When not just any desk will do

How did the selection of the furniture take place? Did creativity also play a role? Carolin Merkle talks about this and more in the following interview.

Carolin Merkle, Project Manager, Diener & Diener Architects


Carolin Merkle, you have been involved in Project Swiss Re Next for years, working as a sub-project manager for interior finishes and as point of contact for office furniture with Diener & Diener Architects. Do you remember when and how it all began? What was it like for you, starting out?

I joined in 2012, and I vividly remember my very first day on the project. We were working on the interior fittings for the internal video production team. My job was to map the transport routes for the stage sets. I can think of more exciting things to do (laughs), but that's how I started.

You came a long way since then. What changed for you? What else became part of your job description?

Indeed, my responsibilities steadily expanded over the years. Starting in 2014, I was in charge of all office furniture, in addition to the interior finishes. We worked very closely with SevilPeach on this. A big step for me was taking over the sub-project management. Leading a small sub-team, my job was to put together the many tender documents for plasterers, painters and so on, and it came with a lot of direct responsibility.

You juggled many different project areas. How did you keep track of everything?

My job expanded gradually to include the various areas, which gave me time to get on top of them all. My tasks and I, we found each other, as it were. Also, l love working on different things all at once. It's not in my nature, really, to focus on one little thing at a time.

The furniture concept was developed by SevilPeach. You managed this process for the architects. With SevilPeach based in London, Diener & Diener in Basel, and the client and the construction site in Zurich, this can't have been easy at times, even with modern telecommunications. How did this work out?

Once I developed a certain ear for British humour, communication with SevilPeach went extremely well (laughs). As far as the work itself, I found that I lack patience sometimes. It was a very intense decision-making process, after all, especially when it came to organising the floor plans, which is to say the work zones. It was incredibly fascinating to experience the expertise of SevilPeach in action – especially in selecting the furniture.

We were extremely lucky to have the client we had, I'd like to point out. They showed us a lot of trust. I generally felt that our work on the office furniture concept was a team effort throughout between the client, SevilPeach and us at Diener & Diener, with all three parties involved in every decision. I enjoyed the experience tremendously.

Can you describe the process in more detail for us?

Take the office desks, for instance. First, we worked with the client to define our requirements. Next, we refined these requirements based on what the furniture makers sent us and the input we had from the users and from us on the expert team.

At Orgatec in Cologne, Germany, a top trade show for office furniture, we went to look at designs we had shortlisted. Following up, we then visited the furniture manufacturers at their factories to review preliminary designs of desk models they had customised according to our specifications. Those visits showed us more than anything how ready these firms are to listen to customer needs. Eventually, we narrowed our list down to four or five furniture manufacturers and had them build prototypes for us. We even had a dedicated space set up in the Mythenschloss building for us to evaluate the desk designs in a real-life office environment. Only after this complex process did we settle on the final design we wanted and the company to manufacture it.

Based on your past experience, would you say this is a more elaborate selection process than most?

As selection processes go, I'd say yes, it is. But I'd also say the ends justify the means in this case. After all, the work desk is the key element in any office building.

Managing interior work and planning office furnishings – this sounds like creative work. Was it, in fact? Or was much of it routine?

It's safe to say that not all of it is as creative as one might think (laughs). Obviously, some of the work was routine. One example that comes to mind is the documentation we had to put together for the tender specifications for each element. I also created no small number of tables – say, for tenders on carpeting that meets the MINERGIE energy efficiency standard, including soundproofing requirements, and all sorts of other things...

What part of the work allowed you to use your creativity?

We went to a tremendous level of detail in planning the office furniture. There were the built-in desk power modules for the meeting rooms, for instance. I spent lots and lots of time on those. Some module designs we looked at were standard products that did not impress us. I had a great time talking to manufacturers about ways to modify these concealed modules so they are not only functional but also attractive to look at.

How responsive were the furniture manufacturers? Were all of them happy to accommodate your requests?

There may have been times when they felt "Enough already!". Generally, though, working with them was a very positive experience. With all of them, we first needed to find each other on how best to work together, but once we did the furniture companies engaged with us. Maybe also because they could see how much we value their work.

Other than the technical qualifications, what are must-have skills in your line of work?

Definitely patience and an open mind to different ways of doing things. Take SevilPeach, for instance, and their uncompromising attention to detail. In working with them, I gradually came to adopt a similar approach. And then, it's important to enjoy working in a team, as there's a great deal of coordination involved in a project like this. A diplomatic touch, too, is a valuable asset to have when it comes to listening to different opinions and finding a consensus.

Is there any part of this project that is particularly close to your heart?

Clearly, that would be the entire furnishing concept. But there are also things that may seem less obvious at first glance, such as the lime plaster wall finishes. I really like those. I can't say why, exactly, but seeing those silky smooth finishes puts a real spring in my step. They're a very subtle element, but you'll find them wherever you go in the building.

What reactions do you hope to see from our colleagues when they move into the building?

First and foremost, I hope they'll feel comfortable. There's no need for them to say why in as many words. It'll be enough for the building to give off a positive feel and inspire optimism. I often experience the same when I'm in a building and it just feels right, even if I can't put my finger on why that is, exactly. It'll be nice if the Swiss Re employees have a similar experience in their new office space.