Learning from Wright’s Work Ethic

Are historic design trends coming back to the workplace?

Are historic design trends coming back to the workplace? It’s impossible to generalize, but one thing is sure: In Frank Lloyd Wright’s SC Johnson Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin, with its neat rows of desks, there isn’t a private office in sight. It’s the same situation today, when these inner sanctums are missing in our offices.

And although the rows of desks faced the same direction at SC Johnson, they were simple desks and returns. (We might now call this design a modified bench.) The SC Johnson desks were not typical benches, which carries different where collaboration and bringing people together is the aim of the furniture.

Nevertheless, Wright’s grouping is modern in that it makes the great room flexible, while maximizing real estate potential. The complete lack of panels is reminiscent of current benching designs. Has the panel run its course? Is it destined for retirement? Most designers say no, or, as some add, not until technology catches up with the ability to power office equipment. For now, the panel helps organize and house electrical requirements and data cables. In the past, panels with acoustical properties helped stifle the noise from the dot matrix printers that sat at the end of many workers’ desks. Today the printer is located in a communal space, to keep its noise away from people.

Cognitive research argues against using panels to provide acoustical barriers and improve working efficiencies, as documented in the book, Minds at Work and the MarketWatch article, “Say goodbye to the office cubicle.” As Matthew J. Fanoe, vice president of real estate for Coca-Cola refreshments writes, “We have found that, without exception, the noise level goes down once panels are removed.” Besides, today’s worker wants a more collaborative space. The term “see and be seen” is becoming commonplace in today’s office design. Yet along with open plans and collaboration, comes the need to provide private spaces for meetings, personal calls, and focused concentration. As technology advances it’s likely that a common power solution for benching and open plans is on the horizon.

Although the SC Johnson Administration Building may have had minimal power requirements, the tools of today’s office have similarities to what was required to work in 1939. The typewriter has been replaced with a computer, laptop or tablet, and with wireless Internet access the need for data cables goes away. With advancements in batteries and wireless technology, panels may not be required at all, and disappear like the large adding machines did. Next time you’re watching Mad Men or movies that take place in the 1960s and 70s, take a look at the office settings because chances are you’ll be looking at layouts that are similar to what you’re working on today. And if you’re ever in Racine, don’t forget to drop by the SC Johnson campus where The SC Johnson Gallery: At Home with Frank Lloyd Wright recently opened with an exhibition that showcases a rotating selection of the famous architect’s designs and his influence on the American home.

John Hindman, IIDA, is a regional design specialist at Kimball® Office. This post title and series was amended on 6/14/2012 and is not a part of the Ways We Work series.

Categories: Frank Lloyd Wright, Workplace Architecture