New Cubicle: Utopian Office Space?


Sitting in your cubicle at work, do you ever wonder sometimes just how you ended up there?

Not too long ago, someone came along with a vision for a new and improved "office space" of the future that was more than just rows of desks lined up next to each other.

The time was the 1960s, the person was Robert Probst, and the futuristic office space: the cubicle.

Through the years, the cubicle has become despised by some and immortalized in pop culture in the comic strip "Dilbert," which found comedy in the plight of the modern-day office worker.

Now, after years of derision, one company is giving the cubicle a major face-lift, one designed to give those toiling officer workers the option of working in the same type of enclosed office as the boss.

But do companies want office staff to be able to separate themselves, or will they prefer the openness of the traditional cube system?

It's a question the architects of the modern office have been faced with since its inception.

Timber Inventor Enters Office

The invention of the cubicle started as something of an accident, but with more utopian ambitions.

A residential furniture company, Herman Miller, was looking for another business to expand into.

The company had never made office furniture, but it had lots of architects on staff and needed to do something fast with the future of the firm.

The firm hired Probst, an inventor best known for his invention in timber harvesting.

"He developed a big truck that backed up to a tree and would chop it off at the base," said Joseph Schwartz, Herman Miller's former marketing chief. "[The truck would] then pile the trunks into another truck that would be able to transport it."

Herman Miller set up a research facility in Ann Arbor, Mich., adjacent to the University of Michigan and just down the road from the company's headquarters in Zealand, Mich.

Probst's mission was to set up the office and then begin to innovate.

"He wanted to create a space where the worker could sit and do their work in one area, and stand and do their work in another, to help increase the blood flow," Schwartz said.

"He found that Winston Churchill among some of the other key decision makers were always photographed standing at a desk and writing something."

Probst's other primary pillar for the cubicle invention was the concept that the "eye was a direct connection to the mind" -- the idea that wall surfaces where you could take papers in front of you could be a lot more fruitful than the traditional piles of papers stacked high on a desk.

It was on these humble foundations that the precursor to the cube -- known as the "Action Office" and designed for the high-level office executive -- was conceived.

"We introduced the Action Offices, which were five or six pieces of free-standing furniture," Schwartz said. "The reception to this in the marketplace was that of a nonevent."

The seeds of innovation had been sown.

The Action Office 2 was launched the 1960s. It was a time when major companies -- Polaroid, IBM, Westinghouse -- were expanding their employment pools and branch offices.

They needed not just a place to put new workers, but a flexible setup that allowed them to rearrange frequently and fit the most people in the smallest amount of space.

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