ROSI Blog

The Evolution of the Office Cubicle

The common office cubicle has had a big impact on society; from influencing some of the great architects of the modern age, plus sparking debate and studies into the capacity that the average worker’s office environment actually plays. Its evolution has progressed over the years from
old-school boring cubicles, into innovative productivity enhancing modern office workspaces.

cubicle example

A brief history of the common office cubicle: In the early 1960’s, Herman Miller, founding father of the modern office furniture industry started the Herman Miller Research Corporation.

The company’s originative mission statement, considering the times, was “not to address any problems with the esthetics of the furniture itself, but to solve problems relating to the everyday use of the furniture.” Meaning functionality, efficiency, and productivity were number one product design priorities for the groundbreaking company.

Miller’s associate, Robert Propst, a notable inventor/designer in his own historic right, strove to delve deep into the normally unanswered, complicated questions about something as seemingly simple as office furniture. Propst’s in-depth studies included learning how people work together in any given office environment, office layouts, performance, and even how information travels in an office setting.

Through these studies and designs by Robert Propst, under the direction of Herman Miller, the modern Action Office I series was born in 1964. The company’s next Action Office II line introduced a fresh new modern office concept that highlighted a flexible, semi-enclosed portable office workspace for the average worker – Thus the modern office cubicle was born. The invention of the Action Office II cubicle was considered to be one of Herman Miller’s greatest business achievements, and one of his company’s biggest all-time sellers.

Even in its infancy, the office cubicle had some well-known critics, namely, the man who was taken off of the company’s cubicle project while it was in development, George Nelson. Nelson like most modern day critics of the office cubicle, felt that the cubicle workspaces that the company was manufacturing were actually dehumanizing. This is what he had to say in 1970 about the product he partially helped to invent:

One does not have to be an especially perceptive critic to realize that AO-II is definitely not a system which produces an environment gratifying for people in general. But it is admirable for planners looking for ways of cramming in a maximum number of bodies, for “employees,” for “personnel,” corporate zombies, the walking dead, the silent majority – A large market.” Although George Nelson was a staunch conscientious objector of the modern office cubicle who adamantly did not approve of them, Nelson also realized the dreaded cubicles had great potential for massive office furniture sales worldwide.

According to a Herman Miller company news release, the corporations rise to fame was a swift and profitable one with sales totaling $262,000 in 1923, and growing to $25 million by 1970, when it officially started trading its Company Stock publicly. By the year 2012, its revenue totaled more than $1.7 billion – proving to even its deepest cynics the valuable merits of its original company mission statement, and the ingenious modernistic concept of its 20th Century founders.

In the past decades since the 60’s and 70’s, the company professes to have associated with some of the best known modern day designers in the world, including: Alexander Girard, Isamu Noguchi, Bill Stumpf, Don Chadwick, Ayse Birsel, Studio 7.5, Yves Béhar, Doug Ball, and many other talented and well known collaborators.

Today the company still provides the classic pieces that they were known for originally, and also offers multiple new designs for the contemporary up-to-date office as well. Herman Miller is still widely recognized as a major leader in state-of-the-art interior office furnishings, and for its innovative solutions for leading healthcare environments also. Herman Miller, Inc. is headquartered in Zeeland, Michigan, and has manufacturing facilities in the United States, China, Italy, and the United Kingdom, with sales offices, dealers, licensees, and customers in over 100 countries. They also operate under the corporate names of Herman Miller Healthcare, Nemschoff, and Geiger International.

In 2015 the cubicle industry is still going strong with plenty of healthy competitors vying for the Herman Miller Corporation’s potential customers. There are as many cubicle providers now as there was steel desk and hardwood chair manufacturers in the office furniture industry in the socially turbulent 1960’s. Today the industry has also gone “Green”. Although buying used office cubicles at a discount is nothing new, the industry has opened up to a successful recycling mentality that refurbishes, customizes and remanufactures ecologically friendly units catering to any style, office décor, or professional workspace design.

The refurbished office cubicle business is also expected to continue to rise in popularity. Because it also has a rational and innovative mission statement for the modern times – claiming to reduce the office world’s adverse carbon imprint on the planet – remanufactured cubicles are open to an ever-growing green friendly consumer market.

All in all, the story of the office cubicles’ evolution is not such a boring subject as one may think on first thought or glance. It is a story that found its roots in history over half a century ago, ripe with innovation, business pitfalls and successes, intense struggles of different public conceptualizations fighting against the old-school office norm and common naysayers that were emphatically proven wrong in the end.

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