The participating ‘desk owners’ and the authors are aware of the fact that it might be possible to identify individual participants due to the high degree of desk personalisation. However, this did not seem to be a problem at most places and a keen interest in the study outweighed any reservations of this kind.) On the basis of the carefully structured material and many further discussions, we revisited our initial hypotheses and extended them to include some tentative, preliminary conclusions. We then presented this part of the project at KISD, which turned out, as expected, to be of great value for our further work because we were able to test whether the topic was of any interest to a broader research community and whether its relevance had become sufficiently obvious. Additionally, the opening up of the discourse helped us in identifying which parts of the study needed to be changed or framed more precisely. In parallel to these activities, we made initial contact with the schools that were on our list to participate in the project. Not all of them were prepared or able to take part, and in some cases we had to stretch our powers of motivation and persuasion. This resulted in initial project tasks and timelines for our cooperation. On this basis, faculty members and students from the many participating schools started with their own studies, initially according to the guidelines developed in the KISD project. Over the course of the process however, certain aspects and perspectives of the overall study were improved and extended in mutual consultation: this included the objects to be observed and the ability of gaining access to the relevant offices, as well as the different ways of working at the participating schools. In order to further improve the cooperation, teams of two KISD students each visited the participating schools for 2-3 weeks, taking on the role of ‘teaching assistants’. They supported the work on site and, in many discussions, collected further ideas that became relevant to the overall project. In the following semester, based on the preliminary work at the participating schools, the same students structured the material that had been collected so far, developed more precise hypotheses and examined whether the planned analytical steps would still be valid or had to be amended or extended. This was followed by an in-depth analysis phase that also resulted in initial visualisations that evoked the first 20

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Action Space ‘Office’

outlines of potential research results. This is further proof of how important design skills are in research, since research takes on form in these representations that, in turn, also shape the research results. Often the meaning of particular research results and further specific research questions only become apparent during a critical reflection of the representation of these results. The structuring and analysis of the material and the development of initial reports and writings concluded the first part of the project. In a follow-on project, a different group of students subjected the work carried out so far to further critical reflection and developed additional reports and writings as well as new or amended visuals. These students were also responsible for the final design of this book. Hence this book is the result of an intensive cooperation with many faculty members and students from five continents, and in particular of the thorough and comprehensive work of some twenty students of the KĂśln International School of Design and also of the editors.

Cologne, Administration, Male


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From Chessboards to Monopoly Games

that the traditional hierarchical allocation of tasks no longer exists. Furthermore, other particular symbols of hierarchical work organisation have mostly disappeared: the desks and offices of senior management are no longer distinctly different from those of the workers and can also display a surprisingly high degree of privatisation. On the other hand, however, different hierarchical levels still exist and in spite of their individual desktop designs, office workers still have to do, to a greater or lesser extent, what is expected of them. Hence, there is an odd contradiction between what appears to be a newfound freedom and between a mere ideological concept of freedom. This ambivalence becomes perfectly obvious in the analyses of the desks shown in this book. They are a document to the current expression of the meaning of office work.

Taipei, Bank, Male


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The New York Experience Anne-Mette Krolmark

Process The first step in the project was to gather subjects for observation. This was done through emails and phone calls to arrange visits to various offices. During visits to the offices, the desks and larger surrounding areas were photographed. I asked people about any private items that caught my attention and about basic information such as age, job description and which object they would miss most or least. Finally, I sketched the layout and made notations of where the entrance was located and of the source(s) of natural light. These sketches were used to describe how you would enter the room where the desk was located, how a visitor would arrive at the desk (from front or back) and to record the orientation relative to daylight and the position of other desks nearby or the position of the visitor’s chair. My observation through photography and sketching was done as quickly as possible to avoid wasting people’s time. Difficulties My initial approach was to examine the desks of one female and one male employee at each office in order to directly compare gender similarities and differences. However, this did not work in practice. Although I had made appointments, it was not always possible to get access to both. There were only a few sites where it was actually possible to document both female and male desks. Many people were reluctant to participate unless there was a prior personal connection through Parsons or through the director of my program. It was very difficult to get a foot in the door, especially at banks, insurance companies and call centres. After many attempts, I found that it was impossible to get access to banks in New York City due to security restrictions. Call centres were also difficult to contact and unresponsive to email and phone calls. My experience was that when calling a call centre I didn’t get through to the people in charge and my emails to a ‘contact us’ email address ended up in the junk mail.


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The New York Experience

Also, it was very difficult to get high profile people to participate (some even declined) as they needed approval from Public Relations departments and asked for property release documents, light setting and professional photography. Many of these people also wanted to see the documentation of the results and inquired about who else was participating. Due to the difficulty of finding willing participants, I decided to work with people I already had access to. With the contacts found through my director, I had a few more people to choose from and with that luxury, I eventually selected the most interesting desks at the places I visited. To me, the most interesting desks were the ones with a lot of personal objects – those were the ones that stood out and were not necessarily representative of how offices usually look like in New York. But I also realise that a survey of only twenty desks, may not be representative of the majority of desks in New York. As a result of my visits, I found that the desk is only a part of office personalisation, which also includes nearby walls, wall-units, cabinets, shelves etc. Therefore my documentation contains more than the desk itself. Due to the busy schedule of participants, documentation was done very quickly in order not to delay people during their working hours. During documentation, desk owners had to leave their desks and there was definitely a great deal of time pressure during the interview/documentation. This time restriction obviously influenced the research. New York is known to be very busy and many people do not want to take time out for something that is not work-related. Assistants were usually more willing to share some time. Generally, I found that people with a lot of personal things in their office were much more open and more willing to take the time to tell me stories about their personal objects on display. It was much easier to connect with these people. At times, I felt uncomfortable doing the documentation, as if I was an imposing stranger. The documentation seemed to violate privacy in many cases. But private things on people’s desks were the catalyst for me to get to know the people and to interact with them in a more natural way in this unnatural situation. The most difficult questions to ask people were those about people’s age and if I could take photos of their personal drawer. When people were willing to talk about their items, it was a great way to connect with and to get to know them, and it also felt easier to ask about age and if I could see their drawer. 262

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The New York Experience

It is difficult to determine if people’s personal items reflect their true character. But I definitely felt that I was able to ‘see’ the participants’ character in the items they had chosen to display. When asked which personal objects on the desks would be missed the least or the most, work-related objects were most often chosen. I found it difficult to identify gender-related tendencies in the personalisation of the desk. I had stereotypical presumptions about genderrelated tendencies, assuming that men would have nothing personal on their desks whereas female desk owners would have pictures of their loved ones, kids’ drawings and hand cream containers on their desk. But this was not the case. The project also made me ask: What is considered a female object? Why would we assume that children’s artwork was predominantly to be found on the desks of female employees? Or is a container of hand sanitizer more of an indicator of a female-owned desk than a male-owned one? Is it more feminine to have a decorated workspace than not? My comments on the personalisation of the desks and of the related gender issues are based on my assumptions and free interpretation of the objects found at the locations I visited and on how I perceived the atmosphere there. They do not necessarily reflect a general truth.


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The New York Experience

Bank & Insurance, Female (40) Financial Advising, Financial Advisor (10+ Y), US, orig. India Most missed object: the chair (black office chair) Least missed object: tissue box

Personal drawer contained napkins and gloves

Least missed object


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The New York Experience

A 100% functional office, seems very uniform. The furniture appears old-fashioned and very worn. The appearance of this office seems unimportant, and as if not many customers visit. The appearance of the company overall does not seem to be a priority. No personal stuff at the desk –Ì only lunch, a banana and a tissue box. Personal drawer: gloves (the documentation was done during the heat of August) and napkins. Due to the lack of personal stuff, it is difficult to comment on the gendered personalisation of the desk. The tissue box does have a feminine appearance, but the overall environment and the choice of furniture create a very masculine feeling.


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The New York Experience

Design, Female (41) Publishing, Co-Owner (19 Y), USA Most missed object: “I do not keep personal things on my desk� Least missed object: phone ( my guess is the mobile)

Gym clothes rolled up neatly


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The New York Experience Note: Questions answered over email – only the desk owner’s assistant was present at the visit.

The only personal items on the desk are a mobile phone, an apple and a glass of water. Next to the table is a little red stool used as storage for books. All tables, cabinets and walls are white and the chairs and few other elements are red. The office appears fresh, clean, orderly, creative due to the chosen colours and furniture. Overall, everything appears very presentable and professional. There seems to be a very strong attention to details, quality and taste (note: lemon in the water). The Phone and computer are surprising. I would imagine a person sitting here would have an iPhone, not a Motorola and an old MAC laptop. But maybe the desk owner is not interested in technology? And maybe this is why this person would not miss the phone if it were gone? Private drawer: clothes all black/greyish colours rolled up in a very neat fashion. Again, very orderly and a great attention to detail. Based on the appearance of the desk alone, I would not be able to guess the gender of the desk owner. The red colour (present throughout the office and not just this desk) and the lemon in the water glass might tend to point more in the female direction.

Lemon in water glass 267

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The New York Experience

Administration, Male (62) University, Dean (1 Y), USA Most missed object: new screen Least missed object: vertical file cabinet


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The New York Experience

The desk is a very small part of this office. The personal items filled the room. The whole room is very personal and feels very warm, inviting and interesting. Lots of books, lots of everything. It seems that both the personal and professional side of the desk owner are fully integrated into this room. It could very well been a home office if it had not been for the giant white board on the wall. The choice of round tables as desk seemed unusual at first. But I believe it added to the ‘home-like’ and inviting atmosphere. The personal drawer was filled with tracing paper rolls, tools and a graduation picture was lying on top. Lots of artwork displayed on the walls, pictures of family displayed side by side with objects and tools such as utility knives. Overall, this room had a masculine atmosphere.


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The New York Experience

Administration, Female (47) Museum (Architecture & Design), Senior Curator (15 Y), Italian Most missed object: “My computer, of course. My life is in it. Everything else can go – although some objects have a very strong emotional value.” Least missed object: “The post-it notes. They HAVE to go. They’re my to-do list so every day they spend on my desk is a reminder I haven’t gotten rid of a task.” She also adds that the post-its are definitely ‘personal objects’ to her even if some may not believe so.

Brass dusters

Personalized stapler

`The Office Pet´


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27.07.11 23:22

The New York Experience Note: The desk owner’s assistant was present at the documentation. Answers received by email after visit. The answers to the most/least missed object are presented as received (as I thought they are really great and very personal)

The whole room has such a strong presence and lots of personality. The desk contained a limited part of the items displayed and present in this office. Therefore, I found it difficult to document only the desk. There were so many interesting items in the whole room; many were gifts to the desk owner. A few items I notice are: The ‘Office Pet’, a gift by the assistant, lying on top of books beside the computer. The office pet, a mechanical “toy”/ art project looking a bit like a giant white caterpillar, when embraced it responds to both heartbeat and stroking. I also notice personalized white gloves in wrapping hanging on the wall and a pair of brass dusters wrapped in meat packaging material. The room is dark for a workspace. Wool wall panels (Teppo Asikainen’s Swell Soundwave) are covering an entire wall (the one with the light switch for the ceiling lighting). The ceiling lights are never used. A desk lamp and natural light are only light sources used in the room. The room appears to be occupied by a female, based on the granola on the desk, the soft woollen wall, the red colour and items such as the little four-leaf clover pinned to the wall.


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27.07.11 23:22

The New York Experience

Design, Female (40–49)/Male (40–49) Architecture, Founder & Partner (2 Y), USA Most missed object: computer/Coffee Least missed object: calculator/Email

The computer the most missed object . The desk looked very tidy (I am told it was cleaned the day before). Most personal item was a plastic waterbottle.

Everything very orderly and all white. A few adapters and cords on the desk indicates that technical equipment is used here. Personal items are an iPhone, notebooks and a pink pencil.


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27.07.11 19:58

The New York Experience

Note: The firm partners are partners at work and in their private life.

It’s an all white office, very minimal in a warehouse type building, and a very busy office – there was very limited time for questions during my visit. Everything is very simple, no personal items at all on the desk! Books, pens, and printer on the shelf-unit mounted on the wall were shared by the two partners. Strong sense of order and detail (though she pointed out that she felt the office was not looking very neat, due to the disorderly cords and that the outlet box behind partner’s table were not lying flat and in place.) The atmosphere is very gender neutral and no items on the desk really indicate that the desk owner is female. Based on the pictures alone, I would probably have guessed that the two partners were male.

Uneven placed extension cord


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The New York Experience

Administration, Female (40) Communication, Principal (16 Y), USA Most missed object: artwork by her kids Least missed object: any phone

Children’s artwork - most missed object


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The New York Experience

A bright, warm, and colourful office. The whole room is personalized with beautiful children’s drawings. There is a large skylight that provides the room with lots of natural light. The desk owner tells me: “My kids drawings are inspirational to me”. On the pin-up board at the desk there are pictures of family, postcards with artwork and graphic patterns. The desk owner moves and changes the stuff in her office if she starts not to see it anymore: “Then it’s time to clean up.” She reorganizes every month. In the private drawer there are some snacks for the long workday. The male bike parked in the office belongs to the desk owner, but she does not ride it to work very often. The office space seemed very warm and inviting. The room has a definite female atmosphere due to the warm colours in the children’s drawings. Personal drawer


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27.07.11 19:58

The New York Experience

Administration, Male (43) University, Dean (2 Y), USA Most missed object: 3 photographs of wife, daughter & mother Least missed object: the In-tray

The private drawer holds original boxes for James Bond collectables and drawings made by daughter.

HM The Queen


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27.07.11 19:59

The New York Experience

This office oozes personality, mostly from the personal stuff surrounding the desk. The only personal stuff on the desk is a small James Bond figure and a gold-coloured Aston Martin. I am told that the desk was not cleaned before my visit and that is it always like this! On the desk lies a Chinese Vogue (with an interesting photo shoot of the offices of famous designers – an interesting parallel to this project). In the room there are lots of things and stories to match. The desk itself is a Parsons desk designed in the 1920´s. The art displayed is from former students of the University. The art changes occasionally, as there is a collection to choose from at the school. There are several antiques including red uniforms from the British army (red is also considered a lucky colour in China) and lots of British curiosities and toys (most of these given as gifts) are displayed. On the window sill is a figure of the Queen waving (solar cell operated), antique ”Bobby” dolls from China and toy cars including a London cab, a Rolls Royce and a London bus. The toy cars are often moved around and positioned according to each other as they each have adapted “roles”. In the personal drawer there are original cases to the James Bond memorabilia and drawings made by the desk owner´s daughter. The room seems very orderly decorated but not feminine. Although the colour red is dominant in the room the atmosphere is masculine. This might be due to the uniforms, which add to the masculine feeling.


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27.07.11 19:59

The New York Experience

Administration, Male (52) High End Tool Company Web Catalo, Purchase Manager (20 Y), British Most missed object: pictures of Family Least missed object: formica tabletop


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27.07.11 19:59

The New York Experience

I notice a lot of British artifacts, including a picture of the Queen, a “Keep calm and carry on” postcard, notebooks covered in Paul Smith iconic stripes, and a London guidebook. Next to the office chair is an antique desk chair. This chair was used in a former office, where the tables were higher. Now it is too high for the desk, but was kept because the desk owner really likes it. The pillow on the chair was made by the desk owner’s wife from the family tartan fabric. A few Tintin figurines are placed in toy race cars in the window sill. The cars are kit cars that the firm used to sell, and the desk owner is a big fan of Tintin. The Paul Smith striped covered notebooks are old scrapbooks. These include notes and contact information I am told some of it is now outdated. Old photos of the desk owner’s kids are stuck inside the scrapbooks along with old business cards. Most of the items on the desk are samples or products for testing, such as the brass clocks. The desk is very personalized and interesting. I chose this particular desk out of the other choices at this office because of the quantity of stuff displayed and the cute old chair. I felt the stuff reflected a mix of sentimentality, national feelings and humour. I certainly felt the stuff displayed the owner’s persona and made the place feel warm, inviting, and even a bit homey. The office is very decorated, which might seem feminine and yet the way the photos are put up – very linear and ordered – is masculine to me. Also the chair with the tartan pillow, the Tintin figurines and the racecars are masculine objects.


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27.07.11 19:59

The New York Experience

Administration, Male (40) High End Tool Company Web Catalog, Vice President (17 Y), USA Most missed object: computer, the view Least missed object: computer, mail pile

The much loved view 280

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27.07.11 20:00

The New York Experience

This office was kept very orderly and was not very personalised. A blue desk dominates the office space. The blue colour matches the painted furniture and shelves in the front office. A picture/painting of a deceased dog made by the desk owner’s wife and a few children’s drawings are hung on the wall behind the desk. A discreet photograph of the desk owner’s wife is placed against the window sill. Bird stickers are mounted to the glass panel towards the office. When seen from the front office it looks like there are three birds flying away in flock. New products are lying around, including a new children’s tool set in a blue jean holder and books with red graphic fronts. The private drawer is a little messy, and when asked the desk owner does seem a bit uncomfortable showing this to me. It holds random stuff and vitamins. The fantastic view and especially the daylight are highly appreciated by the desk owner. The office is masculine to me, perhaps because of the tool sets lying on the desk and the light blue colour.


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27.07.11 20:00

The New York Experience

Design, Male (31) Advertising, Director of Creative Development (5 Y), Danish Most missed object: robot, FCK ( Danish soccer team) mouse pad Least missed object: Adobe prize, rocket

Japanese doll w/ secret message


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27.07.11 20:00

The New York Experience

This desk is part of a long group of multiple tables in a very big ”one room office.” The appearance of the office is very clean and modern. The furniture and walls are white. The desk is very orderly. Personal items on the desk are displayed behind dual computer screens and only visible to the colleagues, not the desk owner himself. A black lunch box looking case is used as a shrine for notebooks. This was originally a case for a phone that was being tested (gift from Adobe). The Adobe pillows in the chair next to the desk were bought by the desk owner in an attempt to add more colour to the office. The big robot (most missed object) used to belong to the former Creative Director. The robot is still holding the former colleague’s business card in its hand. It can move and is the office attraction when kids are visiting. The blue Cookie Monster is a gift from a colleague. It is a funny reference to the desk owner’s nickname, Cookie. The Japanese doll is a gift from the desk owner’s girlfriend. It has an unread message inside (it has been sitting on the desk for months). A Magritte inspired black sticker on the back of the MAC is also used as the desk owner’s Facebook profile picture. The Adobe prize is the least missed object. The double computer screens and the robot add to a masculine atmosphere. The office space and the interior is more gender neutral.

Chair with Adobe pillows 283

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27.07.11 20:01

The New York Experience

Administration, Female (27) Engineering, In-House Lawyer (2 Y), Irish Most missed object: Nothing Least missed object:Cables lying on the desk


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27.07.11 20:01

The New York Experience

The office is very big. Everything seems very corporate but nice. The office seems clean and newly refurbished. Everything is very presentable, yet a little anonymous. The space is not very colorful and cubicle walls are grey. Most workplaces in this office were semi-open cubicles. There are no personal items on this desk apart from two small figurines and a box of tissues. The little figurines were a gift from the desk owner’s boss’s kid. In the personal drawer there is a small bag of chips. All the pens are gathered in a paper cup. The most personalized thing on the desk is the computer desktop. Everything else is very professional looking, and perhaps a bit impersonal and gender neutral.


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27.07.11 20:01

The New York Experience

Design, Female (I was told to google the desk owner’s age: 38-52) Fashion, Founder (20 Y), USA Most missed object: rose lotion Least missed object: pile of clutter

One of many creams and perfumes

Inspirational board


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27.07.11 20:02

The New York Experience Note:Only the desk owner’s assistant was present during the visit. Most/least missed object question was received by email after the visit.

There is a lot of stuff in this office and on the desk. Many bright colours and textures everywhere. The newest collection was present in the room placed on two transportable racks, which I was not allowed to photograph as the visit was just a few days prior to New York Fashion Week. Numerous inspirational boards were displayed in the office. One of the boards is showing pictures, and memories of the desk owner’s mother who had just passed away. I was told that her mother was a big inspiration of style to the desk owner. On these boards there are also fabric samples in different texture and colour. Textures and patterns are everywhere in the room. There are a lot of fabric samples on the desk and on the shelves against the windows. I see a huge collection of very feminine objects on the desk such as jewellery, perfumes and creams. I was told that the desk owner loves accessories such as bracelets, necklaces and earrings and she finds a lot of them on flea markets. She does not wear rings as much. The desk looks like it was just left by the desk owner, but somehow I very much feel her presence in the atmosphere of the room. The private items seem to include the BlackBerry, glasses, coffee cup and a left over fruit plate for breakfast. I am told that the jewellery and perfumes are very valued and personal items too. Every detail in the room is very feminine.



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The New York Experience

Bank & Insurance Company, Male (56) Mortgage company, Owner (20 Y), USA “No personal stuff, it’s all business”

This desk seems to be US standard. Nothing fancy, traditional furniture, a bit old-fashioned, and not really designed to be presentable – the priority is function. The room is narrow with very limited space. My experience visiting the office is what I expected at more places here in busy New York – the desk owner did not get away from his desk while I was documenting it, he was too busy. He does not have any personal stuff at all on his desk. When asked about his most or least missed personal objects, he said “It’s all business”. The office space seems impersonal, masculine and uninviting. 288

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27.07.11 20:02

Cologne, Bank, Male

CuritĂ­ba, Call Centre, Female


27.07.11 20:02

My Buch is my Castle.indb 289

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