Furniture Fridays: A History of the Office

  • Posted: November 23, 2018

Over the last century, we’ve seen a dramatic change in the size, shape and function of the office environment. The introduction of new tech and tools, changing staff needs and working styles, and the shift from an industrial to the knowledge-based economy have all had a widening impact on how and where we work. But what about the offices of the past? Let’s take a look.

Office in Canada in the 1880s

The 1800s

From the Romans to the East India Trading Company, offices were used long before the 1800s for administrative tasks. However, they became popularised as a way of conducting business in the 1800s. This was mainly due to the wide roll-out of the railway across the UK which brought an array of freight, logistics, importing and exporting tasks.

Workplaces were shaped like their businesses – hierarchical with merchants and clerks housed on the lower floors of a building, while the owners often lived above the office. Seating was static and made from cheaply produced wood with desks being not too dissimilar. The quality of furniture improved higher up the chain of command, often becoming more ornate with a higher degree of comfort with features such as upholstered fabric backs and seats.

Office in Trondheim, Sweden, 1910

The early 1900s

In the early 20th century, technology revolutionised the form and function of the workplace. The invention of electric lighting opened up spaces – providing a full floorplate where staff could work without expensive gas lighting. The use of the typewriter, telegraph and telephone sped up communication and allowed organisations to manage their companies from afar.

American engineer Frederick Taylor is credited with being one of the first people to design what we think of as an “office space”. He was one of the leaders of the ‘Efficiency Movement’ that was highly influential in developing the mass production processes we know today. These spaces were similar to factories. Linear rows of desks were set for typists and admin personnel – resembling paperwork assembly lines with managers with separate cubicles.

Met Life Actuary Office, New York, 1910
1960s Office - we love the colours!

The 1960s to 1970s

The late 50s saw the dawn of the age of the cubicle with the creation of the Action Office by George Nelson and Robert Propst. The ‘cube’ system was developed to allow personal privacy, convenience and composure, which was somewhat lost in some of the larger open plan office environments.

While the take up was slow due to the expense of the system, this all changed with Action Office II in 1968. The office industry particularly loved the template for the cubicle system. People began to replicate it and other companies devised with their own action offices, however, the idea of action and movement were lost which gave rise to the term for offices as “cubicle farms”.

Seating took a more prominent role as people looked for more ergonomic and comfortable design solutions. Items like the Eames Lounge Chair (launched in 1957) became a popular choice for executives.

Prominent New York Bank, 1980s

The 1980s

The 1980s saw substantial technological developments take hold with new communication and information processing devices requiring space in the office – namely, the computer. At the same time, with business-orientated political policies took hold across the globe, this decade represented a time when the corporation was king. Accordingly, commercial office design took on a futuristic aesthetic, dominated by clean lines and materials that emphasised a hard-edged, industrial look, such as metal and glass. Colours were bold, strongly underlining accents with a graphical sensibility.

Office in Slough, 1990s

The 1990s

The 1990s saw a reduction from the “bigness” of the previous decade – in both design and economy. The 90s trends gravitated away from excesses of the 80s and towards a more functional design. Open office plans returned as an increasingly popular design as companies sought to promote collaboration for the growing Information Age. Office decor became simplified as the concept of hot-desking became a conventional working practice.

Office in Redbridge, 2000s

The 2000s

The rise of dot-coms and start-ups from young, entrepreneurial minds reformed many of the practices and behavioural notions of the workplace. Work-life balances started to blend with the designs of the workplace, with more ‘playful’ aspects entering the office. The “office as playground” became a popular concept with the boom, characterised by innovative systems, an open plan office and the ‘campus-spirit.’

GDST Project with Maris & Autonomy Workspace, 2018 - The Private Highback

The 2010s

The modern workplace combines a mix of influences from so much of the 20th Century – taking aspects from many different work styles and philosophies to create environments that make people and how they work take prominent focus, rather than the work itself. Many companies make it their mission to inspire collaboration and foster a sense of coworking and community. Biophilia and the introduction of nature into the corporate space has become increasingly popular – as well as real scrutiny into wellbeing.