Cubicles: How They Started and How They’ve Evolved Over the Past Six Decades

In just a few months the cubicle will hit its 54th birthday, a rather innocuous milestone for what’s turned out to be a hotly contested aspect of office life.

Your perception of the cubicle can take many forms. You may be part of the Office Space crowd; cubicles, as far as you’re concerned, are death.

Or, you might be a student of history and say that the cubicle, in its original form was a beautiful design concept intended to make your work life accessible, comfortable and private.

Wherever you stand on the cubicle-opinion spectrum, there’s no denying that these walled office workspaces have a clear beginning proceeded by a colorful history.

Cubicles Have Roots in Design History

If you’re a fan of high-end office chairs then you’ve probably heard of the name Herman Miller, the company responsible for the Aero, arguably the single most important piece of office furniture ever invented. The Aero brought a new level of comfort and support to the office-chair world, revolutionizing the relationship between workplace form and function.

Herman Miller designer Robert Propst had hoped to bring that same design revolution to the workspace. He worked on something called the “Action Office”, which was meant to be a way for workers to see their workflow with new eyes.

Here’s how Fortune described Propst’s creation:

“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.”

Cubicles Were the Good Idea That Went Bad

Despite Propst’s elegant concept for an individual workspace, companies weren’t interested in buying the Action Office. In fact, pointed out that the Action Office was more popular with individuals who worked at home than actual companies.

After the disappointing debut of the Action Office, Propst introduced the Action Office II, a cubicle that featured the acoustical panels you often see today in modern office environments. Pretty soon, knockoffs started to appear; knockoffs built with lower quality materials than what Propst envisioned.

“In the 1960s, it became easier to write off assets like furniture whose value depreciated over time,” wrote. “Office furniture no longer needed to last a lifetime to be worth buying, and companies quickly saw that it was cheaper to buy an Action Office II or a knockoff cubicle than to invest in sturdier equipment.”

What happened after that was the basis for the negative perception for cubicles. Companies started to cram their employees into cramped cubicles to maximize space.

Add to this mix the fact that energy efficiency regulations created more airtight office spaces, pointed out, and workplaces became boxed-in work farms chugging along with uninspiring designs and recycled air.

Cubicles: Where We Are Now

Those years of stuffy offices and cubicle farms are, for the most part, behind us. Companies large and small have adopted the open-office spaces that were popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s – remember those huge open floorplans in Mad Men?

Workplace designers have taken a holistic approach to office concepts, asking themselves how they can provide open spaces, quiet corners and community areas where employees can connect with one another, be creative and focus on their work all at the same time.

The idea is pretty incredible but the science says that it’s virtually impossible to remove office privacy and increase productivity and creativity. The brain has a basic need for privacy. When it has privacy – spatial and auditory, specifically – it’s able to think clearly and work more productively.

For that reason, we offer a wide variety of office solutions for companies that are looking for a straightforward solution for maximizing employee productivity.

Contact us today to discuss what you need. We are one of Louisiana’s longest-standing office furniture companies. Our lineup of products includes new and used pieces that can, with a little planning and expertise, revolutionize the way your office works.