This is not exactly a super-hero story. However, a couple of funny things happened during my career as action-office-man. First, a little background that I hope you will find of interest.
Back in the late 60’s early 70’s I worked for an interior design firm owned by a successful architectural practice. The manager of our design group had written his thesis on Bürolandschaft (loosely translated as Office Landscaping). The original concept was developed by the Quickborner management consulting team. I became an ‘expert’ on Bürolandschaft (I was reminded, often, that X is the unknown factor and a spurt is a drip under pressure). I really embraced the concept which included planning and designing an office based on the functional needs of the employees and on communications and workflow patterns. It also assumed these elements would change as the organization changed. The idea was to create flexible spaces that could be rapidly adapted to support the changing nature of the organization. Unfortunately this concept was misused and abused by those who just wanted to cram more people into smaller spaces and reduce the cost of office environments.
I was engaged by the provincial government as an interior designer and one of my responsibilities was for a building occupied by the department of Education – a department not known for its dynamic nimbleness. However, I was lucky to have as a client an Associate Deputy Minister who had vision, was prepared to support new ideas and who was a strong and decisive leader.
In my research into Bürolandschaft, I learned that the Herman Miller corporation (the one which produced the famous and beautiful Eame’s chair – Cloud Nine),
had designed and marketed an office system (AO2 – Action Office 2) that was designed to meet the needs of Bürolandschaft. I’m not sure what happened to AO1.
It was a long process, but eventually I was successful in getting a major project approved for the Department of Education. This was, I believe, the first large-scale AO2 installation and Bürolandschaft project in western Canada.
Herman Miller’s local manufacturer’s representative (Jim) was well-known to the professional interior design community and was a wonderful character. Jim’s first love was a bulldog, his second was smoking large strong-smelling cigars. He was great to work with and he was glad to have an enthusiastic customer.
Part of the design for our new space included bringing the telephone, computer and power cables down from the open ceiling. This meant that changes to configuration were easy. The cables/wires were carried down in specially designed tele-posts that attached to the panel/screen system. The panels provided some privacy and supported the work-surfaces, shelves etc.
The work proceeded on schedule and the system was to be delivered ‘just-in-time’ for installation after the main construction work, carpeting etc had been completed.
The telephone system, electrical and computer cables were all laid in troughs along the ceiling ready to be brought down to the work surfaces through the tele-posts. Unfortunately there was a delay – a major delay – in the panels being delivered. Without the panels the tele-posts couldn’t be supported. Without the tele-posts the cables couldn’t be finished, and the whole project would be seriously delayed. It was critical that I moved my client in on time. They had to be out of their current facilities by a particular date and they needed to plan the disruption of the move between school sessions.
I put pressure on Jim, who put pressure on the plant, but they were stuck. The panels would be coming, but they couldn’t guarantee their arrival date.
Jim and I had a council of war. What could we do. We brainstormed for a while. Jim came up with the idea of erecting the tele-posts in Christmas tree stands. If they were set up then the cables could be installed and when the panels arrived, we could remove the stands and install the posts on the panels. We had already laid-out the design of the panel system using masking tape.
Jim went to Sears and asked for thirty-three Christmas tree stands. The woman behind the counter said that was all they had, and wondered why he needed so many. “My wife really likes Christmas trees” said Jim looking sincere.
We were half-way through putting the posts into the stands when we had good news. The panels had been shipped express and would be there next day. Next day the panels were erected and the tele-posts put in place and we had 33 surplus Christmas tree stands. Jim took them back to Sears.
“Jim, what did you say when you took them back?” I asked. “I said, my wife had already bought all the Christmas tree stands we needed”. You have to admire his nerve. Sears took them back with no further questions, and our project was completed on time and under budget.
I had spent a lot of time understanding how the system worked and had installed many panels and other items to be sure of the integrity of the system. There were no other qualified installers in the city. When a colleague of mine from my contract-sales days sold a good-sized installation locally, he asked me if I would be interested in earning a little extra cash by helping him with the installation. I thought it would be fun and the extra pocket-money would be useful at that time.
We needed to install the new system over-night so that the travel agency (the customer) would not experience any business disruption. The office was located downtown on what was then the main shopping street in Winnipeg – Portage Avenue, not too far from the famous (in Canada) Portage and Main intersection. It is known as the coldest, windiest intersection in Canada. The rest of Canada is just jealous.
By 10 o’clock that evening, Art and I were pretty hot and tired and could really use a coffee. We looked around and there wasn’t much available. We walked down the street and came to a cafe that was open and seemed to be doing a brisk business, it was called The Harlequin. Neither of us had heard of it but it looked warm and it was open.
This was the early seventies and human sexuality was viewed a little differently then. We were sitting drinking our coffee when Art’s eyes grew larger. He gulped his coffee and said “Rod, I think we are in the wrong place”. “Why, what do you mean” I asked. “I just saw a man walking up stairs”. “Ok, so?” “He was wearing a dress!”.
We drank, paid our bill and left right away hoping no one would see us as we left the place. Neither of us had known about Gay Bars till then. As Seinfeld and George would say “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”.
Attitudes have changed a lot since then, and that’s a very good thing. But our little adventure from the old days still makes me chuckle. It was a good thing I wasn’t wearing my Action-Office-Man cape!