An Office of One’s Own

The history of your desk, 1913-2001.

In 1915, the Steelcase Corp. created a newfangled piece of office furniture called the Modern Efficiency Desk. Little more than a metal slab atop three drawers, Steelcase’s innovation looks to the 21st-century eye like … a desk. But this design—so commonplace and ubiquitous today that we scarcely even think of it as having been designed—was revolutionary. And it may be the single most revealing piece in the National Building Museum’s fascinating new exhibit, “On the Job: Design and the American Office.”

Before 1920 or so, most desks resembled the Wooton Patent Cabinet Office Secretary, a reproduction of which is also on display. This mammoth cabinet looks like a Victorian dresser crossbred with a two-door Frigidaire. Unlock the cabinet, and the two front components swing open, butterflylike, to reveal a beautiful writing surface and a dozen shelves, nooks, and drawers. The wings also have their own internal shelves and cubbyholes, much like the overcoat of a street-corner watch hawker. Shut the wings and turn the key in the cabinet lock, and your secrets were safe. People who wanted to reach you could stick a message through a letter slot. Until Steelcase got creative, this is what Americans thought of when they thought about a desk—although most Americans never thought much about desks because aristocrats and scholars were about the only people who used them.

But when plain old folks began leaving farms and factories to work in offices, the Wooton wouldn’t do. Which is why Steelcase’s cutting-edge design was a godsend. “[T]he new desk banished the privacy previously afforded by the cabinetlike Wooton Office Secretary,” the exhibit placard explains. “Managers liked [it] because it forced workers to keep office files and correspondence moving rather than hidden in pigeonholes.”

As the exhibition shows, it’s a short step from the Modern Efficiency Desk to “open plans,” the office design craze of the past two decades. Actually, it’s no step at all. Today’s office, for all its egalitarian virtues, often snuffs individual privacy just as much as the unlockable Steelcase desk did. In an open office landscape, you may be able to chat easily with your co-worker about tomorrow’s marketing presentation. But try having a phone conversation with your shrink, your mistress, or your bookie. It’s hard.

Indeed, many of today’s most aggressively modern offices—the carefully designed interiors of high-tech companies and creative firms—are an old new thing.

Look at the exhibition’s photo of the order entry department at Sears, Roebuck and Co., circa 1913. It’s a bunch of worker bees hunched over keyboards and sitting in chairs whose mesh backings mark them as ancestors of the vaunted Aeron chair. Now look at the photo of SEI investments, circa 1997. It’s a bunch of worker bees hunched over keyboards sitting in chairs whose mesh backings identify them as genuine Aerons. SEI is supposed to represent an improvement in office design and worker liberty because everyone’s workstations are on wheels. But look again. All these New Economy employees have workstations tethered to the ceiling by thick, ungainly orange cords. In a sense, the difference between Sears in 1913 and SEI in 1997 is the difference between a conventional chicken farm and free-range one. Free-range chickens might have more mobility than their cooped-up cousins, but both varieties end up on the rotisserie.

For much of the 20th century, giant companies treated the Organization Men who worked for them like fragile, dependent sons. Large employers even took on parental monikers: The phone company was “Ma Bell,” Metropolitan Life Insurance was “Mother Met,” Kodak the “Great Yellow Father.” Open plans and the freewheeling, bring-your-dog-to-work work spaces of the New Economy, we like to think, announce the end of this paternalistic approach. No hierarchy here. Just a bunch of colleagues, equals all, sitting around listening to each other’s phone calls and patting each other’s Labradors. But the waves of office democratization that seemingly helped wash away corporate paternalism eroded individual privacy even further. For instance, eliminating executive dining rooms and executive washrooms was wise. But it also means that regular workers can’t eat a tuna sandwich or have a pee without possibly encountering their boss.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for collaboration on the job. I’m all for the inadvertent contact that open landscapes encourage, the serendipitous collision of ideas and personalities that sparks creativity. But today, as yesterday, Wooton-style privacy won’t fit through the office door. A century after Steelcase opened up the workplace, Ma Bell may be gone. But on most days, Big Brother is baby-sitting.

Click here for Culturebox’s recent take on the so-called workplace of the future.