Article by: Hajo Eickhoff


Inventing the office: The digital office of the 21st century

According to the theory of evolution, certain human characteristics are retained, passed on and developed, which explains how mankind is able to retain and develop its culture and cultural aspects, by transferring knowledge and know-how to subsequent generations and by manufacturing objects such as tools and everyday objects.

The concept of the cultural office was created as a means of preserving certain forms of human activity through signs and symbols. Technical and commercial activities such as the processes for manufacturing, marketing and selling goods are recorded and archived in the office.

In fact the first offices consisted of just a few tools and activities centred around a piece of cloth known as a burra. The word "office" actually stems from this burra fabric, the name of which formed the origins of the word "bureau", the table upon which the fabric was placed, which in turn then evolved further to describe the room in which the table is placed. It can be said therefore that there are always two elements that define an office – the space and the tools placed within it. In the modern world, all that is required to constitute an office is a laptop (the core of the modern office) and a mobile phone.

The office as a tool

In the offices of days gone by, commercial processes such as contractual agreements, drawing up a balance sheet and accounting were handwritten using a quill, ink and paper. It was not until later that typewriters and accounting machines were introduced. In 1806 Englishman Ralph Wedgewood patented a duplicating process using carbon paper, which was replaced just three decades ago by the invention of photocopiers and digital technology.

Inventing the office: Offices in the 20th century

Passion for collecting – the bureau as a collecting point. The office is a collecting point, where varied passions and media are concentrated. However, it is not the office which acts as a collective force but rather the burra or bureau. The bureau is always adapted to seating furniture such as chairs, benches, stools and kneeling chairs. It is the communicative surface that structures and gathers everything else. The chair and bureau are the highly efficient work basis. All archiving and administrative activities are centred around the bureau, which is at the heart of the company. It becomes a fertile ground for ideas.

Office work is the making real of the human memory. That which workers can’t remember has to be stored . This allows sorting and filing, the justification and retrieving of previous courses of action. In brief, it is a passion for maintaining and keeping. Orders, receipts and letters, employment and dismissal records, revenues, profit and banking transactions, annual balance sheets and perspectives must all be kept accessible and require systematic and extensive storage systems. For this, office work in the early twentieth century came up with files, card indexes and punch card systems. These were followed by discs, hard drives, CDs and flash drives – the height of the passion for storage.

Passion for structuring

Adequately designed spaces reflect the tasks and functions for which they were designed. Therefore the many small offices of industrial administration are an expression of the division of labour of a productive factory and the resultant differentiation of storage tasks.


Inventing the office: The bustling office

Commerce, trade and education originated in the Renaissance, began to blossom in the Enlightenment - an era characterized by technological advancement - and reached their heyday during the Industrial Revolution. Factories, large cities and the theory of mechanism began to predominate and advancements were fuelled by reason, rationality and the desire for freedom.

The modern office is born: manufactories

Manufactories were manufacturing plants, characterized by specialization, labour division and mass production, often relying only on simple machinery. This new form of production also revolutionised office work, streamlining activities such as planning, writing letters and sales. Given that rapid production sequences required excellent technical and organizational abilities, new standards were established for the size and structuring of offices. While previously a workbench had sufficed for planning and development, now miscellaneous office duties were carried out in a separate room – the office of the manufactory, which marked the development of our modern offices.

Inventing the office: Living and working in the days of the Enlightenment

Writing table / Bureau plat

Kontors (foreign trading posts of the Hanseatic League), scriptoria and chancelleries sparked the development of a uniform type of space in the 18th century, the period of the Enlightenment. These concepts were, however, only turned into reality with the onset of industrialisation. While these rooms were reserved for office functions, they were not yet specially furnished for office work. Nonetheless, the office became a strategic place, which promoted creativity and provided an adequate setting for streamlining, planning and developing various types of work.

The Enlightenment was the heyday of scientific development and manufacturing. This period was marked by a transition from craftsmanship to industrial manufacturing, which, at the same time, gave rise to many new professions involving organisational and administrative duties. Office work was no longer reserved to trade and commerce, but began to play a role in practical duties and scientific work. Sorting, archiving, letter writing and administrative tasks were associated with trade and commerce, and began to take root in production, public administration and education. Apart from technical skills, these responsibilities required good reading and writing skills, reasoning and a strong understanding of arithmetics. Trading posts, government agencies, factories, schools and universities set up offices, which, while still bearing the name Kontor and chancellery, were much different from offices used by businesses and government bodies.

Inventing the office: Table, book and scriptorium

What marked the beginnings of the office? Offices play an important role in our modern world. The majority of today's work is carried out in the office.

Here, companies are managed, political agendas pursued, research activities conducted and global processes initiated. Other work spaces including physician's offices and classrooms or interspaces such as foyers, aircraft and cafes are now increasingly turning into offices, too.

Traditional offices are used to oversee accounting and sales activities, to manage production and purchasing, as well as administration and distribution. Furthermore, users of modern offices manage intellectual products such as logistics, work processes or design, along with a myriad of projects which don't necessarily involve any material goods at all.

What marked the beginnings of the office? Where are its origins and how did it develop?
Born 800 years ago, the office was first invented by monks. Looking back on a centuries-long history, in the 13th century it became a professional institution.