The History of Office Design

The History of Office Design

by Pia Marchetti

The work landscape changes every decade, but our transition into the 20s was certainly accelerated by a global pandemic that I won't mention by name here out of respect for her privacy.

Work from home, they said. It will be easy, they said! One year later and we are officially starting to feel nostalgic for the office. We dug deep into our filing cabinets for the history of office design. 


The Cubicle in Our Mind

sourced via @__________office

In a culture that is becoming increasingly productivity-centric, the workplace is perhaps our most important physical, social, and psychological environment. According to the mathematical proof solved by Dolly Parton in her oft-cited 1980 dissertation “9 to 5,” we spend half of our waking hours on the job.

Of course, the white collar jobs which populate archetypal offices are not the totality of the employment experience. Regardless, the office (not to be confused with The Office) has become our cultural shorthand for Work™. The symbolic office that exists in our collective consciousness is frozen somewhere between 1980 and 2000. While in the present we’re working at trendy tech start-ups, coworking spaces, or at home, the office in our mind is a cubicle.

sourced via Vintage News Daily


Why Do We Find Office Aesthetics So Compelling?

Extremely vibey office set-up, sourced via Wikimedia Commons

Vaporwave has been described as an aesthetic born from our collective disappointment under capitalism. Artifacts of the proverbial office and other “western” monuments (like abandoned malls and Greek statuary) have become tropes within the genre, subverted with bisexual lighting and remixed with dolphins.

Then again, potted plants, outdated technology, and corporately approved pantone colors are just as compelling under their native fluorescent lighting. I for one am positive I would be spiritually fulfilled if I was writing this article on a cream colored mechanical keyboard. Watching Mad Men, it’s easy to dissociate from the shocking sexism, racism, and general alcohol-fueled tomfoolery in favor of focusing on the Good Fonts and Mid Century Modern furniture.


Corporate approved grey, sourced via @__________office

In the office in our mind, we are endlessly productive. We make money moves, do big business, discuss deals, and then shake on it. Upward mobility is promised, our secretary is present, and we have reason to use phrases like “vertical integration.” We aren’t sure what the company does, but it is important to us and we are important to it.


The History of Office Design

The Bullpen

Bullpen style office

The first system of workplace planning was the natural evolution of the factory floor. “Bullpen” offices were structured with the singular purpose of industrial efficiency, born from an immediate need to manage a growing post-WWII economy. A system of rows of gridlocked desks was engineered by Fredrick Taylor (who sounds just delightful). The mass of workers might be encircled by private offices designated for superiors, forming a sort of reverse panopticon.



Stadtwerke Karlsruhe office interior designed by the Quickborner consulting group, 1975-1997 photo © Quickborner Team, sourced via Stylepark

In 1958, German brothers Wolfgang and Eberhard Schnelle set out to design a workplace system that wasn’t entirely soul crushing. Under their Quickborner consulting group, they developed Bürolandschaf, which thrillingly translates to “office landscape.” In opposition to its rigid predecessor, Bürolandschaf arranged the workplace around irregular, open-air clusters of desks in order to foster communication, collaboration, and circulation. Most importantly, this system introduced the potted plant to the vocabulary of office furnishings.

Example of a Bürolandschaf floorplan, 1961, photo © Quickborner Team, sourced via Stylepark


Herman Miller’s Action Office

Promotion Image of Herman Miller's Action Office, 1964,  © Herman Miller, sourced via Wired

In 1964 while working at Herman Miller, art professor and inventor Robert Propst developed the Action Office System. This series of adaptable components were designed to create flexible, customizable spaces which supported motion. Most importantly, the movable walls offered workers the much needed privacy lacking in an open air floor plan. This system of modern office furniture included a communications center, mobile display surface, and a standing desk 50 years ahead of its time (!!!).


Cubicle Farms

Cubicle Farm

The elevator to a pleasant work environment is paved with good intentions. Despite winning awards, the Action System’s high price tag rendered it a commercial failure. In 1968, Herman Miller released Action Office II. Cheaper, lighter, easier to install, and more disposable, Propst’s creation was chewed up by greedy companies and excreted as the dreaded cubicle.

Changes to federal tax codes further incentivized companies to purchase Action Offices and their growing number of knock-offs. Big surprise: capitalism ignored Herman Miller's utopian vision of flexible, private office spaces in favor of cramming as many people in as small an area as possible. According to the Washington Post, between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, the average cubicle size shrank 25% - 50%.

sourced via @__________office

Propst spoke out about bastardization of his idealized system. In a 1998 interview with Metropolis magazine, Propst lamented the “crass” employers who took advantage of the Action Office to “create hellholes.”


The Virtual Office

The 1970s introduced computers into the workplace, the 1980s normalized them, and the 1990s streamlined them. The tech boom tore down the grey canvas walls of the cubicle farm and reverted to the theoretically democratic model of the open-air office, new and improved with organic snack pantries and foosball tables. Coworking spaces pushed open floor plans so open that there wasn’t much of a floor at all.

As the internet saturated our personal and professional lives, Work™ became increasingly decentralized. Now we find temporary offices in coffee shops, bars, and on our couches. How does this lack of a designated work space affect our psyche? Is this integration of home life and work life damaging? Will we ever have a real reason to purchase a filing cabinet?

The virtual watercooler might lack a certain je ne sais quoi, but at least now now you can react with a gif. For now, it looks like we’ll be going to the office at home.

sourced via @__________office

If you’re looking to bring some of that (bland) office seasoning to your work from home setup, consider our Binder Clip Bag. If you don’t have anywhere to go, it doubles as an organizer of very large paper.