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From Wood to Windows: A Century of Office Space Trends

If you’re like most people, you don’t spend much time thinking about how your office came to be the way it is. You wake up, suffer through your daily commute, and take your place at your desk. The fact that your desk is probably made of some kind of plastic or laminate, and has a computer on it instead of a typewriter or a scroll of parchment most likely never occurs to you.

But a lot had to happen to bring us the conveniences (and inconveniences) of the modern office. Here’s what workspace used to look like.

The Office in 1912


If you were at work 100 years ago, your office would seem very different indeed. (Also, we would want to ask you what vitamins you take, because you would be about 120 years old right now.)

“Picture a typical office a century ago,” says Lindsay Smith of Michigan Radio. “White collar workers, chain smoking, mostly wooden furniture, lots of paper, quite the fire hazard.”

Less dangerous, and only slightly less disturbing: The color scheme, which Smith reminds us was generally in hues of “battleship gray, olive green, and brown.”

The Office in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s


The décor starting changing in the ’20s and ’30s, when plastics became widely available. Those Bakelite baubles you buy at the flea market are fun collector’s items, but they represent a huge revolution in terms of office furniture. Those battleship gray desks were made of solid metal, and weighed almost as much as a battleship. You can see why people embraced plastic and never looked back.

The number of also increased throughout World War II, changing the face of the staff as well.

The Office in the 1950s and 1960s


Perhaps the most fun part of watching “Mad Men” is seeing the evolution of style throughout the 1950s. The blond wood and clean lines that replaced those clunky gray desks were in evidence right away, in the show’s first episode. As we get closer to the 1970s, we see pop art and other mod styles take over the office.

It’s fun to watch, but just remember: That hideous corporate “art” that you and your lunch buddies make fun of had to start somewhere. We say it started in Roger’s office and dumbed down until it became a Successory.

The Office in the 1970s and 1980s


The ’70s and ’80s are when the cubicle, bane and joy of every office worker’s existence, finally took off. It’s worth noting that the Dilbert-esque cubicles that comedians love to mock were very far away from Robert Propst’s orginal “Action Office” design, which, like the open plan offices of today, was intended to make workers more flexible and productive, while offering some semblance of privacy and autonomy.

Another big shift in the ’80s, and one we’ll likely never get past: the introduction of computers into the workplace. Those of us who came up during the post-typewriter age can’t imagine what we’d do without a computer. We imagine that we would either get way less done … or way more.

The Office in the 1990s and 2000s


And speaking of getting way less done, the internet hit the 1990s-era office, and nothing was ever the same again. People now work right next to people and never speak face-to-face, preferring to email and IM instead of, you know, talking. Even the water cooler is virtual, with most folks gossiping over messaging services instead of chatting in the break room like they did in the old days.

The ’90s and aughts also saw the introduction of open offices and working at home. There’s probably a relationship between the decline of actual offices and the decline of dress codes. It’s hard to make people dress up when they’re increasingly used to working in their jammies.

The Office of the Future


So what does the future hold? The answer, as with all academic questions, is a little of everything. We can look forward to more flexible workspaces, better technology, and less senseless face time. What we can’t predict is the next big thing: the future equivalent of plastics or the internet that will change the way we work forever.

Images:,, Daily Mail, Computer Weekly, NEO magazine,

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