Great Designs: The Story of the Office Cubicle


The office cubicle as we know it was invented in the ‘60s by furniture designer Robert Propst. Propst took the view that the large open plan offices people were used to working in were wastelands which “sap vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment” leading to “unfulfilled intentions and failed effort”.

To help him in the process of designing useful workspaces which afforded workers less noise and more privacy, he interviewed workers, doctors, psychologists and industrial relations experts, as well as experimenting with his ideas on his workstation. Interestingly, a colleague of his, George Nelson, disagreed, saying the cubicle system was “unsatisfactory” and “ungratifying”. “But it is admirable for planners looking for ways of cramming in a maximum number of bodies, for ‘employees’ (as against individuals), for ‘personnel’, corporate zombies, the walking dead, the silent majority.”


Before you jump to conclusions about Nelson’s comments though, bear in mind that he was initially part of Propst’s design team, but was removed when the two failed to work well together.



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Ergonomic Beginnings

Propst’s cubicles were designed to give people a bit of privacy against the noise, clutter and chaos of open plan offices which people hated. By using office partition walls and plants, cubicles gave everyone the opportunity to have private office space without the impracticality of giving everyone their own office.

One of the main advantages was the flexibility of the design, meaning the space could be reshaped and resized according to the needs of the person using it.

In his book Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, Nikil Saval explained that Propst "felt that workers needed to stand as often as they sat, so he created storage space to encourage workers to get up. And he wanted offices to encourage "meaningful traffic" among workers. It was a startlingly utopian vision, and it forecast much of today's progressive office-design thinking.



1990's cubical farm - Image source: Fistful of Talent


1990's Cubical Farm ~ Image source: Fistful of Talent



The office cubicle was launched in 1968 to great acclaim and was soon being used by millions of office workers across America and Europe. In 1985, the World Design Conference named it the most successful design of the previous 25 years.



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Creating ‘Corporate Zombies’

But however well intentioned, the cubicle went on to become as loathed as the noisy open plan offices it was designed to improve.

In the financial climate of the ‘80s and ‘90s, mergers and redundancies became almost the norm. Workers who had previously enjoyed their own offices were moved to cubicles whilst awaiting their fate, and the cubicle became a symbol of impermanence and disposability. The popularity of office cubicles quickly waned and became seen as negative, being described as ‘windowless’, ‘dreary’, ‘cube farms’, or even ‘veal fattening pens’.


This new hatred of cubicle culture spawned the most famous downtrodden office worker of the modern age, Dilbert. The cartoon emerged in 1989, initially concentrating on Dilbert’s home life, but rapidly moving its main focus to the office setting where it satarised micromanaged, white-collar, cubicle culture. Appearing in 2,000 newspapers in 65 countries, it has become the most photocopied, pinned-up, downloaded and e-mailed symbol of modern office life.


Over the years, office cubicles have, on average, got even smaller - though that can be partly attributed to advances in technology which means we need less clutter on our desks. In 1994, the average cubicle was 90 square feet; in 2010, that had dropped to only 75; even senior workers have seen their space shrink from 115 square feet in 1994 to 96 in 2010.


Before Propst died in 2000, he defended his invention, pointing out it was the way it was being used that caused people to dislike it so much: "The dark side of this is that not all organizations are intelligent and progressive. "Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes. They make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places..."



The Future’s Bright

As we’ve been highlighting in our #GreatDesigns series, offices in the 21st century are leaving the old office culture behind. The ‘hellholes’ Propst had seen his invention turned into are being smartened up and personalised into modern cubicles people feel much more comfortable working in.


A modern open office


The changing times - a modern open office layout



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SEC Interiors is experienced in designing and fitting cubicles, office partition systems and office furniture to create great spaces to work in. Talk to us to find out how we can help with your office refurbishment.