OPERATIONS

Great Moments in the Cubicle's 50-Year History

Love it or (more likely) hate it, that fixture of modern office life, the cubicle, first debuted on the showroom floor half a century ago. Here's a brief history of how far it has come.
1 / 13
A Time Before Cubes
A Time Before Cubes
If we reach back, back before Google, back before the AMC show Mad Men (shown here), and back before Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, was even born, we reach a time in office history before cubicles. The Industrial Revolution was long over, but office design hadn't reached the level of sophistication of home or retail design.
PHOTO: Everett Collection
2 / 13
The Bull Pen
The Bull Pen
Yes, it was called the bull pen. Or, the classroom. Or, the Panopticon. Before the 1960s, if you, the office worker, weren't stationed in an office, you were out at a desk with the masses. And that situation was often cramped, frequently quite noisy--especially once telephones and typewriters were thrown into the mix--and maybe even a little dehumanizing. In 1960, the multitalented sculptor and graphic artist Robert Propst, who had become president of the research arm of furniture designer Herman Miller, began investigating the role of an office environment could have in effecting workers' creativity and processes. He said: "today's office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort."
PHOTO: Everett Collection
3 / 13
Era-Defining Design
Era-Defining Design
Propst set out to redesign the office, from the inside. The Herman Miller Action Office, with modular desk units (shown here), including a standing desk and a walled writing desk, debuted in a Madison Avenue showroom in 1964. The target audience for the company's first "office system" was executives and managers, according to Herman Miller's corporate communications director (and self-labeled amateur historian), Mark Schurman. He says: "Probst wanted to create an ability to divide space that gave people the ability to manage their work, both active and archival, and he had this great belief in a verticality of space."
PHOTO: Courtesy of Herman Miller
4 / 13
Structural Ideas Taking Shape
Structural Ideas Taking Shape
What's apparent here is the idea for cubicle walls--see the pin-board rising up above the desk--is germinating. And the Action Office made a great splash at its 1964 debut. This doesn't mean it sold well. When Propst went back to work, he decided to tackle the idea of finding privacy within the bullpen--restoring the sense of space a person requires to concentrate. Part of that was mitigating what he called "exposure overload," which could come from making eye contact and having to deliver "continuous idiot salutations" to colleagues. All day. Every day.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Herman Miller
5 / 13
Out of the Bull Pen
Out of the Bull Pen
Propst had won industry acclaim for his work, but if Herman Miller was going to continue creating "workplace solutions," it needed a sales boost. Propst set his eyes on the average worker, creating desks and optional, flexible, walls on hinges, that could be shifted to morph use of the space around a worker's desk. "The idea was to use one, two, or even up to three panels at a time," Schurman says. The fact the support system for the cantilevered desk was a wall that could double as a display area appealed to the design world's lingering Midcentury Modernist sensibility, which favored efficiency.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Herman Miller
6 / 13
Competition Emerges
Competition Emerges
Herman Miller had its hit, sure enough. Sales of the Action Office II soared within just a few years of its introduction. But competitors in the office-furnishings space, including Haworth and Knoll, were quick to create their own versions of what was beginning to be known as the cubicle. Propst's idea of a flexible work-station, with plenty of storage and display area for ongoing work, using a panel or two, quickly sprouted more walls. Denise Mieko Cherry, principal and director of design at San Francisco architecture and design firm O+A, says: "After that, it was nothing but panels, just adding more panels, and then our concept of the cubicle farm." Above, the dreaded closed cubicle is on prime display in the 1967 Jacques Tati film, Playtime.
PHOTO: Everett Collection
7 / 13
Sterile Uniformity
Sterile Uniformity
"For whatever reasons, office design seems to move in extreme ways," Cherry says. Even before 1970, the proliferation of shared walls in formerly open-office plans led to mazes of the endless cubes. Men's Journal reports that George Nelson, Herman Miller's most prominent designer, "reacted to the success with scorn, explaining in a letter to a colleague that cubicles had a 'dehumanizing effect as a working environment' and describing 'corporate zombies.'"
PHOTO: Gallery Stock
8 / 13
Into the Zeitgeist
Into the Zeitgeist
"Ummm, I'm gonna need you to go ahead come in on Saturday." In the 1980s and 1990s, the cubicle became so ubiquitous in office settings, that by the 1990s it was certainly ripe for criticism. In 1999, the movie Office Space (shown here, and the origin of the above quote) took the sterile conformity signaled by rows of cubicles to its logical conclusion: humans lashing out from that by destroying a printer with a baseball bat in a scene set to "Damn it Feels Good to Be a Gangsta."
PHOTO: Everett Collection
9 / 13
The Backlash
The Backlash
Cherry of Studio O & A has a favorite cubicle pop-culture reference: "Always Dilbert. It's just what you think of when you see those high walls." She's seen some extremes. Before working on designing Facebook's airy, colorful headquarters in Menlo Park, she toured the space, which was formerly the office for a large computer manufacturer. "It had 64-inch high cubicle walls and the halls were so narrow they had mirrors on the corners so you could see if someone was coming and not bump into them," she says.
PHOTO: Everett Collection

10 / 13
Love 'Em or Hate 'Em...
Love 'Em or Hate 'Em...
Once the mark of a progressive workplace and a setup for managers and sign of progress toward the information age, cubicles became in the early aughts associated with low-wage work, and, particularly, call centers. (Shown here, the Comedy Central show Workaholics, featuring three call-center employees.) Rifts developed in the 1990s over their use. As West Coast tech firms gained influence in the corporate world, Microsoft famously clutched to the idea its engineers needed quiet offices to concentrate, while Intel embraced open-seating arrangements, hoping to foster collaboration.
PHOTO: Everett Collection
11 / 13
Backing Away From Tiny Boxes
Backing Away From Tiny Boxes
"The challenge for that past 50 years has been, 'how do we pull people out of offices, but allow them to retain the focus?'" Cherry says. There has in recent years been a significant backlash to the cubicle that's resulted in many of the most innovative companies building out wall-less open-office designs. The idea of "flat company," in which hierarchy is eschewed, and in which everyone from C-suite management to lowly customer-service workers sit in comparable situations, is gaining traction. Plenty of other flexible designs are being floated, with the aim of allowing for maximum communication and collaboration. (Shown here: the New York City office of startup Tasting Table.) It seems the pendulum is swinging back away from many-walled cubicles, and back toward something more akin to what Propst intended.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Tasting Table
12 / 13
Reinventing Relative Privacy
Reinventing Relative Privacy
Consider these orbs in an atrium, designed by French architect Christian Pottgiesser as the headquarters for two French companies: Pons and Huot. The abundance of natural light provides an open feeling, despite the transparent pods at each seat, which are for noise-insulation during telephone calls. An emerging trend in office design is "activity-based working," which is increasingly popular as companies let employees "BYOD" (bring your own devices) and work wherever they feel like on a given day in the company, based on their tasks for the day.

13 / 13
Happy Birthday, Dear Cubicle
Happy Birthday, Dear Cubicle
You've come a long way, baby, over the past five decades. It wasn't always pretty, but you've pulled through. Cheers.
PHOTO: Getty Images
IMAGE: Everett Collection
Last updated: Mar 31, 2014

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




Register on Inc.com today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Livestream events | Comments
EMAIL
PASSWORD
EMAIL
FIRST NAME
LAST NAME
EMAIL
PASSWORD

Or sign up using: