Robert Propst: Unorthodox Thinker
Portraits of Robert Propst. THF137271
PROFESSION: Designer (Although he preferred to be called "searcher")
INNOVATION: The Action Office II System (1968) and the movable "coherent structures” of the Co/Struc System designed for hospitals (1971)
ATTRIBUTES: Empathetic observer, serial problem solver, unorthodox thinker
You could be forgiven if you aren’t familiar with the work of Robert Propst. After all, if his designs were working as he intended, they simply disappeared.
Propst became director of the Herman Miller Research Division (HMRD) in 1960, setting up shop in a small concrete building in Ann Arbor, Mich. The founder of Herman Miller, D.J. DePree, saw potential in Propst’s ambitious thinking and hired him to broaden the company’s product range. Very few guidelines were in place at HMRD: Nothing should be connected to military use, no furniture designs — and whatever was designed should simply “be useful.”
Robert Propst Outside Herman Miller Research Division Office, Ann Arbor, Michigan, July 1964. THF137214
Deliberately choosing a building more than 150 miles away from Herman Miller’s headquarters in Zeeland, Mich., Propst exercised his freedom to research without the distraction of corporate meetings. For every idea he had that went into production, hundreds more were filed away.
Two of Propst’s most impactful projects were holistic environments designed for high-impact workplaces: the improved Action Office II system (1968) and the movable “coherent structures” of the Co/Struc system designed for hospitals (1971).
In Propst’s mind, offices had become chaotic wastelands. Cobbled together furniture, nonergonomic chairs and an invasion of technology onto ad hoc surfaces. Action Office — a modular system of free standing panel walls — could be fluidly arranged into nooks for working, conference areas and other purpose-driven needs. An idealistic vision for the birth of the modern office cubicle.
Propst wasn’t always a designer of “things” but of situations. He attacked issues from the reverse, finding clues in the algorithms of human behavior working in high-stakes spaces. How did people move while working? Where was time being spent? Wasted? How can we support safety? Privacy? Collaboration? The physical solutions he engineered encouraged ideas of access, mobility and efficiency. His modular approach to office landscapes was intended to have a 1 + 1 = 3 effect. Which is to say that by implementing physical change, “knowledge” workers could then springboard off an improved relationship with their workspaces, which were suddenly more hospitable to launching new ideas, productive workflows and transformative projects.
Action Office Project Drawing by Robert Propst, April 6, 1964. THF241708
Did You Know
- The proliferation of the office cubicle is almost single-handedly due to the introduction of the Action Office II system in 1968. Unfortunately, the mobile aspect of Action Office became rooted to the floor, quite literally. Large businesses filled their buildings with Action Office (or its various knock-offs) to create Dilbertesque “cubicle farms.”
- The first version of Action Office was conceived by Robert Propst and designed by George Nelson in 1964, but sales were lackluster. Corporate managers worried about the porous borders being offered to their staff, now called “knowledge workers,” and the cost was simply too high. Propst returned to the drawing board alone for AO2.
- Robert Propst did not like to be referred to as a designer. He also didn’t like the term “researcher,” because it implied looking backward. His ideal description for his activities was “searcher.”
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Curator of Communication & Information Technology at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from an article in the January-May 2019 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.
Herman Miller, The Henry Ford Magazine, by Kristen Gallerneaux, Robert Propst, furnishings, design