There was a lot of shared space, which could get pretty noisy, and offered no personal space or privacy for employees in the area. Executives were typically elsewhere — down hallways and in closed offices.
In the 1970s, it finally started to be replaced with something new: “open plan” furnishings and dividers, such as the now-ubiquitous office cubicle.
Take a look back this collection of old office cubicles and popular business desk layouts from the 1970s to see what it was like to work in America’s corporate 9-to5 world back then.
Offices with dividers and cubicles, not walls (1973)
Article from the Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania) June 3, 1973
Five years from now, more than 65 percent of the office space built in the United States will have no offices, no walls, lots of people and plenty of peace and quiet.
This new approach to the “office without offices” is the result of what architects call Open Area Planning, a concept that “opens up” the traditional office area by using combinations of plants, filing areas, multi-purpose office furniture, and part-high barriers or screens instead of walls.
The idea has already gained widespread acceptance here and abroad. A notable champion is the General Services Administration of the U.S. Government, which estimates that upwards of 10 million square feet of federal office space will be “open” by the end of the decade.
Various plus factors
A variety of factors have made the open office popular, the main one: Employees prefer it over the traditional cubicle approach.
Many employees argue that walls kept people apart, rarely allowing them to see one another except “by the water fountain.”
The open office allows greater creative interplay between members of the staff, these people point out.
A more practical reason for the concept’s popularity is that interiors usually cost less to build and maintain and provide office flexibility for organizational changes without sacrificing privacy.
“Over the lifespan of a modern office building, dramatic savings and increased efficiencies are obtainable through intelligent use of the open-office concept,” says James B. Webel, vice president and general man-ager of Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp.’s architectural products division.
“These savings are evident in initial construction costs as well as in utilization and maintenance costs throughout the life of the building.”
Peace and quiet?
A major problem confronting open office planners involved speech — or acoustical — control.
It was determined that the most carefully planned, visually appealing, well-equipped office failed if the people using the space couldn’t hear each other when they needed to — or did hear each other when they didn’t need to.
Generally, the problem was solved by installing a system of acoustical ceilings, sound screens and electronic background-masking sound.
If the system is properly installed and tuned, normal conversation can be easily understood by those conversing, but cannot be understood in an adjoining work station.
Some of the major corporations that have adopted open offices in the past decade include Owens-Corning Fiberglas, Toledo Edison Co., Eastman-Kodak, John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance. Co., E.I. duPont de Nemours & Co., the Weyerhaeuser Co., and the New York World Trade Center.
The working environment that works (1975)
Photos below and text from Westinghouse: Office furniture catalog from 1975
In the past decade alone, great strides have been made in the computer sciences, the technology of copying and in word processing. We continue to be challenged by new dimensions in the dissemination and processing of information.
A practical working environment engineered to accommodate the shifting relationships, workloads and varying responsibilities demanded by today’s businesses and institutions.
The office — a tool
The office is no longer viewed and revered as a static fixture — immovable and resistant to change. But rather it is a dynamic, living and breathing “tool” to be used as a responsive vehicle to the challenge of change.
The open plan office
As a response to the dynamics of change, the open plan office was created.
Philosophically, it first concerns itself with analysis and evaluation of the organization under study.
It delves into the flow of information. How do the people communicate? What systems and procedures are used or should be employed to make the office’s workflow efficiently? What administrative support systems are required?
1970s businesses: Flexibility with open plan office furniture
The concept of open office planning must concern itself with space.
By controlling the level and intensity of sound, the open office is an exciting and vibrant work environment. Enough sound to experience involvement, but sufficiently subdued to work and converse in both reasonable and practical privacy.
The logic of open offices is greatly reinforced because of today’s critical energy problems.
How does a space planning system conserve energy? — By the emphasis on a relatively low number of lumens per square foot of ceiling lighting, and greater emphasis on “task” lighting at the work surface where greater light intensity is needed.
The trend is “up” or indirect lighting from the work station and the total elimination of ceiling lights. The open plan allows for a reappraisal of lighting concepts, to reduce wattage used and heat generated from overhead lights.
Heating and air conditioning is more easily controlled in the open plan.
It is no longer required to have separate zone controls for large numbers of individual offices. The large single open office spaces are not inhibited by ceiling-high walls. Control of energy use is therefore greatly enhanced and resultant savings can be attained.
Office layouts from the 1970s: Planning for people
Planning for human considerations is like planning the management of our most important asset — People.
The good open office plan concerns itself with the behavioral aspects that motivate people. It doesn’t mean to placate the “whims” of the worker but to realistically analyze the needs of people as related to the environment in which people will be immersed. For this environment is directly related to the efficiency and productivity of the office worker.
Office cubicles in the mid-1970s
A cubicle for a waiting area
Creative use of decorative fabric panels stimulates and enlivens this area. The impression of openness provided by the glass panel in the far corner becomes a focal point for both the reception room and the main corridor. Always a warm, bright, and open environment to work in and visit.
Office cubicles: Economics of change and facilities
After analyzing original investment cost, maintenance or operating costs, and the heavy costs related to personnel and the potential cost impact of increasing efficiency and productivity, you then should delve deeply into the cost of changing the layout.
Flexibility is a must, because change in today’s world is inevitable.
Documented figures show that major change in traditional office layouts can cost from a low of $6.00 per square foot of floor space to as much as $25.00 per square foot. These figures compare with major changes within the broad spectrum of the open office of only 100 to 750 per square foot.
The Westinghouse ASD Group system is among the easiest and least expensive to alter and rearrange because of the simple universal post connections and the simplicity of hanging and removing components.
Future flexibility then is as important as — and may even be more important than — first cost in the economics of open offices.
A good system of open plan offices is responsive to each user’s needs. One of the country’s leading insurance executives explains the approach this way: “The open plan system is a disciplinary framework which restricts unwanted clutter, yet is permissive enough to allow greater freedom of expression for both the individual and the organization.”
And, when form follows function, the result is beauty, as well as efficiency.
Concept furniture in the open office layouts from the seventies
An open plan system is a composite of the concept (software) and the furniture (hardware).
You must buy the rationale before you buy the hardware, because the analysis of your needs in these ever-changing times will determine what products you require to meet your firm’s needs and requirements.
Basically, the hardware consists of a variety of panels, both acoustical and hard-surfaced, that are offered in various heights and include an ability to hang various needed components from the panels.
The components include work surfaces, case goods, display shelves, paper organizers, a system of drawers, lights, wardrobes, chalkboards, tackboards and a variety of miscellaneous accessories.
This is the Westinghouse ASD Group
The system that will work for you is the ASD Group. Its great charm comes from its exceptional adaptability, the cheerful, open, informal work arrangements, and the freedom from monotony even in large groupings of workers.
The pages [here] describe many of the individual features which make it worth your while to consider the use of Westinghouse ASD Group in your office.
Retro seventies modular work station setup with desks for an office (1976)
Shaw-Walker’s new Modular Work Stations permit better use of office space and personnel — for today’s needs, and tomorrow’s changes.