The History of Office You Wish You Knew Before Designing One


Designing a workplace, according to architect and interior designer Steven Shaw, needs a personal, not a generalized approach. Currently the Executive Principal of Aedas Interiors Singapore, Shaw has designed more than a million square metres of space in his career. He recently gave a talk titled “The Workplace: Past, Present & Future” at the launch of Working by Vivere’s showroom in Jakarta. Here’s what we learned.

Photo by Gaetano Pesce, Steven Shaw and Creative Commons

Working in a cafe is nothing new

Shaw opened his talk with a suprising observation: The origin of the office dates to the 17th century, when people such as merchants worked out of their homes, or when the courtiers to royality worked out of coffeehouses near the palace.

In 1652, the first coffee shop opened in Oxford–and within a century, around 500 coffee houses were open in London. The venues attracted merchants, lawyers, and underwriters, who used the cafes as a place to do business and have discussions over coffee. According to Shaw, people gathered around the long table in the middle of the cafe, while smaller tables to the side served for private discussions.

However, by the 1700s, as tea replaced coffee as the beverage of choice in the UK, coffee houses started to lose customers. Owners started to charge membership fees, which led to the emergence of gentleman’s club, which also served as a place for business.

Ergonomic design is (almost) timeless

Although electric lighting was introduced in the late 19th century, offices were
 slow to catch on—and this is something reflected in the phyiscal structure. As industrialization led to a greater need
for offices, E- , H- or U-shaped buildings emerged in order to maximize light for those working inside. The notion of climate control also became important, as more offices implemented things such as fireplaces to counter the winter cold.

Shaw noted that advances that contemporary architects may think are recent are something that have been familiar to architects–for decades.

In 1906, for example, Frank Lloyd Wright completed the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, New York. It was the first sealed building designed with air conditioning–and featured innovations such as built-in desks, glass doors, and the first wall-hung toilet, designed by Wright, so that the janitor could easily clean it.

In the 1920s, people started using individual desks, as management theorists started looking at how the efficiency of people could be maximized. In 1937, Frank Lloyd Wright designed the S.C. Johnson Wax Headquarters, with help from Metal Office Furniture, now known as Steelcase, for the fit out. The two-year partnership resulted in what Shaw called the genesis of the modern workstation. Calling it “the most inspirational office building of the 20th century,” Shaw said that it featured furniture that was designed considering how people worked with the technology at the time, including, for example, space a typewriter and adding machine, a transaction top, storage space and featured what Wright considered to be ergonomic chairs.

Adapting to workers

After the Second Word War, offices reflected people’s increased experience with the military, with an emphasis 
on hierarchy. Hence, employee desks 
all faced the same way. Some notable inventions in this era were the 1955 Jewel Tea Desk by Steelcase, done in collaboration with Harper Richards and A. Epstein & Sons, which first applied
the concept of easy convertability to contemporary office tables. In 1960, as management theorists favoured the chain of command, furniture companies tried to ascertain what would work best for a white-collar workers. An example from the 1960s is the 2200 Line furniture, which first introduced drawer pulls, tambour-door cabinets, and legal-size modular cabinets with drawer alignment.

When the cubicle vanishes

Coming to the fore was the idea that the office had to be designed based on how people actually worked, as opposed to how they said they worked. Shaw gave
an example of how this disconnect could lead to a poorly designed office. In 1994, the Chiat/Day, a legendary advertising firm in New York City, hired architect Gaetano Pesce to design a “virtual office”, taking away assigned offices and cubicles, and creating a vibrantly couloured and seemigly endless open space, with lockers for personal items. Pesce and the firm’s principal Jay Chiat shared a sense of “egalitarian utopianism”, as one observer put it, imaginging that workers would move fluidly to boost creativity. However, within eighteen months, employees rebelled claiming that they did not have personal space–or even a place for their stuff. According to Shaw, the Chiat/Day office did not balance the personal and communal, which he says is an essential when designing a workplace.

Ahead of its time

In contrast to Chiat/Day, the Western Union office, which Shaw devised on the back of a cocktail napkin around the same time, was visionary.

Drawing on influences such as fighter jets, the Jetsons, and Star Trek, Shaw created an office that was decades ahead of its time. He notes that this was the essential consideration for the client, Western Union, a telegram company that completely reinvented itself as a money- transfer firm to remain competitive. The firm’s head wanted a bleeding-edge design to attract the best talent.

Workstations, for example, featured the sleek curves of an F-16 fighter jet that created privacy for employees while reducing background noise. A communal meeting area took the form of a Star Trek-like bridge, with a wrap-around sofa facing a bank of flat-screen monitors.

The design paid off: Staff turnover at the office ranged from four to six percent, versus an industry average rate as high as 34 percent.

“A great office space that is designed around people has a dramatic impact,” Shaw says. It’s a statement that is sure to hold true in the future.

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Banyubening Prieta
Banyu has been a contributing writer to The Jakarta Post, Sorge Magazine and Metronome Indonesia after graduating from Parahyangan Catholic University with a degree in international relations. She is the owner and co-founder of the Jakarta-based organic restaurant and healthy catering business Burgreens and the co-founder of Suazad Media.

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