Social Furniture

For Austria’s entry in the Venice Architecture Biennale, Vienna-based EOOS offers a problem-solving design to help Europe’s refugee crisis.

Written by: Joann Plockova
Artwork by: Paul Kranzler

In a converted 1980s office building in Vienna this past spring, a group of men from multiple nations gathered in a self-built, communal kitchen and cooked together.

The event was one of the first tests inside Haus Erdberg—a building once used for customs officers, which today houses hundreds of refugees who have fled to Austria. The initiative was part of Social Furniture: Living, Cooking, Working, an intervention by Vienna-based design firm EOOS. The multifaceted social and spatial project was conceived as part of Places for People—Austria’s contribution to the 2016 Architecture Biennale in Venice.

“A Syrian was talking to an Afghan, an Afghan talked to a Moroccan and so on,” says Martin Bergmann, EOOS founder, along with Harald Gründl and Gernot Bohmann. “Then they all ate together and told stories about their cultural and cooking rituals,” he says. “They were so proud—and we felt the power of our idea.”

Marking 20 years in 2015 with a retrospective exhibition at MAK (Austrian Museum of Applied Arts) and an accompanying monograph, EOOS was invited to participate in Places for People along with Vienna-based architecture firms Caramel Architects and The Next ENTERprise (tnE Architects).

EOOS views design as a poetic discipline. “The field we are working in is in between the archaic and high-tech,” says Bergmann. The trio has based their award-winning firm on this approach. Recognition has followed, including for the firm’s “Blue Diversion Toilet”—a universally applicable solution for those with inadequate sanitation created for the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Places for People encompasses three formerly vacant office buildings in Vienna that were selected to accommodate refugees escaping war and persecution. “How can we use freestanding office buildings in Vienna? This was a central question of the project,” explains Gründl. “There are many buildings like this in Vienna; it’s a huge, unused potential.”

Assigned to one of the three buildings and working in cooperation with the NGOs participating in the project, each team was asked to conceive of an intervention to improve the living conditions of the refugees. Beyond the immediate situation, they were also asked to view the project from a broader perspective, one that could be applied going forward in a variety of contexts.

In February 2016, EOOS set up a temporary field office inside Haus Erdberg “Our strategy was to understand the context,” explains Gründl. Through this on-site approach they were able to observe the day-to-day realities and therefore understand what a better way of life might look like.

Through “Poetical Analysis”—the firm’s trademarked approach to complex design problems where the designers look beyond the immediate context through the exploration of intuitive images, myths, and rituals—EOOS landed on Utopia as a starting point.

“The building is like an island,” says Gründl. “The people are isolated. They can’t afford a ticket to the city.” The team at EOOS noted the parallels to the fictional island of Utopia in Thomas More’s book published in 1516. They also saw analogies with the ”ideal” society portrayed by More in Utopia—including an absence of money as a medium of transaction, a reduction to the absolutely necessary, and the idea of self-sufficiency.

“Social doesn’t mean for people who don’t have money, social means doing things together, living together. It’s truly about being social.”

-Harald Gründl

With that poetic point of departure, EOOS soon arrived at the concept for Social Furniture. The initiative is centered around 18 furniture designs, including stools, storage systems, and shelving; tables for working, meeting, and cooking; wall panels for orientation signage, workshop trestles, and a raised-bed garden framing system. Beyond physical, functional pieces that enhance the quality of the space, Social Furniture is designed to be collectively constructed by the refugees themselves. The establishment of an on-site workshop is also part of the project.

Made from yellow shuttering panels of a solid three-layer spruce wood construction that allow for easy assembly as well as disassembly, Social Furniture creates communal spaces, typically lacking in this type of accommodation, for collective living, cooking, and working.

“Social doesn’t mean for people who don’t have money,” says Gründl. “Social means doing things together, living together. It’s truly about being social.”

Among the specific realities that EOOS observed from their field office was that the refugees were not allowed to cook for themselves. A mix of 40 nations was being delivered three meals a day. “What do you cook for 40 nations?” says Gründl. This became a point of departure for the idea of building kitchens, or what EOOS dubbed ”islands of self-effectiveness.” “When you cook together, you have communication,” says Bergmann. “We thought, when we do this it’s a chance to change communication, to create a better life. As Harald said, there are 40 cultures, they can learn from each other.”

So the firm tapped into their experience creating the b2 kitchen workshop for Bulthaup. In both that high-end consumer version, and Social Furniture, elements are reduced to their essence, and function and use are exposed. Social Furniture for cooking includes a kitchen wall panel for storage, a mobile mini-kitchen (for refrigerator storage and transporting personal kitchen items to the communal kitchens), and cooking tables.

EOOS also witnessed firsthand the reality of asylum seekers not being able to work. “Cooking is an everyday ritual, and working is the same; it creates structure, meaning, and identity,” says Gründl. “It is something you do with other people, it fosters community.”

To remedy the absence of work, in March 2016 EOOS established the in-house furniture workshop. The pilot program now employs 60 people. The production schedule, created by EOOS, includes 30 kitchens and 500 pieces of individual furniture. “This is the first time we tried something out on that scale,” says Gründl. “The first weeks of the factory opening, they produced 15 tons of material.”

Yet, the project goes well beyond the production of furniture. “Building the furniture only defines the material part of the project. The social construction (who uses the furniture) and the regulative level (the usage rules) must be determined in a collective (design) process,” states one of the 20 points included in the Social Furniture Manifesto.

Referencing Enzo Mari, Victor Papanek, and James Hennessey, who pioneered and promoted DIY furniture in the 1970s, EOOS created a catalogue of the DIY collection, which is prefaced by the manifesto. “The catalogue documents part of the solution, so other people can build on it,” says Bergmann. Beyond Haus Erdberg, EOOS was challenged by the Places for People curators to “create a kind of model,” says Gründl, for an alternative way of living that could be applied to other contexts.

Inspired by Torre David, a 45-story office tower in Caracas that was informally occupied by 750 families who created a shop system within the structure, EOOS also envisions a system of shops—a hairdresser and a food co-op for example—within Haus Erdberg. Influenced by the moneyless economy in More’s Utopia, residents will be able to access goods and services within the shops via a cash-free, cell phone-based currency. These transactions will further opportunities for work and communication.

Along with a positive response to the pavilion in Venice, EOOS has been receiving invitations to share Social Furniture at various initiatives around Europe. “It’s growing,” Gründl says. The project will be shown at this year’s Vienna Design Week.

“We use design as a tool,” says Bergmann. “The user takes it as a tool and decides whether or not to make it meaningful.” 

“We use design as a tool. The user takes it as a tool and decides whether or not to make it meaningful.”

– Martin Bergmann