The History of Office Design

5/5 (based on Google reviews)

Painting & decorating association mark of quality

In the industrialised world, two-thirds of us spend our working lives in an office of some sort or the other. Yet very little has been written about how the office experience has evolved over the past few centuries. We take a look at the story behind  modern office refurbishments and see how we got to where we are today.


Standing Desks

Before the 1870s, a common piece of office furniture was the shoulder height slanted desk made for writing standing up.  Whilst the invention of the typewriter was responsible for increasing the popularity of flat roller top desks to sit at, the standing desk never completely vanished, and is actually enjoying a renaissance in 2014.

newspaper roller desks


Whilst the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche infamously wrote his masterpieces standing, in the twentieth century authors Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov claimed that the standing desk increased their creativity – with Philip Roth alleging that he walked half a mile for every page he wrote.

Today, the standing desk is once again becoming a serious office option as we become more and more conscious of the fact that sitting for long periods of time isn’t particularly good for us. Whilst standing all day clearly isn’t especially viable either, the standing desk in the twenty first century provides variety and it’s highly likely that it becomes a standard option before the end of the decade.


Increasing number of office workers

The early twentieth century saw a considerable rise in the number of office workers, the demographic of which was also shifting. More women were able to go to work especially after WW1, which gave them the opportunity to experience and succeed in the workplace. What we might today call ‘open-plan’ office spaces began to emerge to accommodate the growing numbers. Lots of people working together in large rooms was initially a merely functional option and the office interior wasn’t thought of as ‘designable’ until the middle of the century.

old office secretaries

This 1950s office plan looks the stuff of nightmares!

1961 office plan


Any mid-century attempt at ‘designing’ the workplace had to take into account the challenging practicalities of storing data in the pre-digital age. Exceptionally ordered and space consuming filing systems had to be accommodated like this one below. Today we take it for granted that we can get all the information we need at the click of a mouse, yet incorporating ever-expanding physical storage within a finite space was a huge design challenge for companies.

office storge 60s

Space that works for rather than against its users

It is Robert Probst who is largely considered to be the founding father of the modern office space. He created ‘Action office 2’ for Hermann Miller which broke the rigid, ineffective tradition of large bureaucratic office spaces and created a fluid spatial concept that worked to facilitate workflow and internal communications. Previously and astonishingly to us, little thought had been given to whether the office interior helped or hindered employees in their work. Whilst others since have taken this principle to new aesthetic levels, Probst’s pioneering concept has remained the same.

action office 2



Nevertheless, some ‘questionable’ trends have managed to slip through since – the most notable of which is the office cubicle so beloved by employers in the 70s and 80s. This design was meant to bring privacy (or claustrophobia) to the workplace and whilst there is always a need for private working spaces there’s a reason that the office cubicle died some time in the 90s, and that reason is mainly because it just looked awful.



Thankfully, designers today have managed to work privacy into the workplace in ways that are not only functional but also look good. Macquarie Banking Group is one such example; we especially like their use of vertical slats give the simultaneous impression of transparency and privacy.




Office Ergomonics

Designing office spaces to maximise comfort for employees is vital in today’s climate. As the need to spend more and more time in front of our monitors grows, surprisingly easy things such as the height of the office chairs, the position of the phone, keyboard and screen should be incorporated into any office design plan.



Commitment to Green

The offices that win awards are the offices that evidence a serious commitment to the environment. We’re in a position today where the technology is available to construct a sustainable working environment which impacts minimally on the planet. Committing to ‘going green’ makes for some fantastic design opportunities – like this one:

green office


If your office needs to be brought into 2014 with unrivalled office decorating , then let The Invisible Painter who are a London commercial painter and decorator company to come in and do it for you. Get in touch with us today!


Images: Office MuseumTech TrekStyle Park Station Station MacquarieColony

Call us today!

0207 622 7999

Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Instagram