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.

Sam Dunn
Sam Dunn
Mar 2, 2017 · 6 min read
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“The cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity “

— Robert Propst, inventor of the cubicle, age 76

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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.

“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.

  1. Most people need places for both private and collaborative work.
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Boom! Action Office, 1965 (photo: Herman Miller)
  • Height adjustable, sit-to-stand desks (health through better blood flow).
  • Dedicated areas for focus, with ability to still see surroundings.
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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.

“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.

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

A Sea of Squares

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

  • 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.
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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.

Robin Powered

Modernizing the open office. https://robinpowered.com

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