A Short Fascinating History of Office Furniture Solutions
The humble office has evolved beyond recognition over the past decade, from rows and rows of cubicles to open workspaces and collaborative areas. Since the first white-collar workers walked in the door, office designs have been constantly shifting to meet the changing demands of working styles, cultures and technologies. We’ve seen them shift from openness to privacy and back again, and from collaboration to independence and back.
Each change in office design inevitably brings new furniture solutions – so much so that the humble office desk and chair have become iconic symbols in their own right.
Let’s go back in time to see how furniture solutions have moved with the times:
Late 18th century: Fancy furniture
New office equipment and furniture were popular exhibits at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, USA. Fancy rolltop desks and innovative new filing systems turned heads for the first time. Two decades later, in 1899, Henry van de Velde’s dynamic curving Art Nouveau desk was a sign of things to come.
Early 1900s: On the factory floor
The rise of secretaries, stenographers, and typists led to an office design known as “Taylorism”. Obsessed with efficiency and oversight, American engineer Frederick Taylor designed an office that crowded workers together in a large open plan space, with bosses looking on from their private offices – much like a factory floor.
Within this, the invention of the typewriter and its growing importance in the office meant the rolltop desk design was no longer practical. The typewriter desk took its place, far smaller and lower than today’s desks, and stayed there until the arrival of the PC in the ‘80s.
1950s: Wood and paper
The ‘50s office was a serious environment where dark wood, pen and paper prevailed. Furniture solutions, such as desks, chairs and storage, were typically made from dark solid timber. Everything was stored on paper and in books, making functional storage and filing systems critical.
1960s: Side by side
The German-style office planning system, Bürolandschaft, brought the socialist values of ‘50s Europe to the office. Management emerged from their executive offices to work side-by-side with their junior staff in an open plan layout. As such, the office was made up of workstations without separation by partitions.
In 1964, George Nelson, then Herman Miller’s head of design, and Robert Probst, developed the radical “Action Office 1” program. Inspired by Bürolandschaft, Action was a modular business furniture system featuring partitions, display shelves and flexible workspaces designed to increase privacy and productivity. We now know it as the “cubicle”.
At the same time, research into employee health and wellbeing led to the arrival of ergonomic chairs. For the first time, chairs that could be adjusted to the height and shape of employees were recognised as a way to reduce fatigue and increase productivity.
1980s: Cube farm
A new class of worker emerged in the ‘80s: the middle manager. Too senior for a mere desk but too junior for a private office, the middle manager was accommodated in the cheapest way possible – using modular walls. And so the cube farm was born.
At the same time, the arrival of word processors and monitor screens demanded larger desks. Swivel chairs were introduced en masse, with the ability to adjust the seat, armrest and backrest for functionality and comfort.
1990s: Dotcom office
Dotcom entered the office with a bang, bringing with it the need for more collaboration, interaction and lots of PC accessories. Cubicles became lower in height and built-in desks featured large surface areas for all the computer accessories. Office chairs became even more user friendly with easy reclining functions and self-adjusting systems.
Inspired by Google and other tech giants, organisations started to change their furniture solutions to enable open collaboration and communication. The cubicle transformed into a pod with workstations rather than desks. Shrinking technology meant the workspace got smaller too. And filing systems lost real estate as online storage took over.
Today: Social and mobile
Furniture solutions have moved away from cubicles to encourage sociability and collaboration. Partitions are low or non-existent. Timber has given way to colour and vibrancy. The combination of portable technology with online working means workstations are less cluttered than ever. But perhaps the most significant shift is the major emphasis on employee health and wellbeing has led to a rise in ergonomic furniture solutions customised to the individual. Standing desks, and desks that go from sitting to standing, are designed to avoid the health issues associated with sitting from 9-5.
The trends towards collaboration, workplace health and wellbeing, and mobile devices show no signs of abating. As such, offices and workplaces from all types of industries are introducing lower walls between desks, Activity Based Working (ABW) an increasingly, ergonomic furniture solutions. At Staples, our Furniture Solutions create innovative work environments for all types of businesses with customised furniture and solutions that combine comfort, function and style to suit any budget.