Drawing, "Child Volcano Play Sculpture," 1958-1960 / THF140518
Designer Robert Propst was best known for leading Herman Miller’s development of the Action Office cubicle system. In the mid-1950s, though, he created a number of toy designs, including the Fun Sticks game, a Fun Duck scooter, and the Fun Swing—a piece of playground equipment safety experts might cringe to see in action today.
In 1958, Propst drew up designs for playground sculptures cast in fine cement—no sharp corners in sight—covered in red, yellow, and blue plasticized paint. Park plans show the curiously labeled “Child Volcano” nestled between slides and biomorphic hide-and-seek structures. Inside the volcano’s hollow core, ladder rungs allowed children to climb out the top and tumble down its sides like flowing magma.
Drawing, "Park Playground," October 30, 1958. The Child Volcano is the yellow structure in the lower right. / THF623880
Playgrounds seem to contrast with the controlled systems Propst is celebrated for. However, this approach—proposing a spectrum across structured activity and free exploration—not only encouraged creative thinking paramount to learning and growth but informed his vision for flexibility and problem-solving in the office.
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.
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 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."