Robert Oppenheimer agonized over building the A-bomb. Alfred Nobel got queasy about creating dynamite. Robert Propst invented nothing so destructive. Yet before he died in 2000, he lamented his unwitting contribution to what he called "monolithic insanity."
Propst is the father of the cubicle. More than 30 years after he unleashed it on the world, we are still trying to get out of the box. The cubicle has been called many things in its long and terrible reign. But what it has lacked in beauty and amenity, it has made up for in crabgrass-like persistence.
The cubicle was not born evil, or even square. It began, in fact, as a beautiful vision. The year was 1968. Nixon won the presidency. The Beatles released The White Album. And home-furnishings company Herman Miller in Zeeland, Mich., launched the Action Office. It was the brainchild of Bob Propst, a Coloradan who had joined the company as director of research.
...After years of prototyping and studying how people work, and vowing to improve on the open-bullpen office that dominated much of the 20th century, Propst designed a system he thought would increase productivity (hence the name Action Office). The young designer, who also worked on projects as varied as heart pumps and tree harvesters, theorized that productivity would rise if people could see more of their work spread out in front of them, not just stacked in an in-box.
The new system included plenty of work surfaces and display shelves; partitions were a part of it, intended to provide privacy and places to pin up works in process (see photo, above left). The Action Office even included varying desk levels to enable employees to work part of the time standing up, thereby encouraging blood flow and staving off exhaustion.
But inventions seldom obey the creator's intent. "The Action Office wasn't conceived to cram a lot of people into little space," says Joe Schwartz, Herman Miller's former marketing chief, who helped launch the system in 1968. "It was driven that way by economics."