I suppose that once you’ve been in any profession long enough, you end up viewing life through a lens shaped by the industry you’re in. A structural engineer can’t drive over a bridge without analyzing, critiquing or admiring the supporting span below. My dad, who was a GM tool-and-die worker for over 20 years, never really enjoyed the cars he owned because he knew every flaw that lay beneath the hood. Knowledge can be a burden.
For me, it’s office furniture. Being with National Business Furniture for over 13 years, I’ve developed a critical eye for the furnishings that outfit our lives at work and beyond. Occasionally, that attention results in cringe-worthy acts like flipping over chairs in public places to identify the chair’s manufacturer. But most of the time, I observe from a distance. Take TV shows as an example – when I’m watching Mad Men, I pay as much attention to the furniture shown in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as I do to the characters themselves.
You don’t have to be a furniture aficionado to appreciate the style showcased on AMC’s breakthrough hit. Just search “Mad Men office furniture” on Google, and you’ll see countless articles and blog posts dedicated to ‘60s-era modern design that dominates the show (check out The Mid-Century Modernist blog for a particularly good post that identifies some of the show’s most iconic pieces of furniture and gives insights from the set designers).
But my curiosity in the office furniture of Mad Men extends beyond the high-design offices of Don Draper and Roger Sterling. That beige sea of metal workstations clustered in the agency’s interior spaces – utilitarian desks that were standard issue for the rank and file – seems at once dated yet still quite familiar. That’s because those humble steel desks continue to sell today, a stubborn holdout of simple design in an age of increasingly complex technology. But most corporate offices today have moved away from these free-standing metal desks. So who’s still buying them?
Ryan Peterson, national account manager for HON (the Iowa-based office-furniture manufacturer that continues to make steel desks similar to those shown on Mad Men), said that while sales for their classic 34000 Series metal desks have seen a gradual decline over the years, many customer segments still rely on this tried-and-true design. “It’s not a rock star, but it’s a solid performer,” Peterson said.A solid performer indeed. Small businesses, industrial facilities and huge government entities like the Department of Defense and the U.S. Armed Forces have come to rely on the practicality of HON office furniture and their metal desks. Schools are especially big on them due to their long-lasting durability. These desks are heavy and built to last. And when something sells well for so long, you tend to leave it alone.
HON does offer a slightly modernized version of their 34000 Series called the Metro Classic collection that features a slightly larger work surface and updated color combinations. Although, “There’s only so much you can do to make it cool,” Peterson said jokingly.
True, aside from any possible “retro-cool” cachet the 34000 Series and the Metro Classic collection may possess, these lines favor mass-market utility over style. But in its own way, the classic “post-leg” metal desk has become an American icon. And as businesses start to migrate away from cubicles and toward open and collaborative spaces, new generations of free-standing office desks are coming along – and they’re taking a lot of design cues from older styles.
HON’s Voi collection is a modern spin on the classic steel desks that once dominated our offices. Voi takes old ideas (mixing metal with laminate wood) and updates them to reflect the new needs of the modern workplace. Featuring multi-level work surfaces and minimal storage, Voi exemplifies the modern American office – flexible, mobile and collaborative. However, unlike its predecessors, Voi was designed not just for open spaces but for the private office as well.
In other words, the rigid rules and roles of corporate America so artfully depicted on Mad Men are rapidly being re-written. I wonder if Don Draper would have seen that coming.