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The history of the cubicle
Cubicles may be synonymous with drab and cheerless corporate environments, but modern office furniture owes plenty to cubicles. In fact, cubicles were the start of office furniture designed for comfort, privacy and productivity – all factors that remain priories in current furniture designs.
A brief look into the history of cubicles shows us the importance of these iconic workstations.
Before cubicles, offices were basically large rooms with a bunch of big desks. The desks, often made of wood or metal, tended to be large, but their immovability resulted in a workplace that was regimented and lacked flexibility. Although the offices were vibrant and busy, common workers were only given a desk to complete their work within the bustle and excitement.
In the 1960s, an American furniture manufacturer began a project to make offices more efficient, flexible and productive. Robert Propst headed the research department at Herman Miller and was tasked with designing a better office.
Their research determined that productivity is the result of happier and healthier employees – the same guidelines are core to office design today.
By exchanging large desks for lighter workstations with acoustic panels, Propst and his team started the era of flexible office designs. They called this office plan: Action Office I. This breakthrough idea of a customizable office made sense on paper, but it didn’t work well in practice.
Both the costs of customizable furniture and the significant change limited the success of Action Office 1. So Propst created a new plan: Action Office II. The plan had smaller panels that could separate space but keep offices semi-open. In addition, the panels were lighter and less expensive. Although the panels would separate spaces, they were designed with various heights to maintain sightlines and allow for flexibility.
Action Office II was improved, but again not successful. The plan did spawn the rise of competitor’s products and ultimately started the cubicle trend. However, Action Office II was far different than the more popular cubicles. To still lower costs, cubicles adopted a straight-forward design that we now know today – tiny squares with short walls.
Propst had a vision for a flexible office that suits the needs of the individuals. Even though his vision was not recognized right away, modern offices have adopted these systems to improve productivity. One ode to Propst’s vision are modern benching systems. These workstations improve productivity, but allow for flexibility at a reasonable cost.