Once a non-eventful, post-industrial town, St Etienne has become a design destination. This is partly thanks to its biennale, founded in 1998 by Jacques Bonnaval, then director of the city's art and design school. Michel Thiollière, the then mayor, excitedly named St Etienne a “cité de design”, a design town. Cultural kudos came in 2010 when UNESCO designated St Etienne a “city of design”.

Since 2008, the biennale has been housed in a former weaponry manufacturer and expanded its scope. It's a vast site where exhibitions are sprawled out in a raw, brutal setting. Titled 'Working Promesse: les mutations du travail', the 10th anniversary edition is themed around shifting work paradigms and features 10 exhibitions. Some of these deal, a little vaguely, with mutations of work, such as imitating co-working and hacking spaces or imagining a high-tech, future workplace where plants overgrow computers in a competition of nature versus machines.

Joseph Grima's 'Player Piano: A subjective Atlas of a Landscape of Labour' stands out for its creativity. The British-born designer and founder of the Genova-based Space Caviar architecture and research studio has conceived an imaginary landscape in the form of an iridescent installation. At its centre is a circular stage where a viewing device enables visitors to see animated figures rushing around on the brightly-coloured walls. It draws inspiration from Kurt Vonnegut's 1952 first novel which is set in an automated future and meditates on the purpose of life in a work-free environment where labour is carried out by machines. Grima's playful installation conjures the ennui that follows.

Detroit being this year's 'guest city', the Public Design Trust of Detroit has curated an exhibition, titled 'Footwork'. The link between Detroit and St Etienne is that both have industrial histories and are striving to reinvent themselves as creative hubs. Exploring the future of network-based working models, 'Footwork' includes photography, design and objects. A nice exhibit is the lovingly customised bicycles by the East Side Riders, a club set up by brothers Mike and Dywayne Neeley to encourage locals to take up cycling and modify their bikes with personality and passion.

The notion of having the right face for the job is explored in 'La gueule de l'emploi', curated by Marc Monjou, Rodolphe Dogniaux and student researchers. Highly entertaining are the motivation letters by graphic designer Céline Chip. She tells a prospective employer who requested a hand-written letter how she hired a graphologist to interpret her handwriting. Chip explains that the analysis found her to be “enthusiastic, social and lively, sometimes critical and directional”, among other things. She ends her letter by asking the employer, should they call upon another graphologist, to send her the results.

The biennale continues off-site in St-Etienne Châteaucreux train station, where the Arep designlab – in collaboration with the SNCF (France's national train company) – has installed a co-working area. A long wooden table has partition spaces for laptops and rechargers for electronic devices, enabling travellers to sit down on benches and do some work whilst waiting for their train. The innovative idea would be a welcome addition to train stations all over France. Arep's project is on view and free to use until 17 April 2017.