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It’s fair to say the office has come a long way since the days of clunky desktop computers, cubicle farms and ceilings discoloured by cigarette smoke. Few will remember those aspects fondly, and the new generation of employees will be thankful of the significant developments in modern workplace design.

For an idea of how much office interior design has changed, look no further than the silver screen (or Netflix if you’re part of the new generation). Indeed, since the early days of cinema, writers and directors have told stories of office life, from Billy Wilder’s portrayal of corporate America in ‘The Apartment’ (1960) to Seth Gordon’s dark comedy ‘Horrible Bosses’ (2011).

In this blog, we explore some of the films that best represent the evolution of office design, taking into account layout, décor, culture and technology. So, fasten your seatbelts, grab a bag of popcorn, and check out our favourite office scenes from the big screen…

The Early Open Plan Layout – ‘The Apartment’

‘The Apartment’ follows the story of Bud Baxter, an insurance clerk working in 9-to-5 corporate New York. In the hope of being promoted, Baxter lets his superiors use his Upper West Side apartment for extramarital affairs, but the plot thickens as he begins to develop feelings for his boss’s lover, Fran.

In the 1960 film, we see an example of the early open-plan layout, which, like a factory, was organised for maximum efficiency and productivity. Note how the configuration looks similar to a production line, with desks organised in fixed rows and employees tapping away on typewriters like machinists.

It’s also interesting to see a decorator painting Baxter’s name on the door of his new private office, which is situated next to senior executives. These days, there isn’t so much emphasis on hierarchy, with managers often sitting with employees in an open plan setting (something we’ll see a little later). We also have the benefit of glass manifestation!

Offices of the Future? – ‘Playtime’

After World War II, American corporations began building modern glass skyscrapers, with a typical example being the Seagram Building in Midtown Manhattan. Come the 1960s, the emergence of glass skyscrapers was such that it compelled Jacques Tati to write and direct ‘Playtime’, a comedy that takes place in a futuristic version of Paris.

As the main character, Monsieur Hulot, wanders the streets, we see Tati’s impression of Paris under the influence of Americanisation, with clinical buildings marked by muted greys and sterile interiors. Every building looks the same, and at one point, we see travel advertisements for various countries featuring near identical skyscrapers, signifying the impact of globalisation.

As far as Tati’s predictions for the future go, the inclusion of office cubicles looks prescient given the film’s 1967 release date. Cubicles weren’t commonplace until the 1980s, and one could also argue that those in ‘Playtime’ resemble acoustic office pods, which are prevalent in offices today.

The Emergence of Desktop Computers – ‘Wall Street’

Early computers were noisy, cumbersome machines that sat in designated rooms away from the general office population, and few employees knew how to use them. Come the 1980s, computers were compact enough to sit on each employee’s desk, marking the start of a new technological era within the workplace.

For an example of the emergence of office computers, check out Oliver Stone’s 1987 classic ‘Wall Street’. The film, released shortly before the Warrived in 1989, tells the story of ambitious stockbroker Bud Fox, who becomes involved with an unscrupulous and corrupt corporate trader called Gordon Gekko.

Throughout the film, we take tours of Bud Fox’s cramped open plan office, which is replete with boxy computers and mountains of scruffy paperwork. This contrasts with Gordon Gekko’s magnificent private office, which, with its artwork, leather seats and view of the city skyline, represents hierarchy, affluence and power in 1980s corporate America.

Cubicle Farms – ‘Office Space’

In the 1980s, American companies began integrating cheap modular walls into their offices in an attempt to enhance privacy and productivity. These came to be known as cubicle farms, which many today see as symbols of corporate drudgery and dated, unadventurous workplace design.

Perhaps the most famous depiction of the cubicle farm is the 1999 American comedy ‘Office Space’. The film satirises the day-to-day lives of employees working for a 1990s software company, including Peter Gibbons, a bored, micromanaged engineer who hates his job.

Peter is trapped in his job, and the tall cubicle walls that surround him and his colleagues emphasise this. If that wasn’t bad enough, the employees have a constant reminder of how they should behave in the form of a sign which reads, “is this good for the company?” These days, that might read, “is this good for you?”, such is the new focus on employee wellbeing and work-life balance.

The Cool Tech Office – ‘The Social Network’

Adapted from Ben Mezrich’s book ‘The Accidental Millionaires’, the 2010 film ‘The Social Network’ portrays the founding of social media platform Facebook, and the subsequent lawsuits. While the drama makes for a compelling watch, the film also gives an interesting insight into how much office design has changed compared to our previous examples.

At one point in the film, Facebook co-founder, Eduardo Saverin, travels to the company’s new California office, where he discovers he is being squeezed out of the business. As he walks through the office, we see arcade games, commercial drink fridges, flat screen computers, and an array of furniture. This highlights the recent trend of companies investing heavily in workspaces to attract talented employees, as we’ve seen from the likes of Google, Coca Cola and Red Bull.

Note also how Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is sitting amongst a team of young tech employees. When we compare this to Gordon Gekko in his lavish private office, the contrast speaks volumes about how workplace culture has evolved.

For more office interior design ideas, check out our latest blog: Office Design Trends for 2023

The Home Office – ‘The Whale’

Our most recent example is ‘The Whale’, which tells the story of a reclusive and obese English teacher called Charlie, played by Brendan Fraser. Charlie is unable to leave his flat and is slowly eating his way to death, but he desperately tries to reconnect with his teenage daughter Ellie for a last shot at redemption.

What is notable about ‘The Whale’ is that Charlie’s office (or classroom to be exact) is his apartment. He operates via a video chat platform, giving lessons to multiple students, albeit with his image blacked out. Remind you of anything?

Indeed, most of us are now well-accustomed to working from home. The pandemic dramatically changed the way we work, forcing us to embrace new technology to stay connected with our colleagues. For that reason, we couldn’t leave ‘The Whale’ off the list!

Thanks for Reading

The time has come to turn on the lights and roll the credits; we hope you found our history of office design blog entertaining. As we’ve seen throughout our examples, office interior design has progressed substantially since the factory style layout of ‘The Apartment’.

To quote 80s screen icon Ferris Bueller, “life moves pretty fast,” and the question now is what will come next? Will the emergence of artificial intelligence reduce the need for a large office space? Will another global event re-define the way we work again? Who knows-  but no doubt a Hollywood script is being written as we speak!

Are You in Need of an Experienced Refurbishment Company?

As we’ve seen in this blog, the modern office is more than just a place to work. It’s where employees spend a significant portion of their day, so it’s important to create a space that’s both functional and inviting. That’s where we come in. Our team of experienced office interior designers can help you create a workspace that reflects your company’s unique culture and values.

We’d be happy to answer any questions you have and get started on creating the perfect workspace for your company. To speak with a member of our friendly client care team, please call 0333 600 1234 or fill out the enquiry form below.