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A Look Back

Jun 12, 2023

Sometimes it’s nice to take a look back. The Washington Post  does just that, in the context of workplace designs, going back for the last 100 years. As we struggle to come up with the best design for today’s needs, it’s helpful to know it was always thus… 

“The office is an invention,” said Agustin Chevez, an architect and a workplace design researcher at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. “The office is not the place where work has always existed. … It’s the evolution of the workplace. Because if the office has been invented, it can be reinvented.”

For example, “in the 1920s and 1930s, 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.”

Each decade brought its own significance and made its own impact on the physical and mental images we have of the workplace. Check it out.

David Harrison