The History of the Cubicle
December 10, 2002 3:22 PM   Subscribe

Mommy, where do cubicles come from? Ever watch old movies, and feel a deep pang of resentment and envy at the open, spacious offices depicted therein? What ever happened to the human workplace? The ugly truth is finally revealed: it's all Herman Miller's fault. The introduction of their Action Office system in the late 1950s was largely responsible for the office cubicle as we know it today. While things are obviously not as bad as they could be, people could at least learn how to behave themselves in the modern cube-farm.
posted by majcher (28 comments total)
Wow, I didn't know that. Makes me feel a bit guilty for wanting an Aeron chair.
posted by mmoncur at 3:26 PM on December 10, 2002

I have an Action office. And now I know where it came from. Maybe that will help me appreciate.... nope I still hate working.
posted by Mushkelley at 3:35 PM on December 10, 2002

Ever watch old movies, and feel a deep pang of resentment and envy at the open, spacious offices depicted therein?

posted by rushmc at 3:40 PM on December 10, 2002

There's a heck more to it than that, including the investigations of the Quickborner Team in Germany, the Knoll Planning Unit , and the early '50's work of Gordon Bunschaft at Skidmore Owings and Merril. Of course, George Nelson is at the heart of Action Office (co-developed with Robert Probst who was more on the sociology end of things). The original wasn't successful until it was altered and issued as Action Office II - which Nelson hated. Why? Because the addition of upholstered screens upon which the whole system hinged, was to Nelson inhumane.

For a real fright, check out this.
posted by grimley at 3:40 PM on December 10, 2002

Surely this topic should be linked in some way to yesterday's "human zoo" post?
posted by rushmc at 3:41 PM on December 10, 2002

i'd rather sit in my comfy cubicle than look at my stupid coworkers all day.
posted by xmutex at 3:54 PM on December 10, 2002


Herman Mill are the perpetrators of both the worst and best office furnishings in the modern business office.

I still want an Aeron.
and I don't feel the least guilty about it.

Although, that's maybe because I work in a ridicuously open office. (2,000 square feet / 3 people.)
posted by cinderful at 3:54 PM on December 10, 2002

1. The action office was hella nice cubicles if you could even call them that

2a. The problem is the cheap immitations
2b. The problem is companies who couldn't possibly care less about work environment or the fact that the furnishings they buy crush the spirit.

3. Better cubicles that open floors of tiny desks with typewriters. At least you can hide from your boss in a cubicle.

4. Well I wouldn't say I've been *missing it* Bob.

posted by KettleBlack at 4:07 PM on December 10, 2002

Furthermore, your lust for the Aeron chair is pathetic. All of you should be ashamed. I don't care how nice your char is, if your ass remains in one chair the entire day you are not cool!!

o< It is pretty damn slick though. I know a place where you can get them ~half off.
posted by KettleBlack at 4:10 PM on December 10, 2002

a. what grimley said.

b. I actually regard Action Office and its many, many imitators as an improvement over inept open-plan workflow and seating arrangements.

Most Japanese offices are just one undifferentiated space filled with loooooong parallel rows of tables - not desks, tables - at which salarymen and OLs sit side by side by side, with a mulchy overspill of for-show binders and never-used documentation the only demarcation of personal space. Oh, and the Gundam toys atop the monitors.

I have a newfound respect for the cubicle.
posted by adamgreenfield at 4:24 PM on December 10, 2002

The Wright way.
posted by thomcatspike at 4:39 PM on December 10, 2002

Great post, majcher; the second link is particularly educational. (Oddly enough, I'd just been thinking -- as I walked down the depressing corridor from my windowless office today -- "Where did this all come from? What happened to real offices?" And now I know.)
posted by languagehat at 4:58 PM on December 10, 2002

i had an aeron chair, but then our office moved and they were stolen en route.

bastard thieves. really. those things are every bit as sweet as you think they are. you can kiss your ass-sweat goodbye when you're parking it in one of those babies.

but life is still good, right?

nice links.
posted by fishfucker at 4:59 PM on December 10, 2002

I remember in the early 90's doing on-site support for a customer ( British Aerospace) and walking into one of those large rooms with row upon row of desks squeezed together. Such a joyless feeling and cubicles definitely beat that. The problem is that very few cubicle designs actually match efficient work areas .

You couldnt even hang things on the walls of those Knoll "kites" , grimley
posted by stuartmm at 5:12 PM on December 10, 2002

What adamgreenfield said about Japanese offices goes for Korea as well - given the choice, I'd go with veal-fattening pens every time.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:32 PM on December 10, 2002

The Aeron Chair sucks, I thought it would be something better. I'm holding out for the Aerogel Chair. (What I thought it was)
posted by banished at 5:49 PM on December 10, 2002

Don't forget about Steelcase. Their Series 9000 line is the best-selling office system in the world. And their Leap chair is way doper than the Aeron. I've sat in both for lonnnnnnnnnnnnnnng periods of time, and the Leap kicks -- er feels better on your -- ass.

Yes, I used to work for Steelcase, but I don't anymore.
posted by elvissinatra at 6:01 PM on December 10, 2002

My primary concern with the Aeron chairs is the mesh seat. Traditional cushion-based seating has a distinct advantage in the sound and odor control departments.

When I was in a dot-com office a while back, and we all got Aerons, there was a short period of adjustment while, one at a time, my co-workers and I discovered that yes, now everyone could hear everyone's farts.

Mesh seats, the great equalizer.
posted by majcher at 6:51 PM on December 10, 2002

I work for a relic dot-com startup, and all the supposedly innovative office designs it implemented then -- open spaces, CD players with sound cards and speakers at every desk, work flows that take people past many other people -- make for a pretty annoying, joyless work experience now that things are down. The idea was that all these happy workers would bloom in these environments, that they'd sit next to each other, rock out to some tunes, etc. Now I long for a cube so I don't have to watch my neighbor pick nits off his head or hear every conversation that goes on in our (previously trendy) loft-space-cum-office.
posted by risenc at 7:52 PM on December 10, 2002

cubicles are only really demoralizing when you place them row upon row upon indistinguishable row in a "farm" in a windowless single-story one-acre suburban "big box" building. in a "garden" configuration (four in a cluster, broken up by open meeting space, near a window or skylight) or a pre-war era high-rise building (i.e. smaller footprint with less distance from the windows to the core), they're not so bad.
posted by Vetinari at 7:58 PM on December 10, 2002

i'm with risenc. I worked in a .com startup that was basically a huge room with "church" tables placed end to end, and we shared at least 2 people to a table. It sucked, I had to have my headphones on constantly just to concentrate at all. At least with my cube i'm not distracted by a constant movement of people throughout the room.
posted by jbelshaw at 8:14 PM on December 10, 2002

Bentham + Herman Miller = Foucault.

I took a course in college entitled "Alternative Perspectives to Corporate America." It was a tenure-eliminating, cheeky smuggling of the Frankfurt School & postmodernism into a capstone honors class taught by a young and conflicted business professor at the Jesuit University I attended.

Professor Bill studied marketing and organizational theory and did his dissertation research on an office furniture manufacturer. He analyzed the "modern" office configurations being promoted by the company and found a striking similarity between the cube farm office configurations and Jeremy Bentham's panopticon as seen through the work of Michel Foucault, the basic notion being that this sort of institutional design and organization focused on creating environments in which all of its participants scrupulously self-monitor and adjusted their behavior in line with the expectations of authorities, and do so because they cannot tell at any given moment whether they are monitored by others and thus must assume that is the case. This pretty radically changed the way I thought about the world. Bill didn't get tenure, but it was part of what drove me to grad school.
posted by donovan at 9:13 PM on December 10, 2002

donovan, thanks for bringing up the point I was going to, much better than I could have. For the record, Prof. Bill is neither the first nor certainly the last to see cube farms as Foucaultian space. See The Database Culture for another view that brings in the infamous time-management aspects of corporate life.

As stuartrmm notes, though, the cubicle must be seen as a marginal improvement upon the "secretarial pool" style of office that dominated the first half of the century; to get a taste, go rent The Apartment. (Well, heck, just go rent it anyway. If you haven't seen it, it's one of the finest comedies ever made.)
posted by dhartung at 11:28 PM on December 10, 2002

I work here. There are about 50 employees all in one totally open-plan space. The disadvantages are that it's noisy, there's no privacy, it's difficult to heat and people down the other end of the office keep opening windows near me. Also, everyone can see what you're doing. Even visitors. It's very odd to have a champagne reception happening next to you when you're trying to work.

Advantages: I've had conversations with every single person here and I've been here just over a month. People talk to each other. Conversations start, other people overhear and join in. There's little sense of hierarchy. Management doesn't just hang out with management. The chief executive sits at the next desk to me, at a totally identical workstation.

I wouldn't swap this office for a cubicle based one where the top management get their own offices. I would, however, swap it for one where individual departments had their own offices and a bit of privacy.
posted by Summer at 3:12 AM on December 11, 2002

Cubicles Rock. If done right...

My wife works as a developer at a large brokerage and when I first saw her working area I drooled. Their cubicles are like 10 feet deep and 6 feet wide, with tons of cabinets, desk space, lighting, and a whiteboard stretched across the panel behind her desk. The aisles are wide, with stand-up meeting tables running like a boulevard separating one wall of cubicles from the other.

That said, I worked at one software company that put in 6x6 cubicles as tightly as possible and it sucked. I think one of our old H1-B guys lived in there (we called it the Sanford & Sons cubicle), it was such a pain-in-the-ass maze to get to and from your desk; the claustrophobia was truly Gilliamesque.

So, don't blame it on Herman Miller, blame it on cheap, short-sighted executives who still haven't read Peopleware.
posted by minnesotaj at 11:43 AM on December 11, 2002

I am wearing 30db foam earplugs and headset ear covers over the top of that, while I work in my cubicle. The only thing I can hear is the blood in my veins. But my ears are kinda warm.
posted by mecran01 at 2:45 PM on December 11, 2002

That's kinda...y'
posted by adamgreenfield at 4:57 PM on December 11, 2002

I find it odd that anything coming out of Zeeland could be compared with Foucault... though I have an odd sense of pride that, in the end, they're the only ones to really make money on the dot-com boom.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:12 PM on December 11, 2002

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