1888: Our Beginnings as Office Specialty

That 1888 was a leap year doesn’t seem surprising given the significant strides occurring on all sections of the map. In Washington, the National Geographic Society was forming and Susan B. Anthony was organizing a congress for women’s rights. Up the coast, George Eastman was registering the name Kodak while finalizing a patent for his newfangled camera. In Brazil, the final remnants of slavery were at long last being eradicated.

And in the thriving port of Montreal, a small office was being established for the selling of office furniture and supplies. This office represented the first foray into the Canadian market for a Rochester-based company called Office Specialty Manufacturing Company Limited, whose purpose, though basic, was quickly gaining value. Two industrial revolutions had shown people the importance of productivity, and the company from Rochester was highlighting an equally vital principle: To be productive, you need to be organized. Amid a world suddenly flooded with order forms, shipping slips and invoices, companies were quickly coming to recognize the difference a few good filing cabinets could make.

Later in the year, Office Specialty opened another sales office in the burgeoning industrial center and cultural mosaic of Toronto, whose bustling economy and favorable location helped position the company to serve a broader customer base. Over the next seven years, the Office Specialty Manufacturing Company Limited continued to help businesses of every stripe get organized for success.

Spreading our Wings

With the 20th century on the horizon, North American business prospering and the power of efficiency becoming increasingly acknowledged, a small consortium bought out the Rochester interest and officially relocated it north of the 49th parallel, shifting headquarters to 122 Bay Street in Toronto. With this shift came more vigorous expansion for the company. By 1903 its catalog featured an ample cross-section of products, including 39 different filing cabinets (one containing 60 drawers) and the “Rapid Roller Copier,” an early version of today’s photocopiers.

The following April, after the worst fire in Toronto’s history destroyed 139 businesses—including the office at 122 Bay—and put nearly 5,000 people out of work, construction on a new building kicked into gear immediately. The new office was completed by 1905, providing a lesson in resilience and durability that our products continue to embody today.
Office Specialty flourished through the early 1900s, expanding its operations to keep up with the blossoming of Canadian commerce while remaining focused on its original goal of manufacturing and delivering office furniture and supplies (including snow shovels, indispensable at the time for store owners and a profitable item for the company itself—each shovel grossed just over half a cent.) By 1921, with offices in Halifax, Quebec City, Ottawa, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Calgary, Regina, Edmonton and Vancouver, Office Specialty had forged a true nationwide presence.

Embracing Versatility

Even though they saw the value of sticking to a straightforward offering, Office Specialty’s leaders also understood the importance of flexibility. Even in the late 1920s, while producing steel partitions for offices and factories across Canada, they decided it would not do to try to shoehorn the company’s customers into rigid product parameters. Instead they strove to meet each customer’s specific needs by creating multiple options within single products. The steel partition—offered in single and double panels, with clear or frosted glass, with options for wire management, ventilation and even sound absorption—and other products like it became truly dynamic, and the customer-oriented commitment to innovation became an enduring operating philosophy.

When the Going Gets Tough

When he read the newspaper headlines in late 1929 reporting anticipation of a stock market blip, Office Specialty’s managing director, Harry C. Slemin Sr., was little bothered, since the year had been the company’s best to date. In fact, plans were already in place to expand existing offices and establish new ones in locations like St. John, New Brunswick.

This blip, of course, became the Great Depression, and soon Office Specialty, like so many other businesses, was confronted with warehouses full of products but few customers with any money to buy them. In 1933 the company recorded a net loss of $200,000, at the time an enormous figure. But resilience again became the watchword, and Office Specialty continued to offer employment, bearing up under the economic crush and forging resolutely ahead with new products like steel desks with satin chrome trim and an inter-office wireless communication machine, the “Victorphone.”

Onward and upward

Following the Depression and the grim shadow of WWII, North America burst forth into a new era of hope and success, marked by increased demand for goods, accelerated spending and new businesses cropping up everywhere that required quality furniture and supplies. Office Specialty rode this new wave of optimism along with the rest of the continent, proud and pleased to help reinvigorate the economy by providing companies of every type the items they needed to operate day to day, from desks to chairs, shelves to trays, cabinets to bookcases, files to waste baskets.

Office Specialty’s growth continued briskly over the next several decades. During these years the company became a public entity, moved its head office north, and solidified its dual obligation to innovation in design and direct responding to customer needs. Whether a line of aluminium Super-Chairs, “Herbarium Cabinets” for storing dried plants, or the Ferris wheel-like Diebold Power Files, the company’s products came to represent another principle that would become gospel: Meeting customer needs means giving customers what they need when they need it—and figuring out what they’re going to need next.

Changing the Industry an Inch and a Half at a Time

Great companies don’t wait for change to become a necessity; they challenge themselves to unearth new possibilities and improvements all the time. The designers and engineers recruited by Office Specialty are passionate in this view, inspiring them to create products and systems that push us, and the industry, relentlessly forward. Sometimes these products and systems, despite outward simplicity, have the power to revolutionize.

In the 1880s, a cabinet had to be sturdy and well constructed; by the 1980s, it had to be intelligently designed. Recognizing that hanging 9½” folders in industry-standard 12”-high drawers at the time squandered an inch and a half of vertical space, our engineers put their heads together in search of an optimized solution. The result—10½” drawers, saving an inch and a half of space in every drawer—was as elegant as it was powerful, allowing unprecedented adaptability for office environments of every type. A simple concept based on a single detail, the groundbreaking 1½” Solution permanently changed the way people think about space.

A Platform for Change

Throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, we continued to broaden, ultimately developing an integrated suite of products that met diverse functional and aesthetic needs while complementing one another seamlessly. Highlighting this evolution, Office Specialty underwent a successful Initial Public Offering in 1997 and officially adopted the operating name Inscape two years later.

Today, amid growing complexity in office environments, Inscape continues to help its customers keep things simple by perfecting products that work independently as well as they work together. Guided by the beauty of integration, an approach dedicated to meeting workplace demands while minimizing ongoing investment, Inscape’s portfolio upholds our traditional values even while we seek to push the boundaries. Office Specialty™ Filing and Storage Solutions, the industry’s most comprehensive selection of filing and storage products, is still about finding customers space they didn’t know they had. Inscape System and our storage components use modular ingenuity and breakthroughs in voice, data and power to transform traditional offices into agile, efficient workspaces. Inscape Walls is run out of our dedicated plant in Falconer, New York.

Putting Ourselves in your Shoes

Our success and longevity are testaments to the perspective we’ve always espoused: that of the customer. Understanding precise needs and responding with specific, personalized solutions have been the backbone of our legacy for over a hundred years, and they will continue to guide us as we embark on a new chapter. The same principles that motivated the small team at Office Specialty Manufacturing Company Limited in 1888 remain paramount at Inscape today, driving us to create products whose mix of aesthetic appeal, structural superiority and functional versatility are unmatched. We’re excited about the road ahead, but we’ll never forget where it started.