Whatever the politics of the moment, Washington is the most conservative city on the East Coast.
At least that's the view of the city from the people who design and decorate its corporate offices.
Attorneys, accountants and trade associations all want to look as though they've been in the city for 100 years, according to a panel of interior designers assembled by The Washington Post to discuss office trends in the nation's capital. Traditional design, they said, is preferred by Washington professionals because it gives an impression of stability.
Creating the proper Washington image means the use of wood, especially dark wood furniture, neutral colors, plush carpeting, textures on the walls, according to the designers. If this sounds like a homey setting, it's no accident: Washington professionals spend many evenings and weekends in their offices, so they tend to seek out familiar surroundings for their workplace, according to designers.
Sometimes, however, this gets carried to extremes. One area designer tells of a partner in the law firm of Arnold & Porter who invited his designer to his Bethesda home and asked for a reproduction of the entire lower level in his dowtown office. For the same reason, showers, wet bars, built-in stereos and kitchen pantries with refrigerators have become popular amenities for the rising Washington executive.
Interior business designers participating in the round-table discussion of trends in office space decor were: Terry L. Perry, director of the Design Corp.; Suzanne Mintz, senior associate of Greenwell Goetz Architects; Ronn Jaffe, president of Ronn Jaffe Associates, Sandra L. Ragan, president of Friday Design Group; Carolyn S. Settles, president of Settles Associates Inc., and Teresita S. Deupi of Deupi and Associates.
According to the panelists, most private corporations today rent space in buildings put up by developers who did not know in advance the identity of the tenants. Because of D.C. height restrictions, which limit a downtown edifice to 90 feet or the equivalent of 12 or possibly 13 stories, the typical speculative building is comparatively squat, with low, 8-foot finished ceilings. Moreover, as one designer put it, that building is usually constructed to accommodate a boss, a secretary with a typewriter and a copying machine.
Yet businesses are turning more and more to sophisticated communications equipment--"a computer on every Chippendale desk," one designer quipped--which require miles of cable in ceiling panels and beefed-up air conditioning to compensate for heat generated by those machines. It is the job of the interior designer to coordinate these aspects of an office before the first swatch of material is ever considered.
The typical Washington office has between 200 and 300 square feet per person, including common spaces such as reception areas and lounges. Common areas are thought to be good for corporate morale and therefore productivity. For example, the interior plant-filled atrium has become a popular device for attempting to compensate employes with windowless, inside offices.
Once upon a time, corporate moguls favored big exterior offices behind closed doors, with their secretaries stuck outside. Today, the designers said, the big boss' office is proportionately smaller, although still much bigger than the subordinate's--typically 350 square feet or roughly 10 times the size of the secretary's post. There are other changes. Hardwood closed doors are giving way to interior glass walls that allow the boss to see employes as well as be seen by them.
And the erstwhile typing pool area is now occupied by middle managers as well as support personnel, thanks to the open landscape office. Not only is it more democratic, it's more practical, say designers. Instead of walls, the modern office has partitions in various materials and heights that allow for a degree of privacy in a smaller total space.
The key to the open office is "systems furniture." Partitions with built-in lighting, electrical circuits, cabinets and even coat closets and personalized air systems combine with desks, tables and files to form a work station for each person. There are now 140 manufacturers of such components.
Designers' buzzword for today's office furniture is "ergonomics," which Webster defines as the study of the problems of people in adapting to their environment. More precisely, it is the science of suiting the working place to the worker. It describes, among other things, chairs that fit the contours of an individual's back, tables adjustable to the proper height and word processors tilted at the proper angle to avoid glare.
Five years ago, a Harris poll predicted democracy in the workplace, as typified by the open office, would be the wave of tomorrow. The seat of government has been slow to adopt this concept, say designers, but it is gaining acceptance in the suburbs. As for the "paperless office," a term much bandied about, the designers say, "It will come into vogue at the same time the paperless bathroom comes in." Rather than the paper, it is more likely the office will go, replaced by cottage industries as workers tied to central computers labor in their homes.