If you’ve ever watched any TV shows from the 1950s and ’60s, you were probably struck by the unique style of the offices portrayed. With couches and bar carts as office decor, the office space was very different from what we’re accustomed to today.
The office space — including the accessories, technology, and furniture it holds — has evolved significantly over time, often reflecting changing attitudes and trends in the working culture. Even today with social distancing, the environments we work in are continuing to evolve in line with how we work.
In the examples below, discover how the office space has transformed over time — and find out how you can equip your workspace to meet the demands of modern office life. You may even find some office inspiration and decorating ideas that inspire you to make over your own workspace.
The Romans are credited with inventing many essential elements of modern society, from roads to sewers. The word “office” even comes from the Latin word officium, used in ancient Rome to indicate the area where people performed administrative business.
Every Roman city had a business district, which was critical to helping the empire control and organize its far-reaching interests. The business district was organized around the forum, a central square surrounded by shops, businesses, and government offices. This practical arrangement allowed for efficient work and close contact between officials.
18th-Century Offices in Britain
In the 18th century, the British East India Company and the Royal Navy established modern office spaces to expand Britain’s overseas interests. The Old Admiralty Office was built for the Royal Navy in 1726, while the East India House was built in London in 1729. The architects followed the logic of Roman office design, centralizing administration by building offices around a single square to enhance efficiency.
These included many aspects of modern office structure still seen today. For example, in addition to individual offices, there was a large boardroom for meetings. Today, the Old Admiralty Office is called the Ripley Building, which still stands and houses the British Department for International Development.
The First Skyscraper Office: Chicago, 1884
The world’s first skyscraper office was erected in Chicago in 1884. The Home Insurance Building stood 10 stories tall, making it tiny by today’s standards. This ushered in a new age of office spaces, allowing large companies to make the most of a small space of land by building upward, not outward. Unfortunately, the “Father of the Skyscraper” was demolished in 1931.
Skyscrapers allowed workforces to expand. With the Home Insurance Building, 10 times as many people could occupy the same land area as a single-story building covering the same amount of ground. As the exterior layout of office spaces evolved, so did the interior. Instead of centralizing around an open square, life moved indoors.
Other modern achievements, like electric lighting, played into this transition. With electricity, the need for windows to let in natural light decreased. Offices also had to accommodate new tools, like typewriters, telegraph machines, and, later, telephones. Furniture like office desks had to be tailored accordingly.
Early-1900s Taylorism: The First Open-Plan Office
Open-plan offices have become more prevalent in the past decade — but they aren’t a new concept. In fact, they’ve been around for more than 100 years. The “Taylorist” design was developed by American engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor aimed to enhance efficiency by promoting collaboration in administrative work environments.
Although Taylor’s concept was for jobs that didn’t rely on manual labor or manufacturing, he was inspired by industrial environments. For example, Taylorist design placed senior managers’ offices on a second level overlooking workers below, similar to how foremen would oversee laborers in factories. This reinforced a hierarchy often still seen today. For example, in big office buildings, senior staff are often found on the upper floors.
One of the earliest examples of Taylor’s open-plan office design was seen in the Larkin Administration Building. This was a mail-order soap company, and the building was designed by famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Completed in 1906, it could house 1,800 workers. The soap company’s mail-order processing services had an assembly line nature, which made open collaboration necessary.
Wright’s open space fostered this system. This modern office also featured the first known “system” furniture, designed to prioritize workplace cleanliness and productivity by giving workers a work and storage space in one. The desks designed by Wright included built-in dividers and cabinets, for example.
1930s Offices: All About Efficiency
Following the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression, corporate America underwent a revolution — and so did corporate America’s offices. Major companies prioritized efficiency, attempting to get more work done, more quickly, and more cheaply. American companies also discovered a newfound interest in reflecting a corporate image (what we might now call a “brand”).
One example of this is the SC Johnson Wax Building, another Frank Lloyd Wright design, which opened in Racine, Wisconsin, in 1939. It was designed with an eye toward improving worker productivity. The salesmen were housed in a single large room, isolated from the industrial parts of the business (which brought distractions, like smoke and noise). Cork ceilings were installed to absorb sound from the rubber floors.
1950s Development of Open-Plan Offices
In the 1950s, advances in building allowed for skyscrapers to be built beyond the 10-story maximum from the previous century Even more workers could be in a building with minimal land area required — a major boon for companies worried about rising land prices. Workers sat in open spaces at rows of desks, with managers in surrounding offices looking on from the periphery.
While managers might have had the luxury of designing their office spaces with unique home decor that suited their styles, the broader office space featured a minimalist design. In some offices, workers might not even stay consistently at the same desk, moving from one workspace to another, so personalization was a moot point.
Thanks to improvements in lighting and air filtration systems, there was minimal need for windows that opened. This resulted in some noteworthy “glass box” buildings popping up in the New York City skyline. With large walls of glass windows from top to bottom, an entire open-plan office floor could be flooded with light.
The 1960s saw significant changes in office interior design, thanks to the arrival of the Bürolandschaft (in German, “office landscape”). Inspired by European socialist values, this model eliminated the strictly structured elements of Taylorist open plans. It also downplayed the hierarchical nature of Taylorist design.
Instead of regimented rows of identical desks and desk chairs, office spaces were organized according to loosely organized groups of furniture. Creative partitions like plants and dividers were used to loosely separate teams of workers, depending on their functions. For example, creative workers in fields like advertising could be clustered in a pinwheel style, with desks facing one another to foster collaboration.
The Arrival of the “Action Office” and Women in the Workplace
The Bürolandschaft proved too chaotic a model for modern American working life. In the 1960s, the “action office” — a precursor to the modern cubicle — took over. Workspaces, desks, and modular furniture were placed in an open plan to promote flexible movement while still protecting worker privacy. Workspaces were often semi-enclosed with dividers.
Privacy was also a concern for another reason: Women were becoming more prominent in the workspace, primarily in administrative support roles. For instance, a secretary’s desk might be closed at the front with a “modesty board” to hide the woman’s legs from sight. It took another decade or so until an easier solution was reached: allowing women to wear pants to work.
Some elements of hierarchy eliminated with Bürolandschaft were also reintroduced at this time. The “bullpen” model placed workers in the central office space, with managers’ offices lining the edges of the building. Senior workers thus got coveted office real estate, with direct window access and natural light streaming in.
Office Interior Design in the 1960s and 1970s
The bullpen model remained prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s. While the way that the office space was structured may have stayed largely similar, the interior design of the office space underwent some changes.
In the 1960s, desks had to be large and sturdy enough to house a variety of office supplies, such as a typewriter, PBX switchboard, filing cabinet, and “in” and “out” boxes. In the 1960s, dark browns, olives, and oranges reigned supreme. In the 1970s, the disco era introduced some more vibrant colors to the office environment.
The overall look in the 1970s was lighter. Instead of metal desks, the workspace was often made of wood or built into a cubicle with a filing drawer placed on one side. Instead of a manual typewriter, an IBM electric might have sat on the desk, alongside a phone with multiple lines.
Introduction of the Cubicle “Farm” in the 1980s
The 1980s saw office design take a different turn with the cubicle “farm.” Profitability was the driving motivation. Cubicles gave each worker their own workspace while saving the company money. Low dividers allowed managers to walk through and see what workers were doing. Cubicles didn’t provide much privacy, with workers’ every move visible to those standing outside their cubicle.
Due to space constraints, cubicle furnishings were limited. One might fit a desk with a table lamp, chair, filing cabinet, and low bookshelves, at most. Desks often had space underneath to accommodate a printer or desktop processor. This small office space couldn’t be equipped with much else, and cubicles generally were impersonal spaces, adding to the “farm” feeling.
2000 and Beyond: From Pods to Open-Plan Spaces
The strict angular style of the cubicle eventually evolved into pods. The concept remained the same, but the design was less rigid. Furniture design in the early 2000s also had to adapt to changing technologies. For example, instead of stationary desktops, workers became more mobile and reliant on laptops.
Finally, office design seemingly came full circle with a return to open spaces. The dividers of cubicles disappeared completely to encourage collaboration and eliminate hierarchies. However, today’s open-plan spaces offer more flexibility, providing meeting rooms and time-out zones resembling a living room where employees can get privacy or relax.
Design studios have also become more cognizant of how a workspace impacts worker productivity and satisfaction. An office space with more natural light can boost people’s alertness and productivity, for example. Meanwhile, ergonomic office furniture can add comfort and support for employees during long days on the job. For instance, an office chair with lumbar support for improved posture.
The Modern Work-From-Home Office Space
Today, more and more people work from home. Advances in technology and telecommunications make it easier to accommodate remote work. This gives people the luxury to design their office space exactly as they’d like. When it comes to DIY office design, you can add personal touches, like a gallery wall, wall-mounted bookcase, or cozy area rug.
There are also more styles of office furniture to choose from than ever before. Whether you are considering a midcentury modern aesthetic, love minimalist Scandinavian style, or like the rustic look, you’ll find pieces to suit your style. You can also choose a color scheme you love, from sleek and modern black and white to more vibrant hues.
The Final Word: What Should Your Office Space Achieve?
Whether you work in a corporate building or have a home office in your guest room or dining room, you can create a workspace that suits your unique needs. You may spend 40-plus hours on the job every week—why not feel good while you’re there? Maybe the above guide has even given you some office design ideas for your own makeover.
Weigh comfort and practicality. Consider investing in a sturdy desk, chair, and shelving system that can hold your electronics and files. Beyond that, focus on making your office personal. Once you have the modern home decor installed, you can add unique touches, whether plants or art. These are the things that make your office uniquely yours.
About the Author
Peter Giffen is a writer and editor who specializes in business and technology.
All content provided herein is for educational purposes only. It is provided “as is” and neither the author nor Office Depot. warrant the accuracy of the information provided, nor do they assume any responsibility for errors, omissions, or contrary interpretation of the subject matter herein.
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