Maria Bergson started her New York design practice more than 55 years ago in an era that virtually cried out for a pioneer in contract interiors. After almost two decades of economic depression and war, U.S. business was ready for major expansion, which involved squeezing an exploding work force into a stock of office space that had not expanded at all, that had neglected such technological advances as fluorescent lighting and new plastic materials, and that reflected a company's image, if at all, only on the exteriors.
Enter Bergson, whose aesthetic sensibilities were more than matched by her keen powers of observation and bedrock common sense. Research showed her that the time-and-motion studies taken for granted in blue-collar industries had never been applied to white-collar work, but personal experience in early 1940s offices had taught her that if the boss wanted a file immediately, "the secretary had to run 50 miles to get it."
Within two years of establishing Maria Bergson Associates, she and a client roster she describes as "farsighted and adventurous," began to be featured in the press. She specialized in the design of offices, banks, hotels, hospitals, stores and other commercial interiors, along with the design of accompanying furniture and lighting fixtures. "I designed out of need," she said.
As early as 1949, she devised 64 square foot partitioned modular work stations that provided a maximum of work surface within arm's reach. At the same time, she began to suspect that executives took three-hour lunches in order to relax, and that comfortable, well-appointed offices could get them back to work more quickly. By comfortable, she meant designed specifically for business, not simply plucked out of a residential line likely to be too downy soft: "Who wants to make a bad impression getting out of a chair?" she asked.
The first woman in design to be included in Who's Who in America, Bergson began speaking out about the need for professionalism as early as 1958. "I always thought of the designer as an extension of the client," she said. Her clients included: Time, Inc., American Airlines, Citibank, DuPont, IBM, New York Telephone, the U.S. Post Office and the aircraft carrier Independence.