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Office Designs from the 1920s to Today: A Century of Evolution

The office has changed immeasurably over the decades, and there’s no sign that our working environment will not stop evolving in the years to come.

With that in mind, let’s cast our eyes back through history and see just how the office has shifted in both form and function over the past century.

1920s

The offices of the 1920s bridged the gap between the school, the home and the workplace.

A number of workplaces featured grandiose desks, the kind that you'd typically expect to find taking pride of place in a stately home somewhere in middle England. These desks would, primarily, have been reserved for the senior members of staff, though more junior employees were afforded their own working area.

Unfortunately, the arrangement of staff was more akin to a school classroom than a modern office. People had a static place to work and were under constant supervision at all times. 

But as more and more people took up office jobs, things would only get worse...

1930s

In the 1930s, a typical office layout resembled that of a factory, the staple of working life during the industrial revolution.

Functional, stark and with very little to ignite the sense or spark creativity, these primitive offices saw workers allotted their own desk and offered little in the way of space, privacy or personal comfort. However, the overall lack of privacy was, at the time, seen as a positive – from management’s perspective, at least.

This compact, cram-them-all in style was dubbed ‘Taylorist’, after the American Frederick Winslow Taylor, who drew influence from his industrial background.

Taylor, one of the first management consultants, believed that the best way to maximise productivity was to have the workforce in clear view of senior staff members. It was rudimentary in approach and Panopticon in design but nevertheless, it was a revolutionary and ground-breaking step forward.

1940s

Office layouts remained Taylorist in nature and retained many of the negatives associated with such a heavily populated workspace. Though, during the 1940s, management began to position themselves away from the workforce.

One of the biggest developments during this decade was seen at the Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin. Officially opened in 1939 and designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the building features many aspects associated with the Art Moderne style that had emerged during the previous decade.

Crucially, the Johnson Wax Administration Building introduced a fledgling aspect of biomimicry into the office. Giant lily-pad-like columns reached up to the ceiling which undoubtedly creating a more comfortable working space.

1950s

With the world still reeling in the aftermath of World War II, the office underwent a revolution.

In the postwar era, greater attention was paid to personal freedom within the workplace and in the early 1950s, Bürolandschaft – which translates as ‘office landscape – became embedded in European business culture.

Keen to shy away from an authoritarian, top-down approach, Bürolandschaft encouraged greater collaboration and allowed managers to mingle more freely with junior members of staff. Breakout areas were introduced in designs and privacy was encouraged, with dividers and plants becoming commonplace.

Although typically centred in Europe, Bürolandschaft gradually made its way across the Atlantic, with one of its biggest advocates in America being Robert Prost, a man who’d become synonymous with office design in the years to come.

1960s

Whatever way you look at it, the 1960s was a decade of action. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong went to the moon; the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened to bring the world to its knees and Beatlemania swept the world.

The role of the office changed significantly during this time with the idea of the Action Office emerged

 The brainchild of Robert Propst, the idea that underpinned the Action Office was simple: Offices and furniture should accommodate the worker, rather than the other way around.

This, in turn, led to a greater sense of well-being within the workplace, something that Propst had wanted to achieve as he had promoted the idea of “mind-orientated living space[s]’.

The Federal Reserve Bank in New York was an early adopter to this school of thought and soon after, other companies and buildings followed suit.

1970s

During the 1970s, the Action Office principle began to shift into what would become the infamous cubicle craze of the 1980s. Thankfully for workers at this time, that transformation was a gradual one.

Dubbed ‘the decade that style forgot’, 70s workplaces began to feature a bold use of colour though this was often counteracted by an abundance of hard, polished surfaces, such as wood, chrome and glass.

Furniture too underwent a transformation, with desks increasing designed to accommodate electrical equipment and as privacy was recognised as a tool to aid efficiency, dividers continued to pop up. Though this would ultimately lead to the cramped working environments that became popular in the 80s.

1980s

By the time the Berlin Wall fell, office design had reverted back to the cram-them-all in style seen some fifty years earlier. Propst’s Action Office plan had waned somewhat as businesses prioritised profitability over personality.

This race to the bottom in terms of comfort and aesthetics saw cubicle farms pop up everywhere. They may have been cheap to install but with limited access to natural light and enforced isolation, it’s no surprise that they were described as being ‘barren, rat-hole places’ to work.

1990s

It’s hard to imagine a time now when we didn’t use some form of a computer at work, be it a desktop, laptop or tablet. But in the 1990s, computers had just taken over the office landscape and as such, workplace designs had to adapt.

Furniture too adapted to accommodate the computer. Out went cubicles and in came U-shaped desks that could hold monitors, base units, printers, phones and fax machines – not to mention stationary and papers. Instead of being trapped in a confined cubicle, workers were now stuck on their own island surrounded by a sea of bulk electronic devices.

Interior schemes reflected this shift. Visuals seemingly went out of the window and were replaced with muted palates, dominated by beiges, greys, creams and whites.

2000s

After the claustrophobic and chaotic nature of offices during the 1980s and 1990s, the 21st Century saw workers’ wellbeing make a welcome return.

Cubicles were, by and large, consigned to the history books as offices became more open plan in nature. Gone too was the idea that profitability trumps everything, as more consideration was given to communal areas, quiet zones and interactive environments during the design and installation process.

2010s

Employee engagement and welfare has never been as important to a business as it is now, and the past decade has seen those topics underpin office design. From showpiece breakout areas and slides, to a greater consideration of a workplace’s acoustic quality, the offices of today are a far cry from what they were ten or even twenty years ago.

Modern offices are rarely static, with many incorporating devices and systems that enable rooms to be configurated in a matter of minutes. And with this rise of flexible workspaces – achieved through the use of moving walls and modular furniture -the concept of a ‘9-5’ has shifted too, with a greater emphasis on collaboration than ever before.

There has also been a determined effort to help bring the outdoors inside through the continued introduction of biophilia and biomimicry. Long gone is the token potted plant on every other desk; instead, leading offices in this field feature flowing canopies of greenery that provide a welcome retreat for the hustle and bustle of their working lives.

Another trend that has been prevalent in recent years has been the introduction of co-working spaces. This is a natural progression from the open-plan office, though people are bound together by location, lifestyle or community, as opposed to their employer.

Written by Creatif