Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

The Walking Office

April 30, 2019 Innovation Impact

The Walking Office Wearable Computer is a visual prototype model that was created by the collaborative design group Salotto Dinamico in the mid-1980s. Salotto Dinamico, which translates to “dynamically, we grow,” was composed of Vincenzo Iavicoli, Paolo Bettini, Maria Luisa Rossi, Maurizio Pettini, and Letizia Schettini.

thf291245Image of poster advertising Salotta Dinamico’s “The Walking Office” THF291245

While all five members of the group had input in the project, Vincenzo Iavicoli submitted the concept as his 1983 undergraduate Industrial Design thesis at the ISIA school in Florence, Italy (under the guidance of his mentor, Paolo Bettini). The designers entered a physical model of the ideas in Iavicoli’s thesis in the 1985 Mainichi International Industrial Design Competition in Tokyo, Japan. The Walking Office won the top prize in the “Harmonization of Office Automation and Environment” category, attracting global attention in design, fashion, and technology publications. It was featured on the covers of Domus, ID, and Interni magazines, and received coverage in Brutus, Vogue, and approximately 70 other publications. The success of the project sparked the careers of the youngest members of the group, Iavicoli and Rossi, who formed their own successful design consultancy and became educators in Industrial Design programs around the world.

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Designers Vincenzo Iavicoli and Maria Luisa Rossi at the 1985 Mainichi International Industrial Design Competition THF274743

The Walking Office model is made of polished chrome. Two pieces fit together to form a keyboard, the display arch fits into the keyboard to serve as a display, and a cassette recorder links up with an acoustic coupler modem to record and transmit data through any available telephone line. The Walking Office also doubles as personal adornment, with the keyboard pieces worn on the shoulder and the display arch as a headpiece (looking much like a mohawk). It combines the expressive aesthetic detail of 1980s Italian design with provocative high-tech materials to create an unapologetically cyberpunk-chic device. The Walking Office was not meant to be concealed (comparisons might be drawn between it and the Google Glass Explorer program of recent years), and its seductive styling was quite revolutionary in 1984. In a 2016 interview, Iavicoli recalled that though Japanese designers adeptly diffused new technologies into the mainstream, they had not yet begun to focus consistently on styling their devices.  Early in the prototyping process, Iavicoli decided not to try to compete with the fast pace of technology, prioritizing strategy and concept instead.

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Model wearing “The Walking Office” prototype THF274747

Iavicoli’s thesis explored the design-thinking process behind the prototype: the history of physical office spaces (desks, lighting, cubicles, seating), the technology utilized within them (computers, calculators, modems, keyboards, online systems), and intangible aspects such as the psychology of work environments and spatial arrangements.

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Page from Vincenzo Iavicoli’s undergraduate thesis THF275237

The designers of the Walking Office explored negative and positive elements of its proposed function. On one hand, they described it as “an Orwellian omen condemning portable work” (anticipating the desire of today’s knowledge workers to “unplug” themselves from the distractions of always-on technology.) A more positive spin situated the Walking Office as a route to freedom that would allow people to embrace the “amoral and amusing” aspects of creative work. They imagined “electronic machines…coming out of the office, conquering urban space, dwellings, golf courses, bars and beaches, becoming natural body accessories.”

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Drawing imagining “The Walking Office” in use THF274752

The Walking Office was pitched as a “techno-human” object. As a modern prosthetic, it subverted where (and when) the office could be, essentially turning the human body into a mobile workstation. It proposed the same type of fluid interactions with technology as one would have with pens, watches, and eyeglasses. And finally, it provided an alternative method of accessing and using information in an efficient way.

Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology.

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