Describing furniture as ‘architecture in microcosm,’ Norman Foster traces The Nomos Desking System back to the desire for a flexible furniture system that would meet the diverse needs of the Foster Associates office in the early 1980s. Unable to find an existing solution, the office embarked on a series of prototype projects before engaging in a profound collaboration with the Milan-based furniture company Tecno. Ultimately, the Nomos Desking System anticipated with its kit of parts the changing needs of offices in the electronic age while being developed through a rich dialogue between concept and manufacturing processes.
The origins for the Nomos Desking System date to 1980 when Foster Associates was planning a move to a new office on Great Portland Street. As the practice failed to find an existing furniture system that would adapt to their needs, they challenged themselves to develop and produce a developed a lightweight, easily modifiable, and aesthetically compelling solution: the result is the prototype desk, seen on the left, which could easily shift from a fixed-top desk to an adjustable drawing table. Next, with the design of the Renault Distribution Centre, Foster Associates was commissioned to create a series of bespoke furniture for the offices, reception, and café of the facility, which allowed for further experimentation based on the Great Portland Street prototypes.
Rather than merely mimicking industrial or high-tech aesthetics, the Nomos system was driven from its inception to be viable for mass production and therefore benefit from the possibility of a kit of parts. Thus, while Foster had approached or been approached by several furniture makers, none were willing to commit to the investment in production technology and tools which would bring Nomos out of craft production and into the factory. This all changed when Foster met Osvaldo Borsani and Fulgencio Borsani, the brothers at the helm of the Milan-based furniture company Tecno. Since its founding in 1954, Tecno had already embraced integrated expertise in woodworking and traditional craftsmanship with industrial manufacturing through their highly successful Graphis office furniture system. When Foster embarked on his collaboration with Tecno, therefore, he finally found an opportunity to introduce flexibility and functionality to office furniture which would be developed hand in hand with manufacturers who held tremendous expertise in metalwork.
The sketches on the left, used in early presentations to the Tecno team, show the ways in which the original inspiration for the Great Portland Street furniture continued to inform the Nomos system: a kit of parts would allow for a single system to function as a desk, a projection screen, or a more casual coffee table, among many other uses. Starting with a single spine, seen in the sequential sketches shown included in this collection, the addition of different components ranging from desktops and shelves to computer stands and lights allowed for a myriad of configurations depending on changing needs over time.
Tecno’s wealth of experience with machine-controlled manufacturing and specialised production, together with Foster’s conceptual clarity formed a powerful will to efficiently produce Nomos’ components. Cervati, a metal-casting company with whom Tecno had a long history of collaboration, produced new tools to facilitate Nomos production. Foster and Tecno further shared a willingness to look to other fields for innovative solutions such as the adhesive used to join the table’s legs and feet which was traditionally used in aircraft manufacture. In 1987, a robot-controlled machine patented by Tecno was even introduced specifically to facilitate production of the Nomos system.
The Nomos Desking System was launched at the Milan Furniture Fair in 1986. The name, whose Greek roots literally mean ‘the law’ or ‘man controlling the chaos of his environment,’ aimed to describe the essence of this new system. With its interchangeable parts which could easily be swapped in and out, the Nomos system anticipated the introduction of computers and new electronics to the office. The driving concept of a seamlessly adaptable system and its successful industrial manufacture have made the Nomos Desking System a reference for contemporary industrial design that continues in production today.