Antique flat file cabinet at Industrial Artifacts

What are Flat File Cabinets For?

Old architectural flat file cabinets have certainly earned their place among vintage, antique, and industrial design. Their intended purpose is to store large, flat documents such as maps, blueprints, art, drawings, and other oversized media.

Recently there’s been a resurgence of repurposing these large cabinets into coffee tables, kitchen islands, even beds, incorporating their functionality into everyday home and office decor.

Where did they come from? Let’s get to some history.


Art galleries and museums have always had some sort of archival system for large prints, paintings, maps, and drawings that evolved from the days when media was mainly in rolls. In a smaller sense, horizontal storage with wide drawers were already an industry necessary for typeface printing. In the 1800s, industrial cabinetry became more prevalent, which you can read more about in our previous blog post HERE. The migration from a these industries into the modern office came during a pivotal point of the Industrial Revolution, and it starts right here in Chicago.

Drafting rooms over the past 100 years

Until steel and iron came into the construction of large buildings, the architectural and structural drawings needing to create buildings were pretty simple and easy to maintain. Brick, mortar, and concrete were all processes that have been around for thousands of years, using specialized craftsmen to interpret a design on paper to a stable construction in the real world. These craftsmen had considerable leeway, including additions like gargoyles, grotesques, and THESE nsfw EFFIGIES.

As modern construction became more complicated and trade specialists were replaced with cheaper labor, there grew a need to be more precise with construction documents This required more effort, and paper, on the design end. In larger, multi-year construction like the Hoover Dam and the Brooklyn Bridge, each section of design would be assigned their own room where construction plans and blueprints would be held by the spine and hung vertically or kept in open-shelved cubbies until needed. But that isn't practical for shops and office buildings.

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Search Industrial Artifacts for vintage posters


Designed by John Wellborn Root Sr. and Daniel Burnham, The Montauk Building (1882) was a 10-story building at 115 Monroe Street in Chicago. Despite the building only lasting 19 years before being torn down, it marked the word "skyscraper,” reaching higher to the sky by using both steel and stone in it’s construction. Two years later, another “skyscraper,” the Home Insurance Building (1884-1885) was designed by William Le Baron Jenney (pictured below) and stood 10 stories tall.  Going a bit further than Burnham and Root, Jenney used metal columns and beams as the building’s skeleton, with a stone facade and interior space that changed with each story. Chicago's School of Architecture, like its pizza, is stacked. This style of construction tied together two overlapping 2 separate disciplines of structure and architecture joined to create one building.

William Le Baron Jenney and the Home Insurance Building, Chicago

This new style of construction opened up building design, but it also creates a large collection of details to connect everything together. Mix that with each of the 10 floors being different for various office departments, and there was a need to create a more adaptable to storing of large files, especially considering how quickly design changes are made when one is attempting to build the equivalent of 10 single-story mansions stacked on top of one another.

It didn’t take long for Chicago-style architecture to take off. The Rand McNally building (1889) arrived with 10 stories of its own, then the Tacoma Building (1889), and the Masonic Temple that also designed by Burnham and Root standing 22 stories at the corner of Randolph and State Streets. With each new major construction, the need, and ease, of flat file cabinets became more prevalent; creating a bigger, and bulkier, storage system than their typeface printer predecessors.

Here's your sign

Vintage Cabin Neon Sign from Industrial Artifacts


Today, we build with structural, architectural, mechanical, electrical, air conditioning and heating, civil engineering, and interior design floor plans and details, all working together to create a structure that brings function and form together. That makes for a lot of plans, details, and specs. Fortunately, most draft files (or draught files) are drawn, edited, and even viewed electronically. Large flat file cabinets are still necessary for print outs and blueprints, but not to the archival extent as 100 years ago. It’s understandable how many of these abandoned flat files have made their way into antique stores and shops with people - INCLUDING US - repurposing them for the modern home and office, as seen by the collage from around the internet below. With their classic style and industrial edge, it’s easy to mix them with many decor types.

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Antique and Vintage flat file cabinets repurposed at tables for the home or office

When vintage shopping, always make sure to check each of the drawers, make sure the corners are tight and square, and remember that vintage and antique hardware like pulls and label holders are a lot easier to replace than sliding mechanisms. As seen in the pic above, even a missing top can be replaced with glass, adding a new dimension to your repurposed flat file cabinet.

How would you use one of OUR flat files?

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