Title: In quest of the perfect desk

Pages: 64 - 65


Author: Richard Carr

Text: In quest of the perfect desk
by Richard Carr
What could be simpler, one might think, than designing a desk for a secretary to use in an office ? After all, typing, answering the telephone, filing papers and even work with a dictating machine are all pretty straightforward operations, and do not appear to add up to a complex situation.
However, when Black Arrow Leasing Ltd announced its competition for the design of a complete unit for a secretary who has to undertake all these duties, the number of entries actually received for the competition was only 52 despite more than 2,000 enquiries - and of these, only 15 proved worthy of detailed assessment.
The competition was sponsored by Black Arrow Leasing Ltd because it believes that designers should be encouraged to design good furniture for ordinary office use, rather than prestige equipment for board rooms and executive suites. The company also believes that the use of new materials and construction techniques, and the application of ergonomic analysis, could lead to new types of office furniture, more suited to the specialised appliances and devices now being introduced into office systems.
As a result, the brief for those entering the competition was very wide: they were told that the unit could be of unit or modular construction, using separate but associated pieces; that consideration should be given to work flow, ergonomics, and the logical accommodation of mechanical, electromechanical and electronic devices; and that the environmental conditions surrounding the unit could be considered as good. Finally, the choice of materials, methods of construction and finish was left to the designer, who was also required to give some idea of what he thought his design would cost to produce. The design itself had to be presented in the form of a working brief; a written specification (including some indication of cost); a full colour realisation or ' scale model; and sufficient working drawings to explain the design and its suitability for large scale production.
To assess the designs, Black Arrow Leasing Ltd. with the help of a steering committee, appointed three assessors. They were Margaret Casson, Robin Day and Dr H. B. Wright, and their report explains the difficulties facing those who entered the competition. Besides the deceptive nature of the problem already mentioned, many competitors, it suggests, fell by the wayside because they were required to draw up their own brief, based on their own investigations and research; and those who submitted poor solutions usually did so because this initial stage had not been properly carried out. Other eliminations, of course, arose from such things as inadequate drawings, unsatisfactory methods of construction, bad detailing, a poor choice of materials, and bad appearance.
Of the 15 entries considered in detail, five were finally chosen to be built as prototypes, and of these prototypes, one proved impracticable. Each of the designs, the report says, "had some particular contribution to offer which was especially apparent, [though] none of them can be said to provide a completely new concept of a secretarial working unit, either in the way it is used, or as a breakthrough in the use of new materials or methods of construction . . . The winner," the report concluded, "finally seemed to be the only one of the five which, in terms of function, practicability and ergonomics, was difficult to fault, and which, while conventional in its form and choice and use of materials, nevertheless seemed to us, with certain reservations, to be acceptable."
Besides acting as an incentive to designers, the competition has shown that a lot more thought needs to be given to the problem of designing a secretarial unit. As the assessors' report implied, it was a conventional design that won. For a new approach, all they could give was a special commendation. Is this really the best that designers can do ?


1. The secretarial unit designed by Roy Hannam which won the premier award of 750. It was praised for its organisation of working surfaces and storage space which keeps unnecessary movement to a minimum.
2. The unit designed by Comprehensive Design Group, commended for its strong and simple appearance, combined with flexibility and economy of manufacture. However, its one unusual feature - a Perspex hood to cover office machines at night - was criticised for being both unstable and unnecessary.
3. The unit designed by Paul and Dorothy Goble. The assessors qualified their commendation by criticising the unit's different working heights.
4. and 5. The unit designed by King and Brown Partnership, which received a special commendation for new design thinking.
5. shows how the unit is used. The assessors comment that the novel solution has been achieved at the expense of structural stability which requires further development.



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