The Cubicle Turns 50: The History of a Bad Idea
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Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1964, the modern office arrived in New York. Joe Schwartz, the marketing director at a small, Michigan-based home furnishing firm name Herman Miller, was erecting the world's first modular "workplace solution" in a showroom at 600 Madison Avenue while calling every architecture firm he knew. The product, developed by the eccentric polymath Robert Probst, featured a massive desk, a carrel for making phone calls, and a vertical filing system. With it's clean steel lines, the "Action Office" looked futuristic, even era-defining. Designers flocked to the showroom.

"Then nothing happened," remembers Schwartz. "We had a few orders in Canada, but the executive market was extremely hard to penetrate. It was a first attempt."

Herman Miller needed a hit. The company produced high-end modern furniture, a business that was getting increasingly competitive as European firms, quiet since World War II, entered the market with cheaper products. IKEA had arrived and the executives back in Michigan were scrambling. Still, Probst's "office system" was the first of its kind; it was elegant and presented solutions to a number of problems, allowing workers space to move and facilitating desk-side conversations. But the product was tailored to executives and required too much space to work outside of the confines of a walled office. Probst, who won industry recognition for his work, was forced to rejigger his creation into an affordable workstation for the more numerous middle-management types laboring in "bull pens." What he created was an enclosed desk system designed for easy installation. Dubbed the Action Office II, the next system would drastically reshape the corporate environment.

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"The phenomenon of our age is that almost everything planned for our use is obsolete in capacity or function before it reaches our hands," Probst, who died in 2000, wrote in The Office: A Facility Based on Change, his 1968 masterwork on corporate design. What that meant to him was that the key to good design was versatility. He wanted adjustable desks to supply workers with "environmental support," a structure that would provide privacy without cutting them off from their co-workers. "Companies were hiring data processing people by the thousands," says Schwartz. "They were spending a lot of money and time re-arranging their offices and our pitch was, 'we can do that overnight.'"

Several major clients signed on, but Action Office II didn't take off until a few years later when Schwartz and Probst left Grand Rapids and took their furniture on the road, barnstorming by building set-ups in 25 cities across the country. They refined their schtick, giving presentations about their furniture and then surprising customers by leading them into areas where AO2 systems had been quickly constructed. Business boomed and, as Herman Miller grew, other companies started to notice. Schwartz suddenly found himself competing for clients with Steelcase Solutions, Heyworth, and Knoll, firms offering similar modular desk set-ups for less by eliminating many of Probst's pricier features. "The most serious health problem in offices is its sedentary nature," Probst had written, foreseeing a thousand Occupational Health and Safety Administration studies. But the new non-Herman Millers desks on the market didn't allow for adjustments. They were fixed – as Probst's own product became – making them an easier place to put the new personal computers coming to market.

The corporate world had embraced the "sterile uniformity" Probst railed against. Offices soon became, thanks to the savings created by having workstations share walls, mazes of the endless cubes. George Nelson, Herman Miller's most prominent designer, reacted to the success with scorn, explaining in a letter to a colleague that cubicles had a "dehumanizing effect as a working environment" and describing "corporate zombies." It was 1970 and Probst and Schwartz were still on the road.

By 2005, Herman Miller had sold roughly $5 billion in office systems. "Bob and I were as close as two brothers," says Schwartz. "He was a unique guy. He just struggled to get people to understand exactly what he was talking about."

According to Schwartz, Probst's biggest gripe was that there was more "intelligence" built into his system than was being used. He had created something designed to foster a social environment, comfort people, and make sure no one suffered from a bad back (as he did), but succeeded only in accelerating the atomization of the office. Probst described the mass adoption of cubicles as "monolithic insanity" and left the field of office design to work with hospital equipment. Fifty years after Schwartz arrived on Madison Avenue, Herman Miller still sells Action Office systems.

Today, the cubicle is both ubiquitous and universally loathed. The question facing the companies that grew fat on the cube is what to replace it with and the ideas that Probst explored with Action Office are front and center. In a world where computers can do the work of hundreds of 1970s office drones, everyone is effectively an executive. Probst's vision for an open, welcoming space is being realized in the trend of "Landscape Furniture," a genre of systems that builds desks into social areas, blurring the line between the two. Famed design thinker Yves Behar has created such a system for Herman Miller based on similar arrangements that have been popular in Australia (where the cubicle never caught on) for a decade.

While there is no such thing as a perfect office – corporate design follows technological and cultural trends – there is such a thing as a disfunctional office. Years and years of social-scientific, ergonomic, and psychological research show that the cubicle is precisely what Probst thought it was when, in 1968, he drew an image of a man surrounded by four walls and wrote one word underneath it: "Bad." It was a warning that went unheeded.

"I wish Bob was alive," says Schwartz, who still works at an adjustable Probst desk installed in his Arizona home. "I think we could help with the redesign."