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The Cubicle Is a Lot More Amazing Than You Think: A Brief History

Office Cubicles - San Diego Office Furniture Experts and Space PlannersHere’s something you probably didn’t know: The office cubicle is 53 years old.

That’s right. The office staple we’ve come to know and love was invented in 1964 by Robert Propst, a designer for Herman Miller, the design firm whose Aeron office chair set the standard of workplace artistry, function and comfort.

A sort of renaissance of cubicle history made minor headlines back in 2014 when the cubicle celebrated its 50th birthday.

That year, author Nikil Saval wrote an homage to the office spaces: “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace”.

His book sparked renewed interest in the original intent, progression and modern expression of the cubicle.

The Cubicle’s Original Intent: To Provide Workspace Freedom

It’s ironic that the prevailing notion of cubicles – and certainly the one perpetuated by many a workplace-dissatisfaction movie – is that these tiny workspaces are like sterile little cells where zombies count down the hours until 5 p.m.

The cubicle was originally designed, Business Insider’s Drake Baer wrote, to give the worker more space and autonomy.

“The original cubicle was designed in 1964 to empower people,” Baer wrote. “(Propst) designed the ‘Action Office’, which had a huge desk, a space for making phone calls, a vertical filing system, and partitions, so workers could have privacy.”

Another aspect to this, author Saval said in an interview with NPR, was that, during the ‘50s and ‘60s, workplaces were really trying to push a family atmosphere.

“What these companies do is they realize that they want their workers to be really dedicated to their workplace,” Saval told NPR, “and because offices are so social, they test and interview in order to make sure that everyone gets along.”

Part of that social emphasis was providing workers their own space to thrive, while at the same time having a happy “family” of sorts where people could easily interact with one another.

The Cubicle’s Progression: From Bust to Success

At the time, the concept of a cubicle was very futuristic. Despite this forward-thinking feel, the cubicle was kind of a bust when it hit the market in the late 60’s.

Baer writes that most of the orders for the Herman Miller Action Office were from Canada and very few companies in the U.S. signed on.

Former Herman Miller marketing boss Joe Schwartz explained this to  Men’s Journal. “Nothing happened. We had a few orders in Canada, but the executive market was extremely hard to penetrate. It was a first attempt.”

Realizing they needed execs to see how easy it was to set up a cubicle, Herman Miller reps decided to drive to 25 cities and do in-office demonstrations.

This campaign proved to be the tipping point – within a few years, companies were clamoring for cubicles and competition started to pop up, Burmon noted.

The Cubicle’s Degeneration From Office Space to Workplace Cell

The original intent of the Action Office was to provide the worker with space and freedom to accomplish their tasks in a private space within a social atmosphere.

For a few years, this was the norm. Cubicles were a haven where workers could get their jobs done well amid ample space.

However, manufacturers and companies began to realize that cubicles could become a way of maximizing office space. Over time, workstations became smaller and smaller.

Propst hated this, according to Burmon. The Action Office was meant to be a healthy environment where workers had enough room to move around and chairs that provided back support.

The goal, Propst said, was to promote a non-sedentary workspace.

“He had created something designed to foster a social environment, comfort people, and make sure no one suffered from a bad back (as he did), but succeeded only in accelerating the atomization of the office,” Burmon wrote.

The Cubicle Today: Still Versatile

One of the hallmarks of Propst’s early designs was function and innovation. He designed multiple elements in the cubicle: an adjustable chair, vertical filing systems and a sense of freedom.

Unfortunately, that’s not quite how things turned out. In a 2014 article for Wired, Saval said Propst called the modern cubicle a “hellhole.”

Fortunately, we’ve carried on the tradition of a more freedom-focused space. Our cubicle portfolio features open concepts and modern design that encourage productivity and social connection.

Stop by our cubicle page to discover our different styles of workspaces.


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