Casework's New Look

Emerging trends in casework and millwork design are responding to the mobility and portability of today’s work environment.

Corporate and office environments are changing quickly. Organizations large and small have seen the tremendous advantages of open plans and shared spaces—increased collaboration and team spirit, along with long-term flexibility and reduced life-cycle cost. Even the number-crunchers agree: 75 percent of CFOs surveyed by Work+Life Fit and BDO Seidman agreed that “flexible work increases productivity.”

But with the advantages of more exposure to windows and daylight for employees come concerns of increased ambient noise and expanded sightlines that can cause tension and clutter. Work environments still require a measure of privacy and contemplative time, too.

The inescapable trend of more openness in the workplace, coupled with the distinct challenges it raises, have placed a new set of demands on interior systems. Many of the emerging solutions stem from savvy applications of casework, millwork and related commercial systems. Some are even changing the definition of what casework is.

Designers instinctively associate casework with environments that change infrequently—libraries, storage areas, kitchenettes, conference rooms and reception lobbies. Historically the industry has specified modular, standardized products not because we anticipate rearranging the casework components, but because it eased space layout, reduced detailing work and, ultimately, cut costs. But even that’s changing.

the shift to modular
Here’s the first big change: Modern office users want to reshuffle the deck more frequently, moving workstations, conference areas, bookcases, storage units and base cabinets on the fly to accommodate new organizational strategies, work processes or team sizes on evolving or changing projects. Technology is also moving away from the built-in mentality (whether it’s fully wireless or hardwired) as organizations seek more mobility and flexibility. That attitude heavily influences the emerging office user base, who seek lighter work systems that can be easily reconfigured—or at least look that way.

In fact, the aesthetic of the high-tech sector has driven modularity and flexibility in casework. Young, successful companies that are growing are often run by smart, sustainability-minded entrepreneurs who are loath to throw everything out just to start a new software development team. They want to take their investments with them—a practical but also somewhat romantic notion—so they’re asking for portable furniture, knockdown storefront systems and workstations on casters. They see their office as a communal prefab home, ready to be dismantled and moved or even relocated to the next leased space. Likewise, as they grow, they wish to be able to quickly expand on an established template or module, not start from scratch.

In many important ways, this trend does not lower the bar for space programming and layout. Offices still need to be planned around casework elements as if they were built in. Casework anchors the work community, serving as touchstones because they are shared elements; it also offers a visual break from desking and seating. Consistency of detailing, materiality and color from the reception desk to the utility closet is a key to a coherent palette and atmosphere.

On the other hand, the use of non-fixed and modular casework, including floating pieces, obviates the precise field measurements that are so critical to traditional casework. It’s a shorter lead-time process with less emphasis on accurate as-builts and fabrication drawings. The design team no longer needs to wait for the space to be framed out to verify dimensions and make a final product or material order, followed by 12 to 16 weeks of waiting and hoping for an easy site installation.

Contemporary Casework: 5 Precepts

  1. Make it portable and moveable. Corporate life today is nomadic and chaotic. Don’t make it a built-in unless the organization truly needs it.

  2. Local and reclaimed are in. Go organic and close the loop: Offices ask for more recycled materials and reclaimed finishes. Even beat up, old casework looks more natural and green.

  3. Integral beats applied. A finger pull is more efficient, natural and sustainable than a brass knob. Try to make integrated features a component of the casework design.

  4. Go modular and standardized. To reduce detailing and fabrication costs, choose a module and standard elements for as much of the office as possible.

  5. Consider end-of-life scenarios. Can you resell or refurbish? It beats the landfill.
Today’s office users benefit from this change in mindset. Fitting the interior down to the last inch comes with a cost and takes a lot of time. Unforeseen delays due to budget and construction issues are often caused by coordinating built-ins; many corporate end-users prefer to avoid these sorts of delays, making modular casework a popular option.

a new aesthetic
These trends are not only changing the deployment of casework—they are also changing its very expression.

Some of the new design ideas relate to how casework systems deal with open-plan issues. For better acoustics, for example, custom and off-the-shelf products increasingly feature soundproofing materials around them, or invisibly and carefully integrate them into the structure. Floating bookcases and room dividers—essential for visual privacy—may have acoustical materials on the back for greater acoustical control. In some cases, the undersides of cabinets and shelves can have a sound-deadening surface such as foam, forever hidden from view but always on the job.

Even more essential, perhaps, is how characteristics like portability and flexibility are taking shape in the aesthetic of casework. For example, durability, which office users equate with elevated quality as well as sustainability, is something that can be highlighted in the design. Moveable products are increasingly seen as less durable, making this new aesthetic even more important.

So how does durability look? In casework, it’s geared toward materials that wear well, through moves and restackings and reconfigurations. Finishes may have more texture, such as a knotty pine that looks rougher so a scratch will be forgiven. Details such as rounded edges also allow for that degree of imperfection, while also looking more comfortable. Such features may be more economical, too.

Modularity is important for initial cost-effectiveness and ease of reconfiguration, but it also lends an appealing measure of rigor and rhythm to the office expression. The modularity and mobility of workstations and workers goes hand-in-hand. As workers have less paperwork and storage needs, individual workspaces may be smaller, often consisting of a simple freestanding table and file drawer for snacks and gym clothes. The days of lateral files and back up are history. More workers are mobile, and work is more often virtual in nature; casework can reflect these ideas, too.

choosing materials and hardware
The new office aesthetics impact choice of material, finish and hardware. More workplaces are reflecting the embrace of jeans and khakis, not of suits and ties. As such, it too must feel comfortable and relaxed while remaining professional. The trend toward using more reclaimed materials appeals to many on this visual level; for example, barn siding can make a space look instantly lived in and—true or not—more environmentally sensitive and relaxed. We don’t need super-new, super-polished finishes; we’re more accepting of the hand-made, the imperfections and the rougher look that says, “We’ve been here a while.” It’s a design take on the “buy local” trend: A natural, crafted and organic solution by your neighbor is better than assembly-line import from China.

This rougher aesthetic has led to more use of distressed finishes, which are often less toxic and also more compatible with wear. Today, most office users are more accepting that their environments aren’t all brand new and completely encased in plastic.

Hardware should be tough and dependable. Aside from high-quality specs, the best casework designs integrate functionality rather than tack it on: Recesses in doors, notched finger pulls and recessed grooves work well and help ensure a long-lasting product. Casework surfaces can even do double-duty with dry-erase marker and magnetic tack-up surfaces.

Where metal hardware is used, one can be a traditionalist of sorts and specify non-adjustable mortised hinges and framed construction—perhaps invoking an industrial character—rather than contemporary European hinges, which tend to sag and work less perfectly over time. However, sometimes the best hardware innovation is still hidden: soft-closing drawer glides and aluminum-frame box drawer assemblies and bottom components reduce slamming and provide modular solutions.

Speaking of aluminum, some metal casework outperforms its wood cousins especially when it comes to mobility and portability. Even vintage steel cabinetry and metal work desks are in good supply, ideal for adaptive reuse, so to speak.

Whether you design new casework or source new and refurbished products, the same quality specifications must be held. Some fabricators and shops are certified by the Architectural Woodwork Institute, or they may meet GREENGUARD specifications for VOCs or Green Seal criteria for sustainability. If the product uses wood substrates and veneers, look for FSC and SFI labels, too. While reclaimed materials and products are close to 100 percent recycled, metals and fiberboard in new products can be up to 75 percent recycled metal or 90 percent reclaimed wood, with one-third to more than half of its components recyclable at the end of its useful life.

This is icing on the cake, of course. In the competitive world of corporate workplaces, the real proof of value for casework is in how well it supports the organization’s mission and people.


Andrew Franz is founding principal of Andrew Franz Architect, PLLC, a New York City-based architecture, planning and design firm that works in commercial office, hospitality and residential sectors. The firm has specialties in the arts and culture, as well as not-for-profit and charitable organizations. Recent projects have included projects for Film Forum, Mellon Foundation and the Century Foundation, among others.