The cubicle turns 50 years old this month.
What a life it’s had.
To celebrate the milestone, here’s a brief history of the cubicle, chronicling its rise from a bright idea to a staple of offices everywhere:
The original cubicle was designed in 1964 to empower people.
Robert Propst, a designer for then-home furnishings company Herman Miller, designed the first cubicle. Propst studied how people worked and wanted to improve on the open-bullpen office that he had grown up with.
He 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. What’s more, the desk could be set at varying heights so people could stand while they worked — helping, he thought, with blood flow.
As Fortune reports, the young designer thought that “productivity would rise if people could see more of their work spread out in front of them, not just stacked in an in-box.”
But when it was released in 1968, it flopped.
Though it looked futuristic, it fizzled.
“Then nothing happened,” recalls Joe Schwartz, Herman Miller’s former marketing chief, who helped launch the system in 1968. “We had a few orders in Canada, but the executive market was extremely hard to penetrate. It was a first attempt.”
It was too expensive, and too high concept to fit the market.
“The Action Office wasn’t conceived to cram a lot of people into little space,” Joe Schwartz says. “It was driven that way by economics.”
But then the cubicle became the cubicle we know and love (loathe?) today.
After the first release tanked, Herman Miller designed a cheaper follow up (the Action Office 2!) made for easy installation. It was an enclosed, modular desk system, ready for the middle management folks that were increasingly prevalent in corporate America. The adjustable desk was gone, the cheap “workspace solution” had arrived.
“Businesses found it incredibly useful for cramming people into smaller spaces,” Saval says, “while upper-level management still enjoyed windowed offices on the perimeter of the building.”
Then the rush came. Steelcase, Heyworth, and other office furniture companies offered “similar modular desk set-ups for less by eliminating many of Propst’s pricier features,” Men’s Journal reports.
Sadly, this meant the Action Office lost its standing-and-sitting adjust ability, becoming a part of the corporate sameness that Propst hoped to avoid.
The government also helped the cubicle take off.
Back in the 1960s, hoping to stimulate business spending, the Treasury made new rules for depreciating assets — the way businesses can write off parts of the costs for office equipment for tax purposes.
Companies can depreciate their furniture (including cubicles) in seven years, while permanent structures like actual walls are given a 39.5-year rate. Suddenly, the cubicle became even more attractive. Companies could recover their costs quicker by buying furniture that acted like offices rather than offices themselves.
The cubicle grew popular during a nasty period for white-collar labour.
The cubicle really caught on in the ’80s and ’90s, a time when mergers, buyouts, and layoffs became commonplace. The mergers meant more people were getting crammed into offices — perfect for cubicles — and the layoffs lead to a sense of alienation, Saval says.
“These were the years when the cubicle began to seem less like a space for exerting autonomy and independence,” he says, “and more like a flimsy, fabric-wrapped symbol of workplace insecurity.”
Today, the cubicle is as pervasive as it is abhorred.
In the past 50 years, cubicles have become ubiquitous and now represent a $3 billion industry. But people still hate them, and they have been found to be just as
distracting as open plan offices. The ultimate rebuke? Propst, the inventor of the Action Office, said his creation turned into “monolithic insanity.”
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