What Frank Lloyd Wright Can Teach Us about Comfort in the Office

As more white-collar employees are returning to work onsite, we continue to speculate what the post-pandemic office should be. One of the most-discussed trends, which began before the pandemic but is expected to take on new resonance in the present circumstances, is incorporating home-like elements into office interiors. Workspaces have started to look like living rooms, with oversized sofas strewn with throw pillows, cocoon-shaped armchairs nestled around coffee tables, and bookshelves styled with knick-knacks. Industry insiders believe such spaces will ease employees’ transitions back to work and make them comfortable in an environment that, for many, is anything but. Discussed as a recent revelation, the homey office is actually an idea Frank Lloyd Wright implemented almost 120 years ago. Wright claimed his design promoted the wellbeing of employees, but it was the men at the top who benefited the most. The same might be true today.

In 1903, Wright designed a new administration building for the Larkin Company, a successful mail-order business in Buffalo, New York. The building featured a number of amenities that were extraordinary for the time, including a lounge with sofas and armchairs, potted ferns, a piano, and a fireplace, where staff could read or nap during their breaks. A dining room decorated with paintings and leather and wood furniture provided a refined setting for lunch, which was complemented once a week with live music played on a built-in organ. There was even a rooftop garden where employees could stroll among the greenery. These and other details were intended to provide a “restful, harmonious environment,” Wright explained in the company newsletter, and promote the “health and cheerfulness” of employees. He likened the building to a “family home.”

Of the 1,800 employees who went to work there every day, a large portion were female clerical workers. At this time, increasing numbers of lower- and middle-class women were entering the workplace, which was thought of as an intimidating, and even dangerous, male domain. The home, in contrast, was viewed as the women’s sphere — a safe, clean haven in an increasingly chaotic world. According to historian Dell Upton, the domestic touches in the Larkin building were meant to make the female staff more comfortable as they ventured into territory largely uncharted by their gender.

The homelike nature of the building, however, ultimately served John D. Larkin and company executives. To be sure, neither these men nor Wright were feminists fighting to help women gain access to greater opportunities. Business owners like Larkin wanted women in their workforce because large, growing corporations required hundreds of clerical workers, and literate women were the cheapest qualified workers available. The Larkin motto, after all, was “save all cost which adds no value.” If the female clerks believed Larkin cared about them like family and was vested in their comfort, they would be more inclined to work harder and ungrudgingly, thereby increasing Larkin’s profits.

Comfort and homeyness in the Larkin building also had its limits, circumscribed to the spaces employees enjoyed during their little breaktime. For the long hours spent working, clerks were subject to pronounced discomfort. The desk chairs Wright designed were made of cold steel with sharp corners and erect backs. Some were attached to desks with hinged beams that permitted a limited range of motion. Another style with three legs became so notorious for tipping over while in use that employees nicknamed it the “suicide chair,” historian Jack Quinan found. Apparently to avoid the steel chairs, clerks lugged the more conventional ones from the dining room to the work floor. Managers eventually became so fed up with Wright’s chairs that they threatened to buy replacements themselves.

In today’s office, what kind of comfort can homeyness really provide? Perhaps like Wright’s experiment, the sofas and throw pillows are more about psychological rather than physical comfort for engaging in work. Although cushy armchairs might be nice to relax in, they’re not the best choice to work in. Try typing on a laptop in one. As soon as your elbows start banging into the armrests you’ll be scanning the room for any other open seat — even a three-legged one. Sit all the way back in those deep sofas and your legs will stick straight out like a kindergartener watching cartoons rather than a professional [your occupation] listening to a presentation. Comfort in the office is different than comfort in the home.

Steelcase in collaboration with West Elm, office furnishings (2021) (image courtesy and via Steelcase)

This isn’t to dismiss the psychological impact our environments have on us, but we should be asking ourselves whether the home is the best benchmark for redesigning the office at this moment, and for whom such a sense of comfort is really intended.

Last year the transition to remote work burdened disproportionately more women than men. For many the home became a chaotic, oppressive environment. Returning to the office to find your boss’s idea of a model living room might not inspire the same warm fuzzies for caretakers and homemakers as those who enjoyed the WFH experience. Although plenty of mothers have been eager to return to the office, a survey of knowledge workers revealed that far more executives (most of whom are men) than employees currently working remotely want to return onsite. The same study found that two-thirds of executives were devising their post-pandemic plans with little or no input from their staff. Another poll found that, for employees who worked remotely during the pandemic, the most common cause of workplace-related distress right now is the risk of contracting COVID. In the face of today’s anxieties, the ongoing pandemic being just one cause, a dash of homeyness falls short of supporting those who aren’t in positions of power. Instead of luring employees back to the office with workspaces that give an impression of comfort, employers need to prioritize the wellbeing of their staff, especially those belonging to disadvantaged and underrepresented groups, and not as a front for executives’ own interests. It’s time to ask employees what would make them most comfortable, then put designers to work to help make it happen.

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