How our preconceptions can lead us to fail the office design bench test

Logan Offices New YorkThe office furniture design scene certainly came alive in the early 1990s. New ideas and new technologies wove themselves into the grand narrative of new ways of working. Everything was possible and there was no longer one best way of doing things. In New York, Chiat Day’s offices featured touch-down desks, garish crimson floors and walls and a reception framed by a huge pair of plastic, glistening lips. In Helsinki, Sol Cleaning Services did away completely with ideas as outmoded as desks and working hours. In the UK, British Airways gave their staff olive groves and indoor streams to work alongside. And in London a small media company called Michaelides and Bednash had offices that consisted of a room furnished with a single 20m long serviced table for its 20 staff to share. Such workplaces were surely one-offs, mere footnotes to the grand narrative.

So, while workplace design has almost beyond recognition since that time, plastic lips and olive groves are still a rarity. Little wonder that the eminent workplace theorist and designer Frank Duffy wrote the following of the Michaelides and Bednash office in his 1997 book The New Office: “The Michaelides and Bednash table would not work for many of the companies featured in this book. The office space is very specific to the business it houses.”

And that should have been that.

Except for one thing.

The long table with a core of data, comms and power servicing favoured by Michaelides and Bednash – now commonly known as a bench desk – has become one of the great office design success stories of the last decade or more. Pretty much all furniture manufacturers have a bench system as their standard offering and it remains the default solution in many UK offices.

But why should this be? With all the space planning and product options now available to us why should such a product have taken off in quite the way it has? Designers are free to create whatever working environment and recommend whatever products they think best meets the needs their clients. It’s also apparent that the bench desk is a good solution in many environments.

We should also be aware of the advantages of benches, including the arguments about teamworking, space efficiency and simplicity. But what seems to be less apparent is why they are specified in environments where they are clearly not the best solution. Benches can be inflexible, impersonal, often make overly intensive use of space and can be too regimented. They fly in the face of the notion that the workplace is an organic environment that must respond to and encourage complex flows of people, information and ideas.

The real shame is that they have come to dominate so much of what office furniture manufacturers assume as an ideal workplace solution when there are so many opportunities to innovate. Contemporary facilities managers have a wider range of planning models, finishes and products than ever before. The office furniture market offers a wide range of solutions so while the bench desk is a useful element in the overall picture, it can also become counterproductive when it is selected as a default rather than chosen as the best solution. The fact that it is so easy is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.