The Evolution of Office Design: From Cubicles to Open Spaces

office furniture arranged in workspace

Office spaces have oscillated between open and closed layouts over the years. The modern office has come a long way from the days of monotonous rows of clunky wooden desks and typewriters; and what was once a sea of partitions has now transformed into an environment designed for creativity, collaboration, and comfort. Just as fashion trends evolve, so too does the layout and arrangement of office furniture. Without going on an exhaustive office space odyssey, let’s look at some of the different styles that have come and gone since the early 1900s. 

The Open Plan: A Dilemma Is Born

The “Open Plan” was the first modern office design and was popularized in the early 1900s by famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. His Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, NY, was based on an open-plan factory model, with few walls and many rows of desks in large interior areas on each floor. In this building, management had offices that lined the outer perimeter of the building and looked in on rows of desks occupied by the people whom they managed. 

Wright included with the building a myriad of innovations including chairs that were suspended from the desks to make cleaning the floors under them more efficient. He also implemented air-conditioning and natural lighting that flowed into all the levels of the 5 story building from the atrium-styled roof. Although innovative, open, and modern, this office concept has given rise to much criticism over the years. The Open Plan decidedly lacks privacy which can be both distracting and distressing.

Nonetheless, the Open Plan endured. As land became more expensive and technology made high-rise buildings more accessible, offices opted to build upwards, where more people could fit into smaller spaces. Even though Wright incorporated an abundance of natural light in his projects, the need for it diminished with the expanded use of electric lights, improved air circulation, and elevators. Wait, don’t take away my sunshine!

Viva La Revolution! 1960s, 70s and 80s Office Design

The 1960s gave way to two newer office innovations–one conceptual and one practical. In response to the long-tried and not-too-true Open Plan, Europe, starting with Germany, adopted an ideology called  Bürolandschaft, or office landscaping. They combatted the lack of privacy in the Open Plan by bringing in small dividers, plants, and lounge-like furniture. In these arrangements, often management was placed in the same areas as the people they oversaw but were given nicer desks, placement in the office, or better equipment. 


In America, the revolution took a different turn with the advent of the “Action Office.” Invented by Robert Propst, the Action Office was a way to bring more privacy into the Open Plan without having to construct permanent walls/offices within a building. The Action Office was the first iteration of a modular system and the predecessor of the cubicle that is still widely popular today. It was perfect for fluidity and functionality, but it often created impersonal spaces that felt isolated and confined.  


Hot-Desking & Co-Working: The Post-Pandemic Office Plan

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a new kind of office was coming into widespread use. Co-working or office sharing became popular among industries where full-time office space wasn’t needed. People like financial advisors, who can conduct most or all of their business by phone and only need to meet a client on occasion often rent part of a shared office space. This could mean a scheduled time to use certain rooms in an office, or paying for the privilege of scheduling specific times to use the office. The floor plans and furniture in these offices vary by building and owner, but are typically very modern and usually have glass walls with privacy options like blinds to separate the interior offices from each other. 

Hot-desking is a concept where a desk can be shared by more than one person within an organization by utilizing common equipment such as desks, USB hubs, and extra monitors, while employees bring their own laptops and personal items. Some companies even have shared computers, depending on the level of privacy needed from one employee to another. This helps cut back on the need for designated employee spaces, especially where shift work is a big factor. 

Given that a huge part of the population took to remote work during and after the pandemic, it makes sense to cut back on office space and, therefore, office desks and furniture. Conversely, the pandemic also initiated heightened concerns about the spread of germs, making shared desks more difficult to keep adequately sanitized and less appealing to most people. Hybrid working situations are keeping the concept of hot-desking a normal office arrangement for the time being.

Today’s Office Design

Today, work reform plays a huge role in how office spaces are arranged. From entertainment and rest to eating and socializing, the office of today attempts to capture a place where both a business and an individual can thrive. Some offices have tried going back to variations of the Open Plan, with the idea that it is more inclusive, and in many cases, have done away with managerial offices altogether, throwing the upper echelons in with the others on the open floor. Ironically, a stream of new criticisms has cropped up over the return of the Open Plan. Things like privacy, sound reduction, collaboration, and breakroom space are all factors that are considered. Oh, and don’t forget the foosball table! That’s gotta have a home too. 

The more modern iterations of the cubicle seem to be the most conducive to collaboration, flexibility, privacy, and individuality. With convenient modular systems like Sunline from Arnold’s Office Furniture, companies can custom-create office spaces within any building, and change them around when needed. They provide all the privacy of cubicles with the ability to create more open, collaborative spaces as well. Options like color, divider height, shelving, and even visibility, all on a sliding system, make newer office designs easy-peasy, lemon squeezy. Companies can build their offices the way they want them; they can change them when it makes sense; and they can give their employees some leeway to personalize their own spaces: Plants, yes, dogs, maybe.   


As we traverse the annals of office furniture arranging, one thing remains clear: the layout of our workplaces reflects the values, aspirations, and technological advancements of each era. From the confined cubicles of the past to the dynamic collaborative spaces of today, the evolution of office furniture arranging is a fascinating journey that mirrors the evolution of work itself. So, next time you settle into your ergonomic chair or brainstorm in a cozy nook, remember the quirky and ingenious path that led to your present-day workspace oasis!