Could You Have Imagined Offices with Slides and Swings in 1976?

Were you even here in 1976? One designer’s perspective on how workplaces have changed since he started his career. Hint: a lot.

Baskervill’s open drafting room, circa 1950. (Pre-Brent, and pre-workplace design shift.) Image courtesy of Baskervill.

I’m one of those people now. You know, the ones who talk about how good all the young kids have it these days and how back in my day, we all had to walk three miles uphill, in the snow, both directions, and, well: you get the picture.

In my defense, things really are leaps and bounds different, especially when it comes to workplace design. I keep asking myself over and over again: How did we get here from there? By here, I mean slides and swings in a corporate office. And by there, I mean the dingy, cramped workplaces of yesteryear.

When I finished architecture school in 1976, my first job had me working alone in the sun room of someone’s house. My next job? In a vacant farmhouse kitchen that an architect was using as an office. It was in the middle of nowhere, and the room had two tables, two stools, and an oil heater.

From there, I moved into a cramped addition on the back of a shotgun row house in downtown Richmond, where I worked exactly the schedule demanded of me by the company’s time clock. (Punch in, punch out. Lunch was at precisely 12 o’clock; not a minute before or after.)

The author (far right), on the cover of ARCHITECT in 1989. Image courtesy of Baskervill.

The author (far right), on the cover of ARCHITECTURE in 1989. Image courtesy of Baskervill.

There was never any talk of workplace happiness or natural light or collaboration. One place I worked didn’t even heat or cool the bathroom just so employees wouldn’t linger.

When I first came to Baskervill, I joined other architects in a very organized line of drafting desks. In those days, drafters brought their own tools and sat in backless metal stools, heads down working until a restroom or lunch break.

Ergonomic chairs, especially provided by the employer, were unheard of. One day, a good friend and I had enough of the stooped backs and bent necks, so we went out and bought our own chairs: padded seat and back, a foot ring, five double casters, and fully adjustable. That was the pinnacle of workplace comfort.

Today, the author's office is a veritable shrine to workplace play and creativity. Everything in his office has a story. See the white canvas on the wall? That's his first painting. And the single-engine yellow plane hanging overhead? It's a 1/3-scale model of one he used to fly. Image courtesy of Baskervill.

Today, the author’s office is a veritable shrine to workplace play and creativity. Everything in his office has a story. See the white canvas on the wall? That’s his first painting. And the single-engine yellow plane hanging overhead? It’s a 1/3-scale model of one he used to fly. Image courtesy of Baskervill.

A little on down the road, I started a small firm with two other architects that ultimately merged with Baskervill. That was in the 1980s, and that’s around the time my workplace environment started to loosen — and open — up.

Partitions were lowered, and offices were pushed to the interior or off to walls with no windows. Natural light became democratic. And instead of the expansive, quiet drafting rooms we were used to, we started seeing inviting, open environments.

It was the start of an enormous shift, a totally new way of thinking about work and the workplace.

When it comes to decor, he prefers toys to diplomas and calls the room a refuge. That’s a far cry from where he started. Image courtesy of Baskervill.

When it comes to decor, he prefers toys to diplomas and calls the room a refuge. That’s a far cry from where he started. Image courtesy of Baskervill.

Now I’ve got an office (interior, of course) that I’ve decked out with model planes and bright, modern paintings. From my seat, I can see the entire corporate design studio in all of its open, collaborative glory. It’s a long way from where I started, my first seat in that tiny sun room, and it feels like I’ve seen it all.

Then I remember that things are always changing. Something new will come along and replace the slides and swings of today. Who knows? Maybe in ten years we’ll all have wearable headsets that project a virtual office space with virtual people and virtual sounds without ever having to leave our house in the morning.

Do you have a tale of old ways of working to share for our Nostalgia column? We want to hear it! Send ideas to editor@workdesign.com

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