The Historical Foundations of Efficient Office Design and Ergonomics

Presented by: Terrence L. Uber, PhD

Contemporary office furniture manufacturers are a major source of data on ergonomics and the design of office interiors.  Their research findings are reported through white papers which become reference tools for professional interior designers and architects in designing office interiors and for educators teaching about office environments.  The findings are also the basis for the development of new products and innovation in office design promoted by the manufacturers.

This paper will discuss the historical precedents for contemporary ergonomics research and the functional design of office furniture and office interiors.  Through an analysis of furniture trade catalogs, business journals and monographs, the historical influence of furniture manufacturers on the design of office furniture and interiors will be illustrated.  As business structures changed drastically in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the need for new systems of organization and the demand for office furniture to accommodate these changes also increased.  

An essential component of the evolution of office design, furniture design, and the role of the worker were the publications written by businessmen and theorists who were initially influenced by the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of Scientific Management.   Among them were:  Arch W. Shaw, partner in the Shaw-Walker Company and founder of the journal System; William Henry Leffingwell, a disciple of Taylor, who took the industrial concepts of Taylor and adapted them to the office/business environment; and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, perhaps best known for their time-motion studies and consideration of the human element in their fatigue studies.

Examples were identified in a variety of primary sources, including furniture trade catalogs, business journals and monographs.  In the trade catalogs, new furniture forms adapted to the new business practices were promoted as tools of efficiency.   As an example, in response to the card filing systems developed for data collection and record keeping, the Shaw-Walker Company designed a desk which could hold 80,000 file cards within arm’s reach of the worker (See Fig. 1 in Appendix 1).   Business journals included essays on the office and proper design, illustrations and photographs of innovative office layouts and the invaluable advertisements from manufacturers (see Fig.2 in Appendix 1).  The business monographs include texts such as H. W. Leffingwell’s Making the Office Pay, which was used as a text in business courses as well as being available to business owners. These monographs, which dealt with many aspects of business operations, included chapters on office design and appropriate furniture forms and photographs of office layouts, often with before and after images (See Fig. 3 in Appendix 1).

Through this investigation of primary sources, it became clear that the early foundations for ergonomic research and office design were in the archives of business publications and furniture manufacturers.  There were no precedents to accommodate the new types of work required in the office.  And there were no individuals who specialized in office design.  As the form and nature of business enterprises changed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, requiring new and innovative offices to meet their needs, the primary sources of information for business owners were the furniture manufacturers, who analyzed those needs and developed product lines to accommodate them; and business publications which analyzed the current business conditions and proposed solutions to existing problems.


  • -----.  Art Metal Steel Office Equipment, Catalog. No. 706.     Jamestown, NY:  Art Metal Construction Company, 1925.
  • -----.  Card Filing Desks.  Trade catalog brochure.     Muskegon, MI:  Shaw-Walker Company, n.d.
  • Leffingwell, William Henry, ed.  Making the Office Pay.  Chicago:  A. W. Shaw Company, 1917.
  • Yates, Joanne.  Control through Communication: The Rise of System in American Manufacturing. Baltimore and London:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.


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