The office through the decades: The 1980s

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; next the 1980s

The decade when the mass market personal computer came along; to dramatically change the world of office work forever.

Developments such as the first single chip microprocessor by Intel, operating systems such as MSDOS from Microsoft and the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer) Graphical User Interface from Xerox (but popularized by Apple in the 1984 Macintosh), moved the product from what had hitherto been the sole preserve of the scientific and hobbyist community into the office mainstream.

Xerox Star screen from 1981; the first commercial example of a Graphical User Interface (GUI)

What cannot be overstated is the dramatic effect the PC had on the structure and configuration of office furniture. In that inimical way the human species always seems to react to change, the initial response was to over-complicate the provision of cabling to each and every workstation; to a degree that seems frankly laughable when one looks back at it today with the benefit of hindsight.

Desks became monstrously heavy and complex; with triple-segregated power, data and telecoms cableways and complicated (and expensive) means of accessing this via rising and sliding main tops and corner units - all predicated on the infrequent need to reroute cabling or relocate a device, which were in any event largely static and seldom if ever switched off at the plug

It couldn’t last and the Dutch Ahrend company with its Mehes/Mehes Plus range was the first European company to break the mould. Pioneering thinner, shaped desktops coupled with height-settable I-frame legs and a simple central structural beam doubling as a cableway, this radically different programme sparked the development of the pared-back products that are commonplace today. In the UK it took longer to reverse the prevailing trend for heavy, C-framed desks and we didn’t introduce our first lightweight programme until 1993.


Ahrend Mehes Plus; note the lightweight I-frame height-settable legs and shaped, thin desktop

Influenced by our export experiences in Europe and by import penetration from France, Bisley introduced the first UK manufactured side-opening tambour cupboard in 1989. With its non-projecting closure and adaptable interior space the programme was an instant success in both home and export markets - where it chimed with the demand for shallow, essentially “lateral” storage to suit the prevailing office footprint. It continues to form an essential element of many of their discrete storage programmes to this day.


Bisley side-opening Tambours; an essential element of many discrete storage programmes to this day

Building on their success in the 70s; Vitra continued to be the company for iconic office chairs launches in this era, with Persona, Figura and Imago all released in 1984.