Office furniture: Then and now

In the modern corporate world, we continue to spend a lot of our time still in our working environment. Whether it be the advancement in technology or architecture, our working area, whether it be an office in the city centre or a place we work remotely from has evolved with these things. Most of the engineering achievements of modern times are the demand of office spaces. Take either Central Park, the former BankWest Tower, Brookfield Palace or QV. 1 for example- major buildings that dominate the skyline of Perth were all built to accommodate offices and working spaces. The way we work in an office has changed over time and so also has the furniture we use.

Although the term dates back to Roman Empire era, it wasn’t until the 18th century when the modern definition of office was invented. The Admiralty office built in 1726 in the UK served the purpose of handling an overwhelming amount of paperwork created by the businesses in various trade routes across the world when British Empire was at its peak. It also included meeting rooms and board rooms as part of its office space.


Through the industrial revolution to digital revolution, we have come a long way on how offices run along with almost everything else including office furniture. Office environments in modern times not only adapt gender neutral practices but also a lot more emphasis on employees and their well being – which was like a dream a few decades ago when the only focus seemed to be employee productivity.

 Office environments in modern times not only adapt gender neutral practices but also a lot more emphasis on employees and their well being

While embracing  different working styles  and new approaches to productivity and efficiency, businesses  have also adapted different types of furnishings along the way. Call it a demand of time or adaptation according to the modern way of connectivity and communication, office furniture  has never been like it is today in eras gone by or will it ever be the same in future

Evolution of office desks

Flat top desks with pigeonholes for documents and slots for ledgers were common in the 19th century as they were already in existence by the end of 17th century. Roll top desks were introduced in office spaces by the beginning of 20th century. But what made a revolution in the way offices install desks in their premises was the introduction of new technology with time.

The introduction of typewriters to office desks from the early 20th century changed the way office desks looked. Bigger desks with drawers made from steel replaced the wooden desks commonly used at that time.

After the invention of photocopier in 1949, office desks became smaller in size as storage were to be managed somewhere else because of overwhelming paper use. It continued till late 1960’s when fax machines made their way to common office desks.

The invention and common use of computers in regular office not only transformed the regular operations but also the working style of every individual. The idea of cubicle proposed by an American furniture designer gave individual staff a bit of independence and autonomy in the 80s and 90s. But that did not last long because companies that were forced to downsize or merge because of recession had to solve their space issues with hot desks. With the introduction of laptops and flexible working, hot desks became popular among employees as only those who need them would use them. 

Ranging from standing desks to private desks, individuals have freedom to work according to their choice and schedules. 

The concept of office desks and their design is totally different today. Companies are targeting more on individual employees and their workstyle as well as their health. Ranging from standing desks to private desks, individuals have freedom to work according to their choice and schedules. 

From confinement to flexible workspaces

As time has gone on, modern workspaces are nothing like the workspace that Charles Lamb worked on during late 18th century at East India house in the UK from where much of British India was governed.

“Thirty years have I served the Philistines, and my neck is not subdued to the yoke. You don’t know how wearisome it is to breathe the air of four pent walls without relief day after day.”

The above words derived from Charles Lamb’s letter depicted what it was like working as a clerk in the late 18th century. Worse – clerks of merchants that time used to be treated bit like domestic servants.  We have moved far from that point as far as office workspace and staff rights are concerned. 

It is true that the employers of each era tried their best to get the best productivity out of office spaces, which is important to remain viable, but there were never better office spaces in history as they are today.

From open plan office design to the workspace designed according to the choice of individual employee, there has been a lot of changes in the office workspaces.

Twentieth century workspaces: From top right: Open plan, action office, cubicle workspace

Twenty-first century workspaces: From bottom right: Modern workspace, flexible workspace.

Highs and lows of storage furniture

From walls full of pigeon holes to a virtual world that does not require any physical space, the way we store documents has evolved over time. The need of storing documents and a place to store them soared with the soaring use of paper documents in offices. 

As individual desks were used as storage furniture in the beginning of the twentieth century, the need of storage furniture grew with growing production of paper documents, thanks to Xerox for inventing photocopier in 1949. Investment in storage furniture like filing cabinets, office cupboards, drawers, and lockers increased as physical bookkeeping became one of the most important aspects of office operations.

The introduction of the digital era has seen companies go paperless; some supporting it as an eco friendly practice. A totally paperless environment will probably be more commonplace in the future although. Most offices still have a need to utilise  paper and physical files in documentation and this will continue for a while yet.

Technology and office furniture

The modern ways of connectivity and communication were not even dreamt of when the idea of the first modern office was implemented. But with time, office furniture has been supporting and adapting technology. With many employers realising that technology and functionality is directly linked to productivity, companies are changing with those factors. Technology is not only changing the way we work but also the furniture we install at our workspace. 

From inception to extinction of typewriters till this era of digital revolution, furniture designers have been busy designing furniture that works well with technological achievement. Office furniture has been designed according to the operational needs of an office from the beginning until today when designers now integrate employee satisfaction and well being. 

We are on the verge of designing comfortable furniture instead of designing particular furniture for specific roles in today’s world. Thanks to technology, offices have moved inside the virtual world of small portable devices, and employees are free to choose their comfortable place to work.

Office chairs: Not just the tools for productivity

Office chairs had been viewed as only the tools for productivity that would benefit businesses until the mid 70s when designers began to think about health and wellness of employees too.

The history of the office chair, dating back to Roman empire era, is very interesting. Design and the size of a chair would determine the personality and importance of the person who would be seated. The famous English naturalist, Charles Darwin, is credited to have started the idea of putting wheels on the office chair. Office chairs have been customised according to the needs of its user from the beginning. From wooden to mix of different materials over time, not only the materials that are used to manufacture office chairs have changed, but also the engineering behind it. 

 Office chairs have been customised according to the needs of its user from the beginning

Industrial revolution saw a growth in the number of employees in offices, and with growing trade activities, businesses began to look for ways that would help increase employee productivity.

Office chair provided better accommodations and helped workers experience less physical exhaustion. It wasn’t until late seventies when offices started to realise that productivity is also linked with the wellness of its staff. Though early posh ergonomic chair designs were only suitable for high level executives, they are being practiced more widely among other individuals in recent decades. Some companies have already installed massage chairs in their workspace to help employees reduce stress created by the work pressure.

Future of office furniture

Futuristic innovations like smart furniture and 3D printing are predicted to revolutionise the office furniture industry. As Forbes has already pointed out that ‘Rapid Liquid Printing’ could make it to the mainstream of the designing industry, such technology is sure to make a huge difference to everyone involved in the process of creating office furniture.    

Few companies have already started to introduce sleep pods in their workspace as they are doing their best to make the office environment better than an employee’s home. This way, with increased work satisfaction, employees will be as productive as the office wants them to be.   

With the advancement of technology, most offices in future would not require a physical office, but that does not mean there won’t be any work that would need physical accommodation. Workspaces will change and so will the way we work but the furniture to support us as we work will always be there, and will continue to adapt over time..

Office spaces have become an important culture for humankind and are expected to continue to be for many years to come. The teamwork, the productive environment, and the execution of creative ideas together will remain as long as humankind will continue to move ahead with their values. Technology is expected to make these values better but not vanish altogether.  

Is your office furniture keeping up with the modern era ?

Most businesses do not follow the trend until it’s too late. Since it has been proved time and again that furniture you install at your office space directly affects the productivity of your employees, it is never a good idea to stay stuck in the past, not for the business at least. It is not just about personal space, desks or a particular design, but about the whole environment and culture that makes up your office space. Colors and curves and general aesthetics also affect the mood of your team. So you need to plan according to your operational style, business model and the needs of your team.

Direct Office provides the furniture that best fits your office and your team’s personality. From ergonomic chairs to modern day workspaces, you can choose the modern day furniture from various options that match your choice. Don’t get stuck in the past, make a move to a better future today.     


0