Office work has existed in some form ever since people started writing on tablets and papyrus. Depictions of clerical staff are common in the Bible and on the walls of pyramids. In the mid 14th Century the Church of San Nicolò, commissioned the artist Tomaso da Modena to create the fresco in the chapter room of the church depicting forty monks of the order hard at it at their desks. The word office itself derives from the famous Uffizi in Florence, created in 1560. Things picked up after the Industrial Revolution, as is evident from the work of Charles Dickens amongst others. The first recognisable swivel chairs were developed by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Stoll and Peter Ten Eyck. These developments have tracked wider social, economic and cultural trends so the history of office furniture design holds a mirror to the world.
Early 20th Century
The first widely recognised example of a modern office is the 1904 Larkin Building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Shortly after Frederick Taylor introduces his theories of scientific management which applies industrial principles of the division of labour and time and motion to the office.
Soon, the likes of Steelcase and Herman Miller are founded to create products for the new forms of workplace. In 1939 Frank Lloyd Wright completed his work on the Johnson Wax building including The Great Workroom, an early form of open plan, and all the furniture within. Still truly breathtaking.
In the 1920s and later in Europe the development of new materials such as tubular steel combined with the rise of the Modernist movements and its figureheads such as Mies van der Rohe transformed the world of architecture and design.
In their wake and on the other side of the Atlantic, designers like Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames designed genuinely iconic products that endure to this day.
Mid 20th Century
While the Eames continued to create groundbreaking designs in a range of new materials, George Nelson introduced the first L-shaped workstation in 1947.
In Europe in the early 1950s a new conception of the open plan office was forming around the idea of Bürolandschaft. In contrast to the open plan bullpens that were now common in the US, the brothers Wolfgang and Eberhard Schnelle developed the idea based on a rejection of scientific management and a new focus on the needs of individuals and the flow of information between them. Although still open plan, it opened up a new idiom that still distinguishes European open offices from those in the US.
Also in Europe in the 1950s, Arne Jacobsen began to design his own generation of enduring furniture icons for Fritz Hansen. Many of the office furniture designs from this era continue to be widely specified and copied as they have achieved iconic status and serve as easily recognisable design signifiers.