Ten office furniture designs that reshaped the world

08 Jul 2019  |  Design  |  Trends

Thomas Jefferson’s Swivel Chair

Sometime around 1774 or 1775 Thomas Jefferson decided that the Windsor Chair he had been using while drafting the Declaration of Independence didn’t offer him enough movement. So, he modified it into a swivel chair by introducing an iron spindle between the top and bottom half which allowed the chair to rotate on rollers improvised from window sash mechanisms. It is now in the possession of the American Philosophical Society where it acts as a reminder of our enduring need for comfort and movement regardless of the work we do and the tech we use.

Our modern idea of task seating dates back around a hundred or so to the pioneering work of Albert Stoll II of the firm that is now the German office furniture giant Sedus. In 1926, at a trade show in Leipzig, he introduced the world to the Federdreh mechanism, which gave the chair a central column and adjustable backrest making it the progenitor of modern office seating principles. He proclaimed that ‘the chair is becoming more and more important as a working tool" and began intuitively to develop his own ideas about what we would now call ergonomics, although this was before the term was even coined.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building furniture

In 1903 that architect Frank Lloyd Wright completed his designs for what is often considered the first true modern office at The Larkin Building in Buffalo, New York. Many of its characteristics are very familiar to modern eyes, including its open plan layout, glass doors, air-conditioning, sedentary work culture, use of natural light and slogans on the walls.

As he did with the Johnson Wax building three decades later, Lloyd Wright even designed the furniture for the office, in keeping with the architectural and management principles that shaped the rest of the building. What this meant at the time was making the furniture from steel and linking most of the seats to the desks to make the office easier to clean. There were some freestanding chairs on castors, with the precise linearity of the building itself.

Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair

Sometime around 1926, Bauhaus pioneer Marcel Breuer designed the chair that was later named after his contemporary Wassily Kandinsky although Breuer himself referred to it as Model B3 when it was manufactured by Thonet.  Taking advantage of new methods for manufacturing tubular steel and inspired by its use in bicycle design, Breuer create an iconic product that endures as a classic to this day, both in its official version now manufactured by Knoll and in numerous copies around the world.

The 3107 Chair

Our affinity with mid Twentieth Century classics is also evident in the ongoing ubiquity of Arne Jacobsen’s 3107 chair from Fritz Hansen. But we could choose any one of a number of classic designs by Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Verner Panton, Breuer, Mies Van Der Rohe and Jacosen himself to make the same point. Many of the products designed around this time continue to serve as a universally understood signifier of understated cool.

As with many of these pioneering designs, their innovation lies in new materials and manufacturing processes. In the case of the 3107 chair, this was the ability to shape plywood in three directions. Its status as an icon was secured in large measure by its use in Lewis Morley’s iconic photograph of Christine Keeler at the height of the Profumo Affair in 1963, although it has since come to light that the chair used in the photograph was a fake. Ironic given the extent to which such classics are now routinely copied.  

Action Office

By the mid-1960s it was apparent that technology was set to change the workplace in dramatic ways, and along with it the way people interacted with each other, information and machines. In 1964, a designer at Herman Miller called Robert Propst applied his thinking about human centred design in this new era to a product called Action Office.

Four years later, he produced its second iteration and along with it a manifesto called The Office: A Facility Based on Change that has messages that resonate to this day. His yearning for egalitarianism and an adaptable and people-centric office is evident throughout and remains relevant in our era of activity based and agile working.

Unfortunately, the corporate world into which he launched his ideas was still rooted in command and control thinking and Action Office was quickly bastardised into the cubicles that were soon to become the default office design models in North America for more than four decades. As for Propst, he bemoaned that ‘the cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity’.

Vitra Ad Hoc

Thirty years after the first launch of Action Office, the nascent technological age was heralded by the arrival of a generation of office furniture systems that no longer assumed people were tied to fixed times and places of work. The best known these days is the Ad Hoc system designed by Antonio Citterio for Vitra.

Characterised by its choice of freestanding and adjustable elements, and the linearity of its desking as firms began to replace the large L-shaped workstations needed to accommodate CRT monitors, Ad Hoc also had a plug and play approach to servicing at odds with the quasi-architectural products hardwired into the building’s power and data that had preceded it.

Aeron Chair

Another product launched into this new era in 1994 was the Aeron Chair. Now easily the world’s most successful task chair, its design was then so at odds with people’s expectations that, according to its designers Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick, Herman Miller gave serious consideration to not launching the product at all. Malcolm Gladwell uses the tale to describe how radical ideas go mainstream in his bestselling book Blink.

The Aeron set the standard not only for a new generation of office seating but also sparked a new way of talking about workplace wellbeing and mobility that endures.

Michaelides and Bednash Bench

Not all of the innovations in office furniture design came from major manufacturers. Some were even dismissed as peripheral at the time the world became aware of them. In the late 1990s as the world adjusted to a life of mobile tech and the Internet, a small media company called Michaelides and Bednash commissioned an office that consisted of a room furnished with a single 20m long serviced table for its 20 staff to share.

This was seen as a novelty at a time when the world was full of new ideas. Even the great workplace theorist and designer Frank Duffy wrote the following of the idea in his 1997 book The New Office: “The Michaelides and Bednash table would not work for many of the companies featured in this book. The office space is very specific to the business it houses.”

But he was wrong. The long table with a core of data, comms and power servicing was bestowed with its own name – the bench desk - and became one of the great office design success stories of the last two decade in the UK. Pretty much all furniture manufacturers soon developed a bench system as their standard offering and it remains the default solution for many UK offices.

Vitra Alcove

The modern workplace is a noisy and distracting place and the desire for some peace and quiet has been one of the most important drivers of office design over recent years. There are a number of ways of addressing this issue, notably by giving people a choice of where and how to work. This is now facilitated by a new generation of office furniture designs that offer various degrees of visual and acoustic privacy.

These vary from architectural scale cubicles to telephone boxes and discreet products that offer refuge from the hubbub without the need to remove oneself from the dynamics of the office completely. One of the first products to address this issue was the Alcove product from Vitra designed by Erwin and Ronan Bouroullec in 2004, the usefulness and desirability of could be judged by the number of similar products that are now available.

Steelcase Flex

The impact of coworking and the adoption of domestic and hospitality design idioms in the workplace is evident in a new approach from the world’s office designers. Manufacturers such as Steelcase with its Flex system and BuzziSpace with BuzziBracks are reflecting the need for offices that are flexible, non-corporate and adaptable to a wide range of uses.

One of the interesting facets of this move is that office furniture designers are now increasingly likely to frame their product offerings around the different kinds of spaces in which they can be used rather than as a collection of distinct systems. This is a direct response to the greater choice of settings now apparent in a growing number of offices as well as an acknowledgement that people’s expectations of the workplace are now very different in the age of coworking, wellbeing and personal control.  

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