From typewriter to coffice – several decades of office history

Office Trends Office History Design

The office is more than just a collective name for binders, iMacs and the occasional back pain. It reflects the steadily changing awareness about the significance of work in our society. The manifestation of this awareness in architecture creates spaces that influence our way of thinking and behaving, mainly because most of us spend around 40 hours a week at work. Or in other words: the concept of work/life balance, which is belaboured yet currently very "in", can pack up and go unless it includes space in our offices for recreation, experiencing and leisure. Provided we still have offices...

"We create spaces," observes Manfred Bene. His company experienced a fundamental mind shift back in 1977: it moved away from individual pieces of furniture and adopted a spatial concept. Because those who recognise the effect of spaces take pleasure in turning things around: "First we influence a space, and then the space influences us".

This has something defiant, almost rebellious about it. A person is not a dim-witted slave to enforcement in a society that backs the division of labour, but rather is actively involved in shaping this society. Good lord, a revolution! The storming of the desk-Bastille! Take refuge among the trivial?

Or - alternatively - why not join us on our journey? Seventy years of Manfred Bene – several decades of office history.

The fifties: Shortages, fishnets and Jailhouse Rock

The 1950s were the decade of hope, despite the shortages. It was a time of reconstruction and of dreams made in Hollywood. Marilyn showed us that it was stylish to be a secretary and that you could even pull heartthrobs like Cary Grant with sassy touch typing.

But in reality it was not quite as glamorous as that: typewriters and phones were considered luxuries that had to be shared by several users. Bene responded with a double workstation and diplomatically placed the coveted equipment on a lower side table.

The sixties: Upswing, moon landing, Good Vibrations

In the 1960s, the German "economic miracle" reached the nation’s offices. Equipment was updated across the board; to each employee his own typewriter! Then there were calculators, copiers – and the first smoke detector. Desks were also equipped with a number of small office accessories, e.g. staplers and hole punches.

James Bond, Asimov and space travel fuelled the decade’s pioneering spirit and faith in technology. Offices were also undergoing change: the dumb blonde as the iconic secretary had served her purpose and was now forced to make way for the assiduous Miss Moneypenny. It certainly didn’t advance her career: the rationalisation of work processes brought a considerable rise in efficiency, but the allocation of the individual tasks with their increasingly specialised content was not at all fair. Which jobs had a pink ribbon and which a blue was not up for debate.

The sixties marked a turning point in Bene’s history. In 1961 Manfred Bene joined his father’s company at a young age. He was still hankering after a creative profession, but paternal persuasion ("I’ll pay you three times more") won him over. And there was more than enough work at the company. In his first job as chauffeur, he learned how difficult it is to reach your customers when you have to go through intermediaries. If they are not integrated in the product development process they often lack the necessary lifeblood and understanding. As a direct consequence, the manufacturer Bene decided: We’ll do the selling ourselves!

Manfred Bene: "The second realisation during this voyage of discovery was how trivial and just plain bad office furniture design was back then. When I became involved in the development process, I tried right from the very beginning to give things a good shape as well."

The seventies: More than just cult

In Austria, clocks have always ticked a bit more slowly. And so the spirit of 1968 didn’t reach us until the 1970s. But then it arrived in full force: everything became brighter. At Bene this was noticeable in the bold colours of the ORG2 line. Plus: architects wanted to improve social systems with their work.

Self-fulfilment and communication became increasingly important. Bene responded by declaring the wall to be a communication tool – an additional, vertical work surface: pinboards and flexible shelving attracted creative design. For the first time, space was perceived as an entity in itself, beyond the sum of its parts.

Together with Laurids Ortner, the forerunner of the multi-surface work station was developed. Very important: with contact segments, with extensions for discussions at the workplace.

Manfred Bene: "The decade witnessed the emergence of television advertisements, and we had a couple of wild commercials. It was a fun and exciting time. We could really do almost anything, as long as we could pay for it. But we were fully aware that we had to change things, we had to roll up our sleeves and get to work. And so we did! I always had a lot of courage. Not only when decisions needed to be taken, but also in my attitude towards other people. Of course, I encountered obstacles often enough, but really those years had a decisive influence on the company and the brand image that developed in the process."

The eighties: Electric Dreams and Laurids Ortner

The Awesome Eighties brought us the Post-It – arguably the most important office innovation of the decade. The author of this article would agree, although the mainstream and the majority of labour sociologists prefer to bestow this honour on the computer.

The fantastic 1980s were indeed the decade of EDP – and workstations around the world needed to cater to these new requirements. For the first time, all the tabletops had to be at the same height because more room was needed for the bulky monitors that were standard at the time. Glare shielding was also necessary. Ergonomics became a workplace issue; table surfaces can and should be tiltable.

The modular organisation of the walls and their integration into the workplace enabled different office layouts. 1988 marked a milestone in Bene’s brand image and concepts: workstations were now arranged in U- and T-shapes. Once again, it was Laurids Ortner who pressed ahead for and with the company.

Manfred Bene remembers their collaboration: "In the mid-seventies, during a visit to an exhibition, my attention was drawn to a piece by Laurids Ortner. It fascinated me so much that I wanted to meet him. I simply travelled to Linz to see him because this was exactly the creative muscle I wanted to have in the company. Although he admittedly didn’t realise in those days what he was letting himself in for!
You only really know what a person is like when you have been married to him for six months. Before that, you are merely in love. There was repeated friction because back then, like today, Laurids had little knowledge of business. There were times when he wanted to get out, but then we pulled ourselves together and, in the end, worked together for an incredibly intense and long period: 30 years. We became very close friends. Even though I only see him twice a year nowadays, we’re like a married couple. He influenced the company – and we influenced him. His first major construction project was Bene’s office building. And he was important for me because I was able to learn a lot from his creativity. He had a different way of seeing things, a different attitude, a different perspective in his approach to things. It went beyond any balance sheet figures."

The nineties: Crisis, mobile phones, email

The recession hit Europe and with it the office furniture industry. Material battles that emerged in the 80s as a result of a high-spirited belief in the future fell victim to strict cutbacks. Bene also offered lower-priced systems and managed to keep itself afloat through the decade. In the meantime, room dividing systems and transparency were becoming increasingly important in the corporate culture.

The fax experienced a brief period of growth before it was forced to make way for email. Telephones became mobile and omnipresent. CERN gave us the WWW, accompanied by constant (telephone) modem dialling with its loud connecting growl and beeping sounds that made tinnitus seem like an Adagio by Mozart. The world of culture responded aggressively with movies such as Run Lola Run (away). In Pulp Fiction, John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson shot everything that dared to make a sound. Only Bill Clinton had fun in the office.

Bene responded calmly and focused on concentration, supported by the awareness that an office needs different zones for different needs. Micro- and macro-layouts were developed. When you assume responsibility for a space that influences you, you are not a slave to it.

The noughties: Y2K and beyond

The predicted apocalypse because of the millennium bug didn’t happen, but technological development did continue to race ahead at a previously unknown speed. The permanent desk lost its significance as a necessary tool – though not as a social status symbol. Work turned mobile: telephones, mails, information and coffee on the go became necessities. The creative industries flourished and with them the freelancers in their precarious situation, but nevertheless: anyone who could outsource, did so. The generation of digital natives turned Starbucks into an office. Bene also closed the gap between "coffee" and the "office", and this development gave birth to the "coffice".

"That was an important step," remarks Manfred Bene. "The coffice is a hybrid of the coffee house, workstation, and also meeting and conference rooms. We assign it up to a third of the working area. Employees can go there whenever they want. Customers and suppliers can be sitting at a neighbouring table – everybody is on equal terms. This means that the coffee area for employees is not something hidden away in the background, far from the customers. The coffice conveys a sense of appreciation to employees. After all, an employee is really worth more than a customer. If my employees are no good, then I won’t get the customers in the first place."

The product range in this decade also testifies to the transparency experienced at work, in particular the RF corridor wall.

2011: Third places, co-working, always on

"It requires an enlightened attitude, a sense of reality and progressivity to recognise that even someone sitting on a sofa can be creating value for the company" – this is the maxim of PARCS designer Tom Lloyd. It is obvious that the trend – despite all resistance – is increasingly moving in this direction. This means that the industry needs to rethink its approach and re-evaluate the definition of an office, and ultimately query whether offices will survive in the traditional sense over the long term, or whether other solutions will assume this role.

This prospect means bad headaches and sleepless nights for manufacturers of office furniture. But not for Bene – because here, revolutions are part of the concept.