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Cutting up the Cube

August 29, 2013

Originally published in the January-May 2013 edition of The Henry Ford Magazine.

Ever have an idea that just got away from you? Things started out with the best intentions in mind, and then before you knew it, a perfect storm carried your idea away, along with all of those good intentions? That's the story behind the office cubicle we all love to hate and its underappreciated designer Robert Propst.

Before it was known as the cubicle, it was called the Action Office System. Propst invented the concept in the 1960s after intense study of how "the world of work" operates. The Action Office debuted under the Herman Miller name in 1968 and literally transformed the nation's idea of the workplace.

"The name was intentional," said Marc Greuther, our chief curator here at The Henry Ford (we have an archived collection of Propst's work). "Propst believed in fluidity and movement. He had an active mind and wanted to create a space that wouldn't pen you in."

The Action Office System contained movable walls, shelves, stand-up desks and other modular components, like the Communication Center from our collections, pictured above.

"The idea was that everyone had a unique way of working," noted Greuther, "so Propst created an area that was highly customizable, allowing workers to transform their space in a way that best suited them."

Things started to go awry when the government began offering tax incentives to businesses for office expenses. Since the Action Office System's square cubicle could create the most workspaces in a single area - equating to the biggest tax break - it quickly became the Action Office option that sold best. And Propst became the unintentional father of the office-cube farm we know today.

"Propst attacked the things that attacked him," Greuther added. "He liked solving problems and had his hands in many areas, from toys and playground equipment to hotel carts." Propst, in fact, had more than 120 patented inventions to his name when he died in 2000.

"He is a truly underappreciated and under-recognized designer of our time."

To see more from the collections of The Henry Ford, take a look at this Robert Propst collection set. You can read more from The Henry Ford Magazine here.

cubicles, design, offices