The Meaning Behind Modular Office Furniture

Recently I purchased some modular office furniture when I was moving my home office. I wanted a work environment that was more conducive to work, so that meant getting out of the family room. I decided to use an upstairs room that was not being used wisely, and with the help of my husband (who actually did all of the work) we painted the walls and installed new trim (out of the 70's and into modern times!). The room looks really nice, and all for under $100. Now it was time for new furnishings, because my 1950's gray laminate table was staying downstairs.

I went to an office supply store to see what they had, and pretty much everything was modular. Modular office furniture has really changed in the last 20 years. You can buy inexpensive, cubicle type modular furniture all the way up to high quality, executive type modular office furniture.

This got me thinking, exactly what is modular furniture, and how did it get its name? I hear the term modular thrown around a lot and applied in various ways. It is easy to accept a term without giving much thought to its real meaning, how it developed that meaning, and its etymology.

So I did a little research. The term modular originated from the Latin term (yes, most everything goes back to the Latin!) modulus which literally means to measure.

In the American Oxford Dictionary, the term modulus is basically a math term, and though applicable in some way, was beyond what I wanted to delve into. So without getting into more complex definitions that involve logarithms, modulus is the absolute value of a complex number. Which make me ask, did modular office furniture originated form math?

From this meaning, not only did the word modular develop, but before that, the term module. Since the definition of modular includes the word module, lets take a look at module first.

According to Merriam-Webster online, module is a noun that has been around since about 1628. A module is:

  1. a standard or unit of measurement (math again!)
  2. any in a series of standardized units for use together: as (1): a unit of furniture or architecture
The term modular was coined about 170 years later in 1798. It is an adjective and defined as follows:
  1. of, relating to, or based on a module or a modulus
  2. constructed with standardized units or dimensions for flexibility and variety in use
One other piece of useful information I found about modular office furniture was at Britannica Encyclopedia online, and is specifically about modular building construction. Modular construction is a system in which buildings are so designed that their dimensions are multiples of a given figure. Modular construction simplifies the problem of producing standard building components and materials that will fit together in a wide variety of applications.

This application of buildings can also be applied, along with the other definitions, to modular furniture. Modular office furniture is composed of various modules (you pick what you need to fit your work style and environment). The modules have standard dimensions (modular construction) that are designed to easily fit together.

For example, you may start with a basic desk. From this you can customize your work area by adding a credenza alone or credenza hutch, or perhaps you would like a lateral file or a pedestal return that fits on the left side of your desk. These or other options would all fit with your basic beginning desk, as long as you stay with the same brand and model, the heights of all units will be standard, and very important, the connectors will all line up correctly!

Understanding modular helps us to appreciate this modern innovation, the ability to take independent units to construct a more complex unit that fits together perfectly to build modular office furniture designed for independent needs. Now I just have to decide what I need in my new office space!


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