Look at the style of an office in any given era and you’ll get a glimpse of the defining themes in white-collar workers’ lives at the time.
In booming postwar America, for example, the profusion of GI Bill–educated office workers wore suits, and many workplaces were sleek, serious, and formal. The goal was to signal prestige, according to Louise Mozingo, a professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at UC Berkeley and the author of Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes. “White-collar was a serious distinction because your father was probably a farmer or a blue-collar laborer,” she told me.
These days, most workplaces are much more casual, but their design is no less revealing. Lately, many offices have started to look distinctly less like offices and more like homes. They are filling up with furnishings and flourishes such as comfy sofas, open shelving, framed artwork, mirrors, curtains, rugs, floor lamps, coffee tables, and materials such as wood and linen.
The office-design experts I recently interviewed kept using similar adjectives to describe how many employers want their workplace to feel: comfortable, inviting, familiar, casual. Those are welcome lodestars in an area of design that has historically been utilitarian and drab, but the incorporation of domestic touches into the workplace is a bit unnerving: Even before the coronavirus pandemic, work and home had gotten uncomfortably mushed together for office workers. And with the rise of remote work for this population over the past year and