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The Very Firsts: Office Desks

The Very Firsts: Office Desk Edition

(More Interesting Than it Sounds)

Taylor Susewitz, Last Modified on December 30, 2021

It’s safe to say that desks, in general, have pretty basic uses: we sit at them, they hold our desktops, our papers, and they might even sport an occasional ring from the mug we didn’t use a coaster with (we can wipe that up later). They’re a part of our everyday work lives. You’re probably not examining your desk and wondering, “man, I could really use a breakdown of where this design evolved from,” but trust us, it’s actually quite interesting.

In the earliest commercial eras dating back to the mid-late 1800s, entire buildings were dedicated to employees’ work. Desks were essentially lined in rows with their accompanying chairs, and management’s offices were spread around the perimeter of the workplace. There was an immense divide between the employees and their management. It was crowded yet somewhat isolating at the same time. Simply put, it wasn’t very comfortable, and unfortunately, these layout designs got worse before they got any better.

A Typical Taylorist layout

I mean, look at this layout. Dreadful, isn’t it?


As time rolled on, offices began to welcome more contemporary technologies such as typewriters and telephones. Companies aimed to achieve maximum production, not totally prioritizing the comfort of their employees, let alone considering it. Desks now allowed just enough space for the mandated materials and the employees’ elbow room. Desks were, again, aligned in rows, with minimal space between each one. This layout, aimed at maximum productivity and attaining economic efficiency is understood as a “Taylorist” approach. It’s like a workaholic’s playground. 


It wasn’t until the 1940s that designers began to develop an entire world of office furniture, one that they could profit from and supply the workforce with. One of the earliest and most innovative designers is recognized as George Nelson, whose designs stand with Herman Miller and continue to draw in huge success. In fact, he is considered to have designed the very first modern workstation, known as the ‘Home Office Desk’ (K2 Space). How cool is that?


Office spaces in the 60s began aiming to achieve collaborative layouts, ones that engaged their employees in their work as opposed to isolating them. Comfort and ergonomics has also played a substantial role in desks’ design and layout, as it can be considerably difficult to sit at a ninety-degree angle for eight hours a day. That being said, their designs began to take after that of our homes to create a more comfortable space to drive productivity in. If we are sitting for that long, our workstations might as well comply with our comfort and productivity needs as much as our chairs do! 

Herman Miller Sit-To-Stand Desk

Today, desks have become incredibly protean in their designs and usage. Adore the industrial vintage look? Keep an eye out for a Steelcase Tanker desk. Prefer clean lines and modern multi-functional pieces? Look for a Herman Miller Sit-To-Stand height-adjustable table. In fact, Leonardo Da Vinci was one of the first well-known individuals to utilize a standing desk. If you’re currently sitting (or standing) at your height-adjustable desk, you might be wondering, “does that make me a dynamic polymath of the 21st century?” We’re here to tell you that the answer is yes, yes it does.