Monthly Column By John Fogarty
When I entered it straight from college in 1970, despite the relatively long intervening period, the office furniture industry was in terms of design and output only just beginning to shake off the shackles of dull, post-war austerity.
This was driven in part by ideas on how offices might be laid out in a more open, non-hierarchical fashion to extract the best performance from a more contented, better motivated workforce. Here the 1950s pioneering work by the Quickborner Consulting Group in Hamburg on the concept of Burolandschaft (Office Landscape) had finally started to shape the dialogue. Serried rows of desks were replaced by a more open, organic layout of often individual workstations, interspersed with screens and potted plants. To someone of my generation it is therefore somewhat amusing to see the current twin obsessions of “wellness” and “biophilia” being touted as new ideas in workplace design.
Another key driver for change was rapid developments in materials and processing technology. Particleboard was readily available in larger, more-efficient sheet sizes. The machinery for cutting, shaping, veneering, edging and finishing it was moreover advancing in capability while tumbling in price. In sheet metal storage production the introduction of computer numerical control (CNC) – to both punching and folding machinery – liberated companies from the twin burdens of arduous tooling setup times and the consequent need to produce large component batches. Less wasteful electrostatic painting technology – with rapid clean-down/colour-change capability – enabled a veritable explosion in the palette of colours available.
By the 80s the final change driver was IT. The IBM PC was launched in 1984. By the start of the following decade the ubiquity of the PC was well and truly established and – with the development of the worldwide web and the internet, when staff could turn up to multiple locations plug-in and share data at will with colleagues, suppliers and customers alike – the emphasis shifted to portable computing and the laptop computer. Annual global laptop sales burgeoned from just 2.4 Mi in 1990 to 28.5 Mi in 1999 and 170 mi by 2010. Since then ultra-portable devices such as tablets and smartphones have started to supplement and replace the laptop as the ubiquitous business communication device.
All of these factors have had a shaping influence on the development of furniture and the workplace. In future articles I will delve into how I believe this has improved and – in some instances retarded – the lot of those working in the modern office.