The Accidental Arrival of the Cubicle

How egos, taxes, and the inventor of the vertical timber harvester helped cubicles become an iconic piece of corporate life.

Over 50 years since its creation, the cubicle is often dismissed as a symbol of corporate culture’s clash with worker happiness. Oddly enough, its “invention” was largely by accident.

In pop culture, Dilbert and movies like Office Space (1997) taught us to loathe cubicles and to covet red Swingline 747 Series Business staplers. Cubes were grey, felt-lined fortresses that just screamed, “Is it 5 o’clock yet?”

If you’re one of the many folks who grew up hating the idea of cube life, you’re in good company. Their inventor agrees with you.

“The cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity “
— Robert Propst, inventor of the cubicle, age 76
Robert Propst, inventor of the cubicle, not in a cubicle. (photo: Herman Miller)

The Cubefather

The lumber, medical, and farm industries had a friend in Robert Propst. Over the course of his career, Propst racked up over 120 patents for everything from timber harvesters to heart valves. He also invented a livestock tagging machine, during what we can only assume was his more “rural” phase.

It was the start of the 1960’s, and Robert Propst had just joined a growing furniture company in Michigan. Herman Miller had come to specialize in office design in the past decade, and Propst joined a new division focused on research. He arrived at the start of a new frontier for Herman Miller — this was the first time they set out to solve furniture usage problems.

They started with a look at how offices had changed over the 20th century. Propst recognized the types of work had changed, but office environment hadn’t kept up. People shared and processed more information than ever, yet sat in large, open rooms with little privacy or noise control. It was hard to communicate and harder to focus.

“One of the regrettable conditions of present day offices is the tendency to provide a formula kind of sameness for everyone.” — Propst on 20th century offices

A couple years later in 1964, they premiered the result, called Action Office. Little did Probst know, it would plant the seeds for exactly the type of office environment he’d later come to regret.

The Action Office

Propst focused his studies on how people worked, how information traveled, and the impact various office layouts had on productivity. He spoke with many psychologists, mathematicians, and anthropologists. After all, a study without the academically gifted, is no study at all.

The findings, roughly speaking:

  1. People sit all day, and that isn’t healthy.
  2. Most people need places for both private and collaborative work.

Through a lot of the hard work that came next, the Action Office was born.

Boom! Action Office, 1965 (photo: Herman Miller)

Despite its age, the Action Office still sounds remarkably like the ingredients of a “modern” workplace.

  • Flexible ingredients, with ability rearrange based on office needs.
  • Height adjustable, sit-to-stand desks (health through better blood flow).
  • Dedicated areas for focus, with ability to still see surroundings.

The academic parts in the office design industry celebrated the first version for flexibility and a “more productive way of work”. Sales numbers, unfortunately, didn’t reflect that enthusiasm equally.

While adaptability of the Action Office sounded like an ideal work environment, high-end fabric finishes and design drove up the cost of furniture. The larger footprint and difficult assembly further pushed Action Office into a “hard sell” category for the coveted large corporate customer.

Undeterred, Probst took the feedback in stride and used it as the foundation for the next major (and ultimately successful) incarnation of Action Office.

This time around, Propst focused on the giving workers an enclave they could call their own. Something with two, maybe three walls. Something that would allow people to claim and personalize their territory, without feeling isolated from office activity.

Action Office II premiered, and in a rare move even by today’s standards, the sequel surpassed the original.

Action Office II, back with a vengeance (Photo: Herman Miller)

“We’re important. We deserve walls. And our own doors!”
— Upper Management

Low Taxes and Big Egos

Like any great story, we begin with United States tax code.

In the 1960’s, the U.S. tax code made one small, but important, change. Businesses could now depreciate their office furniture over seven years — much faster than the 39.5 year rate for physical office walls. Under this system, companies could recover costs much more quickly on furniture. Furniture became considerably cheaper than construction when it came to creating an office.

But again, like any great story, egos made the revolution more complicated.

“I’m Assistant to the Regional Manager”

The 1970’s and 1980's were booming decades for middle managers. These were the people in the corporate food chain that weren’t quite high up enough for the private offices enjoyed by upper management. Although, they were important enough for their own space with a modest amount of privacy.

Upper management needed “not quite rooms” for “not quite upper managers”. And they could get that by adding a couple more walls to Propst’s Action Office concept. That’s where cubicles came in.

Cubicles were cost efficient and allowed businesses to stack even more people into smaller spaces. Before the decade was done, white collar offices became oceans of cubes, filled with herds of middle managers darting from status update to status update.

Action Office II, “cubicle” style (photo: Herman Miller)

Upper management got the exterior private offices with windows, the middle areas were filled with uniform cubicles assigned to middle management and employees. Everyone was the same, and business had finally reached the pinnacle of human achievement.

A Sea of Squares

The following years were a renaissance for cube-based furniture.

Competitors like Steelcase and Haworth entered the ring (or cube?), cutting features to lower the costs, which put pressure on the rest of the industry to provide similar budget options.

Economics won and cubicle features shrank to the bare bones. The product worked, just not how Propst had envisioned it.

  • The sit/stand desks were changed to fixed height, for both cost and the need to accommodate heavier technology like CRT monitors in the 80's and 90's.
  • Walls were added to enclose the workstations and the generous, 120 degree entryway was reduced to a narrow gap. Now cubes could be fit together more closely and maximize real estate ROI.

When given the choice, management (perhaps unsurprisingly) passionately rallied for the “everyone but us gets the same workstation” option. With little variation. Scalability was better than nice.

The orders poured in. Herman Miller enjoyed cubicle fever to the tune of $5 billion in cumulative Action Office sales as of 2005. Dilbert would go on to enjoy years of content.

And Robert Propst cemented his legacy as the reluctant inventor of the revolutionary office fixture, the cubicle.

The rest is grey (sometimes beige) history.

Action Office is still sold today, 50 years later. (photo: Herman Miller)
“The dark side of this is that not all organizations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people who take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes. They make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rat-hole places.”
— Robert Propst, inventor of a livestock tagging system

Sources: Fortune, Wired, and a lot of time spent with fine people of the furniture world.