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The Meaning and Value of Desks at Work: From Mid-Century to the Turn of the Millennium

Brady Mick

What will the desk ‘be’ in the future? It might sound like an odd question at first but consider the ubiquity of the desk. Perhaps you’re reading this while sitting at one at this very moment. For many an office worker, the desk is as much a part of the everyday as overhead lighting and electricity.

Imagine we are designing a place to work specifically ready in 2032—when today’s kindergarten-age child will enter the workforce. What will they need around them to succeed? What will their technology be like? What experiences will they have between now and then to expand their knowledge to deliver their productivity? And what will the value of ‘the desk’ be to these highly productive people? To unravel this dubious thought experiment we might consider the changes that have occurred in the past few decades of the design and uses of a desk.

The average age of today’s American worker is 42 years (The average life span of an American living around 1900 was 53 years; today life expectancy is 83 years). Today’s 42-year-old worker was in kindergarten in about 1982; a time of expectations different from today. The patterns of work in 1982 were focused on individualization; one person for one labor. The desks for working in 1982 were designed around principles of uniformity; one size fits all. The expectations for a life of work from the perspective of 1982 were based upon clearly defined life stages; school to workforce to retirement. Each of these principles has altered dramatically in the past three or more decades providing us with a vantage point to explore what happened. Within this review is a path to understanding why the desk is what the desk is today and what it may be in 2032.

Individualization

In 1982 the focus of a good education was centered on setting a kindergarten student on a path toward their greatest individual societal productivity. Both students and workers were measured and rewarded based on their individual accomplishments within the bounds of a determinant system. Learning pedagogy, measured by ‘grades’, were established and engrained from an industrial manufacturing paradigm.

Worker productivity, measured by monetary gains, was transitioning from the post-World War II manufacturing ideals of producing objects, to what Peter Drucker coined “the knowledge worker.” In his 1959 book, The Landmarks of Tomorrow, Drucker redefined work as moving from a state of pure rationalism to a future-focused on pattern, process and purpose. This change from a “don’t think just do” mentality anticipated workers who would possess individual knowledge to deliver work results. This change set the stage for the transition from the metal desk set in rows (1920’s-1960’s), to the cube desk.

Uniformity

Herman Miller introduced Action Office-II in 1968. While Action Office-I was deemed too expensive, AOII solved the perceived problems of a new idea that cost more than a metal desk in an open room but created a sense of control and individualization. By creating interchangeable components inside a paneled wall system an individual could have a sense of ownership and privacy. By providing enclosure the same individual could express their self through chotskies and other personal displays.

This first cubical was less expensive than building a private office. Yet, George Nelson, co-creator of AOI who was removed from AOII’s development, immediately cited the extreme shortcomings of the cube desk. He recognized that the cube desk, “is definitely not a system which produces an environment gratifying for people in general.”

But the genie was out of the lamp, and by 1983 furniture manufactures had reverse-engineered the Herman Miller initial design which set in motion a proliferation of office uniformity set to achieve the highest efficiency for least cost. The expectation became the idea that kindergarten students who would grow up to work in an office would do so at a cubical desk. The advanced expectation was to grow in organizational hierarchy from a cube desk to the reward of a private office. The trappings of space as status were set.

Life Stages

In 1982, arching over individualization, uniformity, and space as status was the process of life stages. During stage one—birth to school age—a large majority of North American kindergarten children had their own bedroom. While a bed is not a desk, the principle of individual ownership of a personal item of furniture, such as a bed, creates an expectation for later life. Stage two—the youngest years of the learning experience—took place in individual school rooms with various learning activity stations; and the nap area. By stage three—childhood learning years—the majority of 1980’s first-grade students were assigned a student desk. The variety of desk designs, ages of the furniture and teacher-directed room setups varied, but the desk was individual and uniform.

Somewhere in stage four— adolescent learning years—students were enabled to move between rooms to possess multiple desks in a day. But the desk remained individual and uniform. By stage five— college and summer job years—the variety, setup and distribution of desks to learn expanded, but the base function remained set on individualization and uniformity. By the year 2000, when today’s 42-year-old workers entered office work, they were assigned an office cube to become productive and earn a living. Life stages had clear demarcations, which set expectations for achievement.

It’s this history of how desks came to play the role they do that can begin to help us better understand office design—and more deeply, office culture—today and into the future.

SHP is exploring the history, form and function of the one piece of furniture ubiquitous at every stage of life: the desk. This is part one of a three-part series examining how the desk has evolved—and where it may still go—in the workplace. While part one focused on the history of the workplace desk, part two of the series looks at the purpose of the desk at work today. Part three examines the future role of the desk at work.

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