The Cubicle Is the New Loft

Photo-illustration by Darrow
Photographs: Roger Wright/Getty Images (office building); Jean-Yves Bruel/Getty Images (kitchen); Tim-Street Porter/Corbis (bedroom); Micaela Rossato/Getty Images (living room)

Once upon a time in Soho, when the city had bottomed out and its factories had largely abandoned their cast-iron buildings, the loft was born. It’s a story we all know well: First came the artists, who colonized the empty spaces and put up with the freezing winters. They were joined by the gays and like-minded urban adventurers, who made loft living synonymous with downtown bohemian culture … and then pseudo-bohemian culture, as well as gay and gayish yuppie culture, and finally, luxury urban living. The idea of the loft spread far beyond Soho, so that by the end of the most recent building boom you could purchase “New York–Style Loft” apartments in downtown Houston or the wealthy neighborhoods of Bogotá. The loft had become one of our most clever inventions and cultural exports.

Here we are again, with another type of New York building facing massive oversupply: the office building. Office vacancy rates are around 13 percent in Manhattan, and as major new buildings continue to come onto the market (One World Trade Center alone will dump another 2.6 million square feet downtown), older, less desirable office buildings are increasingly sitting empty.

It’s not hard to imagine some of these disused office buildings being taken over by the occasional urban squatter. So here’s a thought: What if some smart landlord decides to rent his office space to low-income artists, and turn a blind eye to those who spend the night? What if those tenants start appropriating the visual language of the office space (cubicles, carpets, fluorescent lighting) in ways that became, well, inhabitable? We can imagine the cycle continuing, as tenants become fancier and more discerning and urban-office chic invades Pottery Barn, until eventually we are all living in knockoffs of Don Draper’s office at Sterling Cooper. We invited five design firms to play along.

Solution 1: Hang the Furniture From the Ceiling.
Architects: Solid Objectives” Idenburg Liu

Remove the ugly, unnecessary dropped ceiling tiles, and you get a grid system that the architects at SO-IL suggest could be used to run electric cables and hang furniture. “We can imagine developing a whole new system of pop-in units that can fit the two-feet-by-two-feet module,” says partner Florian Idenburg.

Solution 3: Put the Baby in the Bottom Drawer.
Designers: Double Triple

When living in Austin, Texas, soon after the late-eighties real-estate bust, designer Phillip Niemeyer heard talk of “legal squatters” and musicians taking space in empty office parks. Here his firm Double Triple proposes repurposing the modular cubicle walls to create temporary spaces” like a baby’s room”using Post-it Note découpage as wallpaper, and making an office beanbag stuffed with shredded documents.

Solution 4: Cook in the Men’s Room.
Architects: Rux

Gendered bathrooms are redundant, but a well-scrubbed men’s room could be converted into a kitchen. “Bathrooms have all the necessary water connections, are vented to eliminate cooking odors, and are tiled for easy cleanup,” says Russell Greenberg, founder of the design firm RUX. He made countertops out of stall dividers, set up an electric burner, and hung the Greenmarket fruits from the dropped ceiling. The urinal functions as an herb garden, and is watered with a flush.

Photo: Chris Mottalini/Courtesy of Rux

Solution 5: Just Move Right In.
Designers: Omnivore

The design firm Omnivore found nothing wrong with office living. Conference tables can host a twelve-person dinner party, and office plants are typically indestructible. “My friends and I have joked about making our homes a little like an office,” says partner Karen Hsu, “because often that furniture is just cheaper.”

The Cubicle Is the New Loft