“For men who have to write a lot, and over prolonged periods, a desk at which they can work standing up is an indispensable piece of furniture for altering their posture and for maintaining their health”, opined Journal der Moden in May 1786. An age when, famously, only men wrote.
Yet advantageous and positive as standing to write was, prolonged standing could, as Journal der Moden notes, lead to tiredness.
A solution was however at hand for all who preferred working at a standing height desk over a prolonged period: a chair, “or a so called donkey … on which one sits as if on a saddle, and which must be just high enough that one can sit half-standing…”1
A half-standing sitting solution whose nickname can be readily derived from the proposed sitting position.
And a half-standing sitting solution that for all it is thoroughly familiar today, was novel, one could almost argue revolutionary, and even enlightened, in 1786…….
In December 1969 the Austrian TV station ORF broadcast a half-hour portrait of the architect Hans Hollein, including a presentation of Hollein’s Mobile Office project: essentially an inflatable plastic bubble in which one person could sit and work.
“Klingt vielleicht etwas verrückt”, mused the presenter, “sounds perhaps a bit crazy”.
And in 1969 a device, a construct, that allowed for the creation of a private domain in the midst of a public space, unquestionably did sound “etwas verrückt”.
And in 2022…….
“The problem”, elucidated Herman Hertzberger in 1973, in context of his project for the Centraal Beheer insurance company in Apeldoorn, The Netherlands, “was to make an office building that would be a working place where everybody would feel at home: a house for 1000 people.”1
How Herman Hertzberger sought to solve that problem not only helping explain aspects of the development of architecture in the course of the 20th century, nor only aspects of the development of office design in the course of the 20th century, but also being informative in context of the problems associated with designing our contemporary, and future, office spaces……
In his 1917 novel The Job Sinclair Lewis makes note of a group of ambitious young clerks who work in the offices at Pemberton – “the greatest manufactory of drugs and toilet articles in the world” – and who sat at “shiny, flat-topped desks in rows”.1
And you’re all currently thinking, yeah… and… ???
……. and… while that may be a valid response today, in 1917 ambitious young clerks sitting at rows of “shiny, flat-topped desks” were, when not a revolution, then a relative novelty, and for all were highly indicative of a period of fundamental evolution and development in understandings of the office, of office work, of office workers, of office desks. A period of fundamental evolution and development that continues to inform the 21st century office. And the 21st century office desk…….
“With every new building the first task is to clarify the needs that will arise in context of its use”,1 opined Peter Behrens on December 10th 1912 at the official inauguration of the new administrative HQ for the Prussian industrial concern Mannesmannröhren-Werke AG.
And while Peter Behrens was certainly not the first to opine such, with the so-called Mannesmann-Haus in Düsseldorf he realised one of the earliest large office buildings designed to evolve and develop as those needs evolved and developed.
Not the Situla itself.
But rather what is depicted on that small, delicately carved, 10th century ivory object: the four Christian Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, busy writing their gospels while seated at height-adjustable desks…….
While understandings of form, of beauty, in context of the objects with which we surround ourselves continually evolve and develop, understandings of function are, generally, much more stable. Or at least are once they have been identified, understood and normalised.
Something that can be studied and appreciated in Thomas E. Warren’s Centripetal Spring Chair…..
As previously noted, the (hi)story of the office is long and has its origins in functions and individuals rather than physical spaces; its understanding evolving over the course of several centuries as those functions/individuals gradually became synonyms for their physical place of activity. Before in the course of the 19th century its understanding became increasingly institutionalised, not least against the background of increasing commerce, industry and civic administration, and leading to the emergence of the “office building” as an identifiable branch of architecture; something, arguably, most popularly associated with the skyscrapers of Chicago, and in which context Louis H Sullivan penned the (fateful) words “form ever follows function, and this is the law.“1
A law, tenet, understanding, option, that Sullivan’s former employee, and in many regards pupil, Frank Lloyd Wright developed to a milestone of office building design with his Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, New York.
With the exhibition Citizen Office the Vitra Design Museum staged not only their first conceptual, research based, exhibition, but also one of the first museal reflections on “the world of the office”.
Reflections which not only pointed towards new directions and understandings then, but which offer insights and lessons for today…….