Paradise Lost: The Cubicle

It’s easy to take everyday items for granted. Every morning, as you grab your toothbrush, dunk your spoon into a bowl of cereal, or pour yourself a cup of hot java, how often do you stop to think about the men and women that designed those household essentials? It’s almost like these items had to have always existed, that God must’ve triumphantly decreed “Let the consumer goods sprout from the earth!” and saw that it was good.

Of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Creating the perfect spoon, the perfect chair, or whatever – it takes extraordinary vision, to see a problem that had gone unnoticed and solve it with uncommon panache. And the cubicle – invented by Robert Propst for Zeeland, Michigan-based furniture company Herman Miller – was no exception. It didn’t pop out of thin air. Propst saw a flaw in the status quo and fixed it, albeit with unintended consequences.

Before the cubicle, white-collar workers were typically housed in large, open rooms with no privacy. Rows of uniform desks with tidy inboxes and outboxes that stretched as far as your manager’s eye could see were the regrettable norm. You were expected to sit at your desk and fill out your daily paperwork quietly with your head bowed, the clatter of the clunky typewriters your only company. It was, to put it simply, hell.

Propst knew there had to be a better way, describing the offices he saw in 1960s while researching for Herman Miller as “wasters of effectiveness, vitality, health, and motivation” and a “daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.” What he envisioned for the modern office was an organic, natural, ever-changing system, which he dubbed the Action Office I in 1964. It would be as unique, he hoped, as the people that populated it.

The initial concept focused almost primarily on the desk. Propst, with the help of George Nelson, designed a series of freestanding units that could be assembled into workstations of varying shapes and sizes, a radical departure from the one-size-fits-all approach designers had previously taken. In Propst’s dream office, workers could change their surroundings to make it a reflection of what they did. At one desk, for example, you might sit and type; at another, you might stand and read. Anything was possible and at a moment’s notice.

However, Propst wasn’t entirely satisfied with the results. Sure, now you could individualize your workstation, but you still had no real privacy unless you had your own office. Was there a way, he wondered, to give each worker a degree of privacy within an open environment?

That’s when Propst finally stumbled upon a momentous breakthrough in office design that would fundamentally change the way millions worked: movable walls scaled to human height that could be assembled and disassembled to create semi-private workspaces. Important documents and dry erase boards could be pinned to the felt walls alongside family photos, and workers could decide how many shelves they wanted put in, allowing equal room for both reference manuals and colorful knickknacks. The private office could be demolished, banished as a relic of a more hierarchical past. It was a triumph for the average person – or so it seemed.

The cubicle was born.

Propst’s original sketches in 1968 for the layout of the Action Office II (later renamed Action Office) had movement that rivaled the art of contemporary Joan Miró, arranging workers in a variety of geometric patterns that would promote a dynamic, vibrant workplace. It was, really, a utopian vision for a better future, a product of grand ambition akin to Karl Marx’s communism and Adam Smith’s capitalism.

But like most utopian ideals, greed would quickly unravel it.

Businesses owners, you see, saw a very different potential in the Action Office: an opportunity to cram as many people as possible into a room. It was quickly discovered that by arranging the walls into unimaginative squares and rectangles, space could be used with a unparalleled efficiency. Overnight, in a quest to cut costs, offices across the country and eventually the world were turned into rat mazes, and the space workers inhabited into veritable rat holes.

The Action Office II turned out to be a smashing success worth billions, just unfortunately not in the way Propst had intended. Precisely what he’d designed to humanize the workplace had in fact further dehumanized it, and it figuratively drove him up the wall for the rest of his life.

“The cubicle-izing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity,” he’d tell the New York Times in 1997.

In a succession of interviews with various journalists in the late 1990s, he publicly blamed the lamentable “egg-carton geometry” of the so-called cube farms that now dominated the corporate world on the “crass people” that must inhabit “the dark side” of the corporate world.  He believed that “intelligent and progressive” organizations would never “stuff people” in “itty bitty cubicles.”

It’s too bad for Propst corporations are ultimately measured in profits and not progressiveness, and no amount of late-career remorse could change that.

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