The office through the decades: The 1950s

John Fogarty is our recently retired Director of Design. In an industry career spanning five decades he has witnessed wholesale changes to office life. Drawing on this experience he has created for us a decade-by-decade series on the subject, starting here with the 1950s.

As an early Baby Boomer I was ideally placed to observe the make-up and organisation of my Dad’s office through the unbiased eyes of a child when I accompanied to work on Saturday mornings. 

It was a time of extreme austerity and this was reflected in the heavy, industrial form and drab colours of the furniture and furnishings. Whether desks had one or two pedestals was determined entirely by status and the only other variation was the colour of the vinyl top. 

All surfaces were hard and reflective and open offices - despite the fact that talking was actively discouraged - were extremely noisy places due to the incessant clatter of manual typewriter and mechanical calculating machines known as comptometers. The only storage provided was 4-drawer filing cabinets in drab grey and olive green and work chairs were instruments of torture, fabricated from steel tube and covered in perspiration-inducing blown vinyl. 

 

 

Having lived through the period I am somewhat amused by the current uncritical fashion obsession with “mid-century” furniture. The best was good - and deserves to survive as modern classics - but much was frankly pretty awful.

Although ergonomics was an emerging science (having been developed by the American military during WW2 to deal with vast numbers of untrained conscripts), I can’t remember ever hearing it mentioned in the context of office space or office furniture design during this period. Furthermore, although we now know that the Quickborner Team in Hamburg was already working on the concept of Burolandschaft (office landscape), this remained a well kept German secret for some time to come (see 70s later).

Working methods were determined by the limits of technology and clerical staff  typically toiled away at single function tasks in isolated department groups.The concept of informal, multidisciplinary team working that we now take for granted wasn’t even on the radar of the ideas gurus of the day.

 

 

In 1958 Freddy Brown, the founder of Bisley, designed what has become a modern classic; the Multidrawer. Although this  iconic, small scale storage programme today appears pretty much identical to the original, they do not share a single common component or manufacturing method.