How offices looked in each decade of the past hundred years

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How offices looked in each decade of the past hundred years

Date submitted:24/01/2024

Architectural and interior design firms are reimagining the physical workplace to accommodate the hybrid approach to work that was accelerated by the pandemic. There are reconfigured meeting rooms with conferencing technology, amenities and aesthetics that resemble those at fashionable hotels and coffee shops, and seating layouts based not on head count, but on how often each worker comes in.

How we got here — including evolving notions of work and management and the tension between workers’ comfort and productivity — is rooted in the offices of the past.

Here’s a look at how the American office space has changed over the past 100 years and where it’s headed next.

1920s and 1930s: All about productivity

During this period, space was organized to maximize efficiency. In a departure from previous offices — modest spaces with a handful of workers, often in the same family — corporations developed a large bureaucratic structure, with managers and supervisors overlooking clerical workers, said Melissa Fisher, a cultural anthropologist and faculty member at NYU School of Professional Studies. Designers applied the logic of factory production to the office layout, organizing seas of desks into a kind of production line.

In the 1930s, buildings themselves became an expression of the vision of an organization, said Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler, a professor of design history at Purdue University and author of the book “Open Plan: A Design History of the American Office.” Perhaps the most notable example was the Johnson Wax administration building, which served as the headquarters of SC Johnson. Designed by one of the period’s most famous architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, it pioneered an early model of the open plan design, with the unique columns of the main workroom allowing for a massive, open space without walled partitions — exemplifying modernity, productivity and innovation.

Wright said he designed the office building to be “as inspiring a place to work in as any cathedral ever was to worship in.”

1940s and 1950s: Shaping the American skyline

After World War II, the emerging interest in rebuilding accompanied a desire for new architecture and new ideas of corporate design. The steel frame construction and glass-enshrined walls of the Seagram Building, a skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan completed in 1958 that served as the headquarters for a Canadian distiller, became the standard for American corporations.

“It pioneered the Americanization of the international style, which became the symbol of progress and modernity for corporations,” said Paula Lupkin, a professor at the University of North Texas who studies the impact of capitalism on interiors.

The architecture of the era put an increasing emphasis on the office building — where the managers worked — as the center of an organization instead of the factory, Kaufmann-Buhler said. The towering buildings also spoke to the feats of modern technology, redefining the look and feel of urban centers.

1960s: The office opens up

This period ushered in the prototypes of the modern open plan office, designed to help facilitate the spread of ideas and information, not just paper. In decades prior, Kaufmann-Buhler said, “offices were conceptualized as a machine for paperwork,” but the rise of the concept of Bürolandschaft — which translates loosely to “office landscaping” — embraced a loose arrangement of office space over rigid hierarchies and walled offices.

This new way of conceptualizing office design coincided with the creation of the first modular furniture system — the Action Office, by Herman Miller, which was the modern cubicle’s first iteration. Modular furniture allowed workplaces to adapt over time, a departure from the past’s fixed rows of desks.

Designers also marketed open plans as more inclusive, egalitarian spaces, against the backdrop of the civil rights and women’s rights movements. But the office was often hostile to women, who were subject to assault, harassment and numerous glass ceilings, while people of color were siloed or placed into token roles, Kaufmann-Buhler said

1970s: Rise of the word processor

The increasing use of computers and the rise of the word processor further reshaped what we think of the office and of work.

“There is absolutely no question that there will be a revolution in the office over the next 20 years,” said George Pake, who headed Xerox PARC, in a 1975 BusinessWeek article about the future of the office. “What we are doing will change the office like the jet plane revolutionized travel and the way that TV has altered family life.”

But early office automation tools, heavy and cumbersome, initiated a return to centralized clerical work, forcing offices to house the bulky machines in designated areas to minimize the noise they produced and allow room for tables and workstations to place them.

1980s: The era of isolating dividers

As computers shrunk from hulking objects in designated rooms to boxes sitting on each worker’s desk, the workplace entered a state of heightened connectivity, increased communication and dynamic work arrangements.

During this period, office furniture that had been designed for typewriters needed to be adapted for the new machines. Companies also began to raise partition heights, in response to new research that suggested enhanced privacy fostered improved communication, Kaufmann-Buhler said. But these isolating dividers would develop into what we now think of as the cubicle, helping cement the semi-enclosed workstation as a symbol for the drudgery of office work.

1990s: Death by cubicle

Driving that change was greater adoption of the internet and networking technology. Mobile computing disrupted the traditional model of a single worker tied to their desk and kicked off the split in the relationship between the workstation and work. Office connectivity also introduced a new kind of escapism, with hand-wringing over workers wasting time on the internet heightening during this period.

In response to these concerns, companies and designers began experimenting with novel office layouts, forming the roots of an array of models that have taken on prominence during the pandemic era — including a movement away from single, static workstations and the advent of hoteling and hot desking, where workers reserve space as needed and use flexible workstations.

2000s: The mobile office

Mobile technology like laptops gave companies and workers even greater flexibility by the turn of the millennium, prompting changes to workspaces. Companies were able to shrink the amount of space individual workers required, and larger, cubicle-style units were often replaced by long, white worktables in an effort to encourage worker interactions. The tech sector — perceived as disruptive, on the cusp of explosive growth and attractive to a young workforce — led the way in this effort but was followed closely by legacy industries.

“The nature of collaboration changed,” said Chris Swartout, the global lead of the architectural repurposing practice at M Moser, the workplace design firm.

2010s: The splashy mega office and the boutique

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, companies shed jobs and began to rely more on contract labor. This set off two separate trends — of more freelance workers having to cobble together jobs without company benefits and employee privileges, and of spectacular growth for corporate America.

Co-working companies like WeWork capitalized on the shift, as the self-employed, start-ups and other companies moved toward more boutique arrangements with shared amenities. At the same time, tech platforms were working to become trillion-dollar enterprises and set out to make a statement about their new place in the market and the world.

2020s and beyond: Hybrid, everywhere, all at once

Flexible office arrangements will better reflect the needs of the workers, whether the emphasis is on productivity, collaboration, or just plain old quiet time, said Janet Pogue McLaurin, global director of workplace research at Gensler, the global architecture, design and planning firm. Even within the same organization, McLaurin said, there’s a realization that different people perform better in different environments.

The work to entice people back to the office also involves an approach to interior design that blends residential and commercial styles, giving office furniture a homey, cozy vibe, with breakout areas and smaller pods to inspire “hives of activity,” said Jason Romine, a project manager at the Bellevue, Wash.-based JPC Architects. People want a change of scenery, and a space that feels different from their house, said Phil Logsden, a senior interior designer at JPC Architects. The goal, he added, is to make the office worth the commute.


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