In the 1960s American design company Herman Miller began to search for problems outside the furniture industry that could be solved with better design. In the pursuit of this objective the company sought the help of artist and inventor, Robert Propst. Among his many eccentricities, Propst was known for his patents on a wide-ranging series of inventions including a vertical timber harvester, an electronic tagging system for livestock and a series of artificial heart valves. However, out of all his ideas, Propst felt compelled to use design to solve the problems of the modern office environment.
The results of medical and insurance data had convinced Propst—a sufferer of chronic back pain—that the office environment needed a design overhaul. Propst channeled his creativity to solve the problems of the modern office and came up with a series of novel ideas. Among his many promising concepts Propst envisioned standing desks, collapsible napping pads and even a “perching seat” for casual conversation. In 1968 Propst introduced his “Action Office 2,” a modular office system with sliding plastic panels that was designed to give workers their own environment complete with privacy and a view.
However, despite the good intentions behind Propst’s invention, his customers soon realized that by adjusting the angles of the sliding plastic panels they could fit far more workers in to the office. In response to this trend, rival furniture makers began to produce cheap office modules with 90° joints designed to maximize the use of space. Propst was appalled, and could do little to stop his name from being associated with the rise of the now-infamous cubicle.
Researchers have documented a number of negative health impacts that can be attributed to the cubicle. For instance, studies have found that workers in cubicles experience declining mental function, and can experience various forms of social anxiety. In addition, some cube-dwellers exhibit high blood pressure, increased fatigue and elevated stress levels due to the interruption-prone environment.
Between 1977 and 1997 sales of the cubicle grew 20 times in America, and, despite the near-universal loathing of the cubicle, cubes are now a fixture of the Western office environment and are spreading to offices around the world. Although the cube is still on the rise, many companies such as Google and Twitter are rejecting the cube in favor of the open office floor plan. For now the cube remains, but there is hope that the positive effects resulting from the open floor plan will eventually win out.
Chris Hart is a Graduate Assistant at Daniels Career Services.