So, we’re all working from home where we can. Easy enough if you work in admin or a creative field and just need a laptop and broadband, and you might assume it was only ever possible when those things were invented. But that isn’t the case. Certain callings – artist, inventor, writer, architect – have always merged the office and the home, but starting as long ago as the late 19th century, repeated developments in technology, interior design and architecture have made WFH as easy as ABC…
Of course, people have been working from home for two thousand years. Roman merchants, mediaeval stewards and Georgian bankers recorded taxes paid, goods traded and sums owed from business premises that were also their homes, hence the expression ‘living over the shop’. But as commerce expanded and paper instruments of finance replaced the physical exchange of commodities, this process moved further away from the places of activity that it served whilst the space needed got larger. From the existing models of lawyers’ chambers and monks’ cells clustered together emerged a new building type: the office.
The Industrial Revolution brought factories and mechanisation. Trade started to centralise, served by canals and then railways. The very homes where business began were now pushed out by higher land values and an increase in noxious activity. At the same time, and as a direct result, the suburb was invented, an altogether more pleasant place for those clerks to live – the commuter was born.
In the last half of the 19th century the nib pen, ledger and box file started to be joined by a slew of advanced devices to aid, speed-up or even replace the basic tasks of writing, copying, organising and passing on data. They were designed for employment in the office but even at this early stage many had obvious and actual application outside.
The typewriter, by means of which clear, printed text could be produced, could be used anywhere, even on a train. The dictating machine, recording the intended content of a typed letter for later transcription, derived from Edison’s foil-coated rotary phonograph. The telegraph and then the telephone conveyed messages over hundreds of miles almost as fast as they could spoken or typed, whilst early facsimile machines could send signatures along wires to verify bank transactions. Mechanical calculators had been around for three hundred years but were radically improved in this period, and Hollerith patented the electromechanical collation of information recorded as patterns of holes on pieces of card, which was fast and error-free.
Simultaneously engineering and architecture were making both the home and the office more comfortable, with electric light and lifts, hot water, centralised heating and ventilation. Soon all of this would come together…
In 1898 Belgian architect Victor Horta bought adjacent plots on a street in Brussels and designed his home on one and his studio on the other. They interconnected at multiple levels though had separate entrances, and both were in his distinctive interpretation of Art Nouveau with stone, metal, wood and glass layered and twisted into organic forms. Iron was used structurally to permit wider openings in the façade where these were needed by the plan. His studio comprised various rooms – more than a dozen people worked there – and featured a waiting area, telephone box, electric light and radiators, both of these part of building-wide systems.
In the following decades the concept of an office that resembled a home exploded. The great Frank Lloyd Wright, whose own career spanned the turn of the century comfortably, designed both by the hundred. For Pennsylvanian retailer Edgar J. Kaufmann, the man for whom he had already built the dramatic forest home Fallingwater, Wright created an office in his department store in the mid-1930s. Lined entirely in cypress veneers, including the window louvres, featuring indirect lighting, matching chairs and stools and with an adjacent conference room, secretary’s office and private toilet and cloakroom, it had the feel of a restrained yet sumptuous home rather than a place of business.
In the same decade, a generation of European industrialists was commissioning lavish houses across the continent. All included extensive space for entertaining guests but also semi-private areas for the husband to work, receive friends and associates and conduct business.
On the outskirts of Lille, Paul and Lucie Cavroix commissioned a villa from Robert Mallet-Stevens that bears their name and overlooked their textile mills. Finished in 1932 its yellow brick exterior concealed state-of-the-art fixtures and fittings, including mechanical shutters, a network of speakers for broadcasting music or voice, a telephone switchboard and a lift. Cavroix’s office was part of a suite of rooms that included a waiting room and circular smoking room. His desk supported a box of switches controlling aspects of the house.
The Villa Necchi Campiglio in Milan was completed in 1935 to designs by Piero Portaluppi; after the war Tomaso Buzzi made alterations. The married client families owned and managed a successful foundry and iron works that also produced motors and their home, as crisply Modern as their products, relied on carefully considered planes of hardwood, plaster and metals for its decorative effects. As in Lille, Campiglio’s study and smoking room had integrated furniture and minimalist lines with a safe and personal archive concealed behind panels.
In England, meanwhile, Stephen Courtauld was part of that noted textile and chemical family but preferred the arts and philanthropy. He and his wife Virginia leased the derelict Great Hall built by Edward IV to the south east of London and in 1933 built a new house next door. Behind a traditional frontage, John Seely and Paul Paget placed a spectacular Art Deco entrance hall lined with marquetry murals and lit by glass discs in the ceiling. Boasting similar facilities to the Villa Cavroix as well as a centralised vacuum cleaning system, Stephen’s office-cum-library benefitted from an electric fire and
sliding screens on which to display watercolours. On the other side of London a few years later young architect Patrick Gwynne built the Homewood, an explicitly Internationalist house on piloti or stilts, for himself, his parents and his sister. Largely open plan with functions differentiated by furniture and finish and lit by floor to ceiling windows, it both housed and demonstrated his practice. Gwynne’s office thus featured elegantly concealed plan chests and a desk that incorporated a drawing board, whilst a living room writing table changed form as needed.
Three relevant technological advances originated in the years before and after the war that followed – television, the photocopier, which used a light beam, special powder and heat to duplicate an image, and the computer, which could calculate far faster than any human or mechanism and would ultimately enable information of many kinds to be stored, transmitted and recalled.
In peacetime America’s massive wealth and manufacturing power turned to the domestic economy and the new concept of consumerism. General Motors hired Finnish architect Eero Saarinen to plan a vast research and production campus in Warren, Michigan that opened in 1955. Within lay the office of legendary car design executive Harley Earl, firmly located ‘at work’ but owing much to residential interiors of the period. Serpentine walls are lined in vertical strips of cherrywood and flow into a continuous, projecting shelf of varying depth containing planters, a globe and several banquettes. The massive, sculptural desk is formed from laminated cherrywood planks, shaped and lacquered like the car mock-ups made on site. Built in were a telephone, retractable desk lamp, radio and controls for room lighting, blinds and temperature.
Within years, mainframe computers could be accessed remotely by users who bought time on them to have programmes run and problems solved – the terminal on which the data was input was joined to the processor by telephone lines, via modems. Just before the end of the 1960s, the first interconnected computers emerged when two and then three such systems, all belonging to universities or research institutes, were linked (the initial attempt to have them ‘talk’ crashed the system). This was the start of the internet, although the word itself was not used until 1974.
In 1971 all of the previous century’s achievements in information handling culminated in the Datapoint 2200, the world’s first full-function desktop computer, designed by the Computer Terminal Corporation’s Jack Frassanito, J.Phillip Ray and Gus Roche. It was developed from their earlier glass-screen replacement for the print-only teletype machines that were in common use at the time. Crucially, the new computer’s chip was the basis for the much better known IBM PC that followed, which makes the 2200 the progenitor of every such machine thereafter, including the laptop I’m typing this on. At home.