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Office desks… and a touch of woolly inspiration

Nov 28, 2018

Northampton has been a hub for industry and blossoming small businesses from even before medieval times. As we mentioned last week, it’s particularly renowned for shoe making. But ahead of that, Northampton was known for wool.

Many of the streets have names harking back to those days, think Sheep Street and Mercers Row, and discovering this got us thinking. We wrote about the history of office chairs last week, but Northampton has, once again provided us with inspiration… With all the burgeoning small businesses that have thrived in the town over the last millennium, we reckon a peek at the history of the mainstay of every office is also worth it… office desks.

Office desks over the years…

If we take it as read that Northampton has had businesses furnishing their work space with office desks for a while now, it’s quite fun to ponder on what this has meant for employees over the centuries.

As we discovered last week, office chair design wasn’t taken seriously until the mid-19th Century. But the flat surface upon which a person ‘works’ – regardless of how they are sitting – has been the focus of attention for a bit longer than that. Take the rather grand looking private desks, with drawers galore and inkwells, for example. These were being built many many years before the Centripetal Spring Armchair came into being. Functionality was very much a part of their design, with storage, surface for writing with ink blotters, hidden drawers, and secret compartments. Office desks were works of art.

Technology then started to dictate…

However, once typewriters and telephones came along, how office desks were used began to change. Employee wellbeing was still but a whispered hope, of course, but maximising efficiency and output became a key objective of their design. Long rows of basic office desks and chairs ensued and enabled employers to fit the maximum number of people into a small space. Them were grim times.

However, open plan working then started to shift in emphasis as secretaries, typists, and receptionists began to appear. We wouldn’t dare to suggest that as women became more involved in office work the demand for more attractive, aesthetically pleasing office desks began to increase… but the timing is similar. Comfort also became a factor, particularly for those sitting for hours at a time to do their job. So by the mid-20th Century the concept of the ‘workstation’ had appeared.

Wood no longer ruled…

Research into better materials and more exciting designs brought with it the fledgling versions of office desks that we know today. Because they were robust, scratch-proof, and able to be moulded into smoother, more comfortable shapes, the concept of happy employees then also began to make itself known. Different working positions for different tasks were noted and then required of office desks, and designers rose to the challenge with aplomb. And before too long, ergonomics had stepped forward, so that both comfort AND efficiency could be catered for; all laced with a dash of privacy if desired.

To incorporate cables and beyond…

Of course, for a few decades cable management became a key factor in the design of office desks. However, in recent years, with the introduction of WiFi that has waned in importance. But the funny thing is… though technology has shaped and shifted office desk design, the one thing that’s never changed is the need for a flat surface and adequate work space.

And we can’t help feeling that’s brought us full circle, for it’s a little bit like Northampton’s story regarding supporting small businesses. Industries have come and gone. Technology has sprung up and morphed. But always, people have been involved; people and their need for office desks.

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