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In the 1950s, big cars ruled. Even low-priced cars like Plymouths, Chevrolets, and Fords were good-sized. The Nash Rambler was smaller and cheaper, with similar interior room.

thf903511950 Nash Rambler Convertible THF90351 

Smallness was not attractive in itself, so Nash -- which competed for the same narrow slice of the market with small cars like the Crosley, the Willys, the Hudson Jet, and Kaiser’s Henry J -- pitched the Rambler as a small car that seemed big.

thf845511950 Nash Sales Brochure, "The Smartest, Safest Convertible in the World" THF84551

Nash tried to make the Rambler appeal to everyone by giving it a little bit of everything—even seemingly contradictory things: economy and luxury, convertible and hardtop, small enough to park and big enough to seat five, as safe as a sedan and as sexy as a sports car.

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But if big was so appealing, why build small cars at all? The sales figures added up to one answer—don’t. There simply weren’t enough buyers, and all the tiny cars failed.

From the staff at The Henry Ford.

Innovation Nation

The Walking Office Wearable Computer is a visual prototype model that was created by the collaborative design group Salotto Dinamico in the mid-1980s. Salotto Dinamico, which translates to “dynamically, we grow,” was composed of Vincenzo Iavicoli, Paolo Bettini, Maria Luisa Rossi, Maurizio Pettini, and Letizia Schettini.

thf291245Image of poster advertising Salotta Dinamico’s “The Walking Office” THF291245

While all five members of the group had input in the project, Vincenzo Iavicoli submitted the concept as his 1983 undergraduate Industrial Design thesis at the ISIA school in Florence, Italy (under the guidance of his mentor, Paolo Bettini). The designers entered a physical model of the ideas in Iavicoli’s thesis in the 1985 Mainichi International Industrial Design Competition in Tokyo, Japan. The Walking Office won the top prize in the “Harmonization of Office Automation and Environment” category, attracting global attention in design, fashion, and technology publications. It was featured on the covers of Domus, ID, and Interni magazines, and received coverage in Brutus, Vogue, and approximately 70 other publications. The success of the project sparked the careers of the youngest members of the group, Iavicoli and Rossi, who formed their own successful design consultancy and became educators in Industrial Design programs around the world.

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Designers Vincenzo Iavicoli and Maria Luisa Rossi at the 1985 Mainichi International Industrial Design Competition THF274743

The Walking Office model is made of polished chrome. Two pieces fit together to form a keyboard, the display arch fits into the keyboard to serve as a display, and a cassette recorder links up with an acoustic coupler modem to record and transmit data through any available telephone line. The Walking Office also doubles as personal adornment, with the keyboard pieces worn on the shoulder and the display arch as a headpiece (looking much like a mohawk). It combines the expressive aesthetic detail of 1980s Italian design with provocative high-tech materials to create an unapologetically cyberpunk-chic device. The Walking Office was not meant to be concealed (comparisons might be drawn between it and the Google Glass Explorer program of recent years), and its seductive styling was quite revolutionary in 1984. In a 2016 interview, Iavicoli recalled that though Japanese designers adeptly diffused new technologies into the mainstream, they had not yet begun to focus consistently on styling their devices.  Early in the prototyping process, Iavicoli decided not to try to compete with the fast pace of technology, prioritizing strategy and concept instead.

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Model wearing “The Walking Office” prototype THF274747

Iavicoli’s thesis explored the design-thinking process behind the prototype: the history of physical office spaces (desks, lighting, cubicles, seating), the technology utilized within them (computers, calculators, modems, keyboards, online systems), and intangible aspects such as the psychology of work environments and spatial arrangements.

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Page from Vincenzo Iavicoli’s undergraduate thesis THF275237

The designers of the Walking Office explored negative and positive elements of its proposed function. On one hand, they described it as “an Orwellian omen condemning portable work” (anticipating the desire of today’s knowledge workers to “unplug” themselves from the distractions of always-on technology.) A more positive spin situated the Walking Office as a route to freedom that would allow people to embrace the “amoral and amusing” aspects of creative work. They imagined “electronic machines…coming out of the office, conquering urban space, dwellings, golf courses, bars and beaches, becoming natural body accessories.”

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Drawing imagining “The Walking Office” in use THF274752

The Walking Office was pitched as a “techno-human” object. As a modern prosthetic, it subverted where (and when) the office could be, essentially turning the human body into a mobile workstation. It proposed the same type of fluid interactions with technology as one would have with pens, watches, and eyeglasses. And finally, it provided an alternative method of accessing and using information in an efficient way.

Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology.

Innovation Nation

thf137271Portraits 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.”

thf137214Robert 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.

thf241708Action 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.  

Robert Propst, Innovation Nation

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In the 1980s, desktop computers emphasized non-committal, neutral shades: beige, off-white, black, and the just-barely-greys of putty and fog. During a time when popular culture included the flashiness of MTV, new wave music pressed onto colorful records, and hip hop culture--why so much beige?

Truthfully, home computers were becoming more common, but the largest market remained in office environments. Neutral computers provided visual unity among cubicles, and masked aging plastic.

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IBM Personal Computer, Model 5150, 1984THF156040

The Apple Newton eMate was one of the first personal computers to break away from the typical form of the "opaque beige box."

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Apple eMate 300, 1997THF172045

The eMate's distinctive translucency was soon echoed by Jonathan Ive in his radical case design for the iMac G3 computer. From 1998-2001, the iMac was available in an array of 13 colors--from Bondi Blue to Flower Power. 

MacMashup



View all 13 colors of the Apple iMac in The Henry Ford’s digital collections.

This post features objects and text displayed in the 2018 pop-up exhibition Looking Through Things: Transparent Tech, Fashion, and Systems at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communication & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.

Innovation Nation