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Planet Money Tracks Down The Inventor Of The Open Office


You know, it used to be when you went to an office job, you had an office. Then came the cubicle. And today, we are in the era of the open office. Stacey Vanek Smith from our Planet Money podcast tracked down the guy who invented that.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Do you spend your workday sitting on an exercise ball at a long table? Have you ever had a meeting with someone in a nook? If the answer is yes, you have an Italian to thank, Gaetano Pesce.

GAETANO PESCE: I work on the field of creativity.

VANEK SMITH: In other words, he's an architect and interior designer. He's known for really bright colors and playful designs. Pesce was already quite famous in the mid-'90s when Jay Chiat hired him to rethink the office. Jay Chiat owned Chiat-Day, a super hip ad agency in New York.

What did he say when he came to you?

PESCE: He wanted an office without paper.

VANEK SMITH: An office without paper?


VANEK SMITH: Laptops and mobile phones had come on the scene, and Pesce thought, now we can work anywhere so the office should not be about work.

PESCE: It was like a huge living room. It was an open space with sofa, comfortable chair, a coffee shop.

VANEK SMITH: The floor was poured plastic - this bright red, and orange and yellow, and there was no personal space. Desks were, like, these carts on wheels, and even worker's phones and computers weren't theirs. Shalom Auslander was a creative director at Chiat-Day.

SHALOM AUSLANDER: You'd come in every morning and you had, like, a locker, and you'd leave your stuff there. You'd go to this counter that was shaped like a giant mouth.

VANEK SMITH: Like a mouth?


VANEK SMITH: At the giant mouth window, workers would check out a phone and a laptop for the day, and then they'd begin hunt to find a place to work. This was revolutionary for the mid-'90s. It was the cubicle era. Offices were serious and functional, and this colorful, creative office blew everyone's mind. Warren Berger writes about design.

WARREN BERGER: The coverage of it in the media was very glowing. You know, it's like, this is the future of the workplace, the virtual office.

VANEK SMITH: Actually working there, though, was a different story, says Shalom Auslander.

AUSLANDER: For me, it was a very unmoored kind of feeling because you just didn't know where you were. You didn't know where anybody else was.

VANEK SMITH: Auslander says the constant movement and the bright plastic floor made it impossible to work.

AUSLANDER: Like, if you could climb inside a migraine headache, that's what that felt like.

VANEK SMITH: Did you have, like, coping mechanisms?

AUSLANDER: Yeah, it was called my house.

VANEK SMITH: The Italian designer Gaetano Pesce, said, yeah, he heard this, that people had trouble working in this new office.

PESCE: New things bother at the beginning. When you make something new, the first reaction is, I don't like it.

AUSLANDER: Do you think the open office went too far?

PESCE: No, no. There is never too far.

VANEK SMITH: Pesce's virtual office had a short life. A few years after it was completed, Chiat-Day moved to a more traditional space. Warren Berger, the design critic, visited just before the move.

BERGER: They'd already, you know, started the process of shutting it down and moving out. So it was a failed experiment clearly by that point.

VANEK SMITH: Still, says Berger, the office had a big impact. Companies like Google and Apple - and now basically everyone - adopted the ideas of couches and cafe spaces and mobile desks. And Pesce says he still sees pieces of his office when he travels. He saw one of the rolling desks in Milan, a plastic chair in Paris, a piece of the wall in Aspen.

PESCE: The office was exploded around the world.

VANEK SMITH: It really was an open office.

PESCE: Yes, yes, it was.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.