When and why office cubicles were invented

Did you know that the office cubicle layout with its loved or loathed reputation was originally designed to bring out the best in workers? Debuting in the heady days of the 1960s, cubicles were intended to make office environments breezy, less confined, and altogether more efficient. From whence did this ultimately complicated office element come?

Office workers and executives all o’er the land can thank (or at least salute) designer Robert Propst for introducing the cubicle. Propst headed up the research division of legendary furniture manufacturer Herman Miller and envisioned a better way to work, with flexible and customized office space that inspired more effective work than an armada of big, heavy desks.

Indeed, the typical 1950s and 60s office worker labored in expansive, open spaces packed with row after row of huge metal or wood desks, with a background hustle of clanking typewriters, noisy telephones ringing all day, and an eternal haze of cigarette smoke. (Ironic, given the recent trendy return to the open office layout.)

Introducing the Action Office

Propst saw the answer to the office layout blues in his Action Office, focused on lightweight sitting and standing desks and filing systems. He designed the original cubicle in 1964 to empower people and thought “productivity would rise if people could see more of their work spread out in front of them, not just stacked in an in-box.” Acoustical panels helped insulate workers from the noise of telephone calls and typing, and the panels became miniature walls of multiple heights that separated each space into its own office without completely cutting workers off from colleagues.

But corporate America didn’t use the Action Office (Propst introduced two iterations) the way Propst intended. Instead of following his design for roomy desk spaces and walls of different heights, they chose tiny, boxed-in desks instead and cubicles were used to cram even more workers into offices. The office layout he envisioned shrank until it became impersonal and crowded, and the age of the cubicle farm had begun.

Government incentive

The U.S. government also helped the cubicle movement take off.  In efforts to stimulate business spending, the Treasury Department implemented new rules for depreciating assets, allowing companies to recover their costs quicker by buying furniture that “acted like offices” rather than offices themselves.

In the past 50 years, cubicles have become ubiquitous and now represent a $3 billion industry. Interestingly, cubicles of various design are often integrated into open office layouts as quiet retreats and private work areas.


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