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History of the Office and Office Equipment: A Resource Guide

Furniture & Work Space

Carol Highsmith, photographer. Work area at the Johnson Wax Building, headquarters of the S.C. Johnson and Son Co., Racine, WI between 1980 and 2006. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Office furniture has changed with, and been changed by, larger forces in the office environment. An early well-known case was the headquarters of Johnson Wax designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1936 with its "Great Workroom" seen in the photo on this page. However, it was Herman Miller and the Herman Miller Research Corp. (or Division) led by Robert Propst that really made an impact with the Action Office I introduced in 1964. Later with Action Office II they introduced the Office Cubicle. They later developed the Equa chair, the Aeron chair, and "Modular Seating Group" (i.e. Chicklet Chairs).

This section is primarily focused on furniture and office configuration with particular attention on the advent of more modular furniture and cubicles, sometimes derisively referred to as cube farms. For additional research you may want to research particular office furniture companies and their history. In addition to Herman Miller, there is Steelcase (formerly Metal Office Furniture Company), Haworth, Remington Rand, and the Library Bureau to name a few. Beyond researching the large manufacturers, looking at trade catalogs can be a helpful way to examine the evolution of office furniture.

Designs evolved and technology changed, bringing change to the physical workplace. Use those words that either describe spaces or describe how people work—open space plans, collaborative space, standing desks, etc.—and use the terms that may be developed to describe alternate work arrangements like teleworking and what people describe as a hybrid work schedule or the “densification” of the office space arrangement like hotelling (hot-desking, dynamic seating, agile seating), co-working, and shared workspaces. If you are looking for images of people at desks for examples, search the Library of Congress home page using the word "desk."

Books & Periodicals

There are a few things to note. First, the Library of Congress does have some older market research reports about office furniture from a few market research firms primarily from the 1980's to the early 2000's. There are too many to include, but many of them will begin with the call number HD9803.62. Also, discussions related to corporate interiors will happen in other literature particularly real estate, management, and even design and architecture literature.

The following materials link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to digital content are provided when available.

Internet Resources

Traditional business publications will be a good resource but publication and websites that are real state and architecture and design focused will also look at the office from a physical perspective. One area to look at are the websites from companies like Herman Miller and Steelcase for not only their histories, but also because the may to reports, surveys, and other more research work to understand their market and where it is going. The databases in the Subscription Resources page of this guide are good options but doing a general internet research will be particularly useful for looking at the future.

Articles & Reports