For companies that make products for spaces that have suddenly fallen into disuse—restaurants, hotels, offices—pivoting to partitions has also helped them continue to cut paychecks to engineers, designers, manufacturers, and salespeople. Stylex, an office-furniture company based in New Jersey, began planning for the return of walls on a hunch in late March. “I started to think, somewhat out of desperation, what could we do that people are actually going to need toward the end of this year and into next year?” Bruce Golden, Stylex’s co-CEO, told me. “They probably have enough chairs. They probably have enough desks.”
To answer that question, his company came up with a product called Quick Screens—tall, simple, fabric-covered partitions on casters. When the line launches next month, orders will ship in 10 days as opposed to Stylex’s typical six to eight weeks, the fastest the company has ever turned around a product. Golden said that although the new partitions have generated some interest, the coronavirus has disrupted more than just office setups. The commercial-furniture industry is still trying to adjust its sales techniques to the new normal. “Usually, the salespeople go out and they make calls—present the products, talk about the products person to person,” Golden told me. “The designers and the dealers do go onto our website, but making them aware of the products is not that easy. But the word will get out there.”
At Gensler, Howder is already planning for his clients’ return to work. “We see some interesting movement toward things that are neither an office nor an open environment,” he told me, emphasizing that the cube farm of the ’90s is not coming back. Instead, Howder is predicting the rise of what his firm calls the “officle.” It’s not exactly a private office, not exactly an open work area, not exactly a small conference room—but maybe it’s all those things. The image can be hard to conjure; it’s a small, partially open space where, at least theoretically, you don’t have to listen to your desk neighbors talk about their spouse for a couple of hours while you try to hit a deadline. These spaces would also help separate workers if they return to the office while the threat of coronavirus infection remains. Before more permanent changes can be made, Howder said, that means reorganizing open-plan common areas, sometimes with partitions such as those made by Stylex, which is one of Gensler’s suppliers. In the long term, that means—yes—walls.
In homes, things work more slowly. The budgets are personal instead of corporate. Offices can be altered with ease while employees clack away on laptops at their kitchen tables, but no one wants to live in a construction site and a pandemic simultaneously. Still, some residential architects have started to see signs of life. Jane Frederick, the president of the American Institute of Architects, says that although business is slower than normal at her Beaufort, South Carolina, residential-design firm, the phone has started to ring again. “We’re getting quite a few calls because I think people are pent up in their houses, and they’re going crazy,” Frederick told me. “But they’re very nervous to pull the trigger.” She wasn’t shocked to hear that people wanted to renovate after staring at their own walls for months on end. “If you moved into an existing space, you just made your life work around whatever rooms were there,” Frederick said. “You might have been using the dining room as an office, but it doesn’t really work now, because if someone is in the kitchen grinding coffee, you can hear it on your Zoom call.” Even amid a worsening pandemic in the state, the small firm has booked a handful of new projects.