From the scenes of films such as Mike Judge’s Office Space to Jacques Tati’s Playtime, and the long-running comic strip Dilbert, the office cubicle is a common trope of white-collar work comedies. Here, tight, narrow corridors and cubes structured by movable walls – just tall enough to conceal the dweller when seated – act as nine-to-five cages for a deskbound workforce.
Across high art and popular culture, it’s a stark caricature of a familiar and dominating work setting, though in truth, the plight of the office worker has never been so singular nor so static. Today’s worker faces any number of scenarios: from large-scale open-plan layouts, to fragmented micro-offices, and even remote and completely individualised home offices. As technology becomes increasingly mobile and compact, it’s constantly redefining the nature of work, where it happens, and how much it can vary across companies and individuals.
Many credit the origins of the office-cubicle concept to the American furniture company Herman Miller, manufacturer of some of the world’s most ubiquitous and high-performing office furniture (such as the highly adjustable and ergonomic Aeron, “America’s best-selling chair,” according to Bloomberg), as well as a trove of mid-century modern designs by figures such as Isamu Noguchi and Charles and Ray Eames, among others. While associating the company with the origins of the cubicle farm would be misguided, however, it certainly speaks to the instrumental role that Herman Miller has played in shaping our ideas about the changing workplace.
The company’s research-based design approach Living Office was introduced in 2014 as a modular kit-of-parts solution. Named to reflect the ever- mercurial, evolving workplace, Living Office takes into account the many variables and problems facing people working in contemporary offices. “It responds to typologies of work activities, with a typology of settings made to create environments that are designed to support those different types of activities,” explains Joseph White, Herman Miller’s director of workplace strategy. In Living Office, a tailored combination of workstations – such as individual desks through to informal meeting stations, standing areas and larger conference areas – can work to support an organisation’s needs for a happy, collaborative, and productive office.
In a new, landmark research project released this spring as a white paper titled ‘How to Catalyze the Workplace for Growth’, Herman Miller’s research team drilled down into the efficacy of Living Office when they conducted an experiment with 13 global organisations. The company consulted with each team to identify key goals and priorities for their business, and thereafter implemented a redesign of their working space using Living Office principles. Surveying more than 1,500 respondents on factors that ranged from comfort, efficiency, and personal engagement, through to purpose, collaboration and belonging, the survey was an attempt to capture within data the tangible effects of office design. Herman Miller compared these findings with data from the global benchmarking service Leesman, which carries the largest collection of workplace effectiveness data in the world – including data from more than 340,000 people working in 2,649 offices in 69 countries. Across each variable, Herman Miller’s dataset performed above the benchmark by an average margin of more than 10 points.
While this research project represents the latest development in Herman Miller’s approach to design, the company’s wider modular, systems-based approach to furniture isn’t new. In fact, the company’s human-centric design strategy is part of a larger project that has been in place for nearly eight decades. “Herman Miller’s long history with office furniture, or at least thinking about how furniture can help people in the office space, goes all the way back to Gilbert Rohde, who introduced the Executive Office Group in 1942,” says Amy Auscherman, the company’s in house archivist and de facto historian.
Rohde, a New York–based industrial designer, had been appointed director of design by Herman Miller founder D.J. De Pree in 1932 as the company moved into the Great Depression and looked for new ways to stay afloat. Among the first American designers to visit the Bauhaus school in Dessau, Rohde had observed how teachers such as Marcel Breuer were using spare, industrial parts such as tubular steel to make compact furnishings that could be mass-produced with material efficiency and a minimalist elegance. Along with the Art Deco influences he had picked up on travels to France, he was on a personal mission to bring modernism to the American mass market. As such, he persuaded De Pree to leave behind the company’s catalogue of bedroom suites and ornamental reproductions, and instead transition to modern design.
With Rohde’s foresights into modular design
and systems thinking, the company transitioned
to a modern era and, with the Executive Office Group (EOG), began to anticipate changes in corporate office culture and the American white-collar workforce. This represented a leap forward from early 20th-century offices that had been modelled on the Taylorist factory floor, with workers aligned elbow-to-elbow in a hierarchical maze of long, conveyor belt-like rows of desks. Years before business visionary Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” in his 1959 book The Landmarks of Tomorrow, Rohde sensed a change in the modern office that necessitated a different paradigm of efficiency and productivity.
“This furniture has no escape complex, it looks like what it is, and proclaims the clear-thinking executive who will have no cobwebs in his business,” said Rohde of EOG’s pioneering, utilitarian approach. Ahead of its time, the collection’s selling points, in fact, were not unlike what we hear today in the wider marketplace for office furniture. Copy in EOG sales brochures was shaped to appeal to different types of white-collar workers, along with suggestions as to what setup might best suit their particular needs. A 1942 office executive, for example, might not need an especially large desk, as they would likely be away from it and in meetings for much of the day; while an art director at an advertising agency, on the other hand, would likely require an extra-large surface for sketching and jiggering layouts throughout the day.
The solution for the best work environment, EOG underlined, was not uniform but rather shaped by context and preference – it was left to the agency of the individual and the organisation. There was no single perfect desk or chair for everyone, but rather a set of modular solutions that could be combined to a desired outcome. While Rohde’s EOG ultimately fell short as a stalled attempt – a result of US involvement in the Second World War, as well as his own death in 1944 – the collection would set the framework and a core tenet for Herman Miller’s research-driven, systems-based, and human-centred approach to cracking the contract furniture industry.
This design philosophy was defined and redefined under the company’s new design leader, George Nelson, who continued Rohde’s EOG line with the addition of new introductions, including an L-shaped desk that responded to the dominance of emerging technologies – such as typewriters – that required dual work surfaces. The Eameses began designing for the company in 1946, bringing their innovative technologies in bent plywood manufacturing to create elegant yet “workmanlike” designs suitable for both the home and office (as a 1952 catalogue details). By the late 1950s, De Pree felt the company had begun to sate appetites for postwar residential furnishings and so began to pursue new directions.
De Pree tasked a new consultant, Robert Propst, to help diversify and “find problems outside of the furniture industry and to conceive solutions for them.” Propst, an innovative design thinker and inventor with a knack for disruptive business ideas, brought an insatiably curious eye to a wide cast of everyday problems that could potentially be solved or addressed through design. As president of the newly minted Herman Miller Research Division, Propst created systems-based inventions that included a vertical timber harvester and an electronic tagging system for livestock. True to De Pree’s brief, there were also investigations that moved far and away from the realm of furniture design. Noting that sanitary towels were clogging pipes, for example, Propst reimagined the menstrual pad as something that could break into smaller parts when disposed of – a hilariously well-meaning yet misplaced application of Rohde’s ethos for modular design.
Eventually Propst, feeling stifled by his own work settings at the Research Division offices in Ann Arbor, Michigan, turned his attention to improving workplaces. Working with George Nelson, Propst introduced the Action Office suite of furniture in 1964. The world’s first open-plan office system, Action Office had freestanding furniture that could be arranged to serve as partitions and structure various workstations. Importantly, it liberated the desk-bound worker with a variety of settings to keep them active, collaborative, and efficient. “Seeing these designs, one wonders why office workers have put up with their incompatible, unproductive, uncomfortable environment for so long,” marvelled Industrial Design magazine. While lauded for its concept, however, sales for the Action Office flopped, as units proved too expensive, and, despite its handsome and modular design, too heavy and unwieldy to rearrange with ease.
It was the second iteration of Action Office, which followed in 1968, that truly took Herman Miller into the business of systems-based office furniture. Hugh De Pree, one of the company heirs, had visited a Chicago symposium on office landscaping the year prior, and learned of Bürolandschaft, a German movement in open-plan office space planning that had been based loosely on early US examples. Its growth convinced De Pree that Propst’s foresights into systems thinking was worth revisiting and pushing into the American market. In its reimagining – this time without Nelson, whose ideas diverged from Propst’s – the second generation of the Action Office system, or AO-II, was born. This time, the system centred around the concept of interlocking, portable walls: lightweight, standardised partitions that were easily installed and interchangeable so as to modify the space for the “human performer” as needed.
An accompanying manifesto and overview of Propst’s research-driven approach, ‘The Office, a Facility Based on Change’, was published as part of the AO-II launch, and served to proselytise businesses, employers, and workers to this new mode of thinking. “Herman Miller has always gone beyond just selling products by selling solutions and ideas as well, and I think that’s definitely how and why the concept of Action Office was able to proliferate,” says Auscherman. “Unfortunately, part of how the system works is that it allowed employers to exploit the use of cubicles to fit as many people on the floor plate as part of a cost-cutting measure, even though that was kind of the antithesis of the system.”
As sales of AO-II surged, raking in tens of millions of dollars within years of its launch, its popularity gave rise to competitors, who reductively proliferated the system, giving rise to an era of cubicle farms and dismantling of Propst’s vision. The Action Office, which was designed as a way to “give knowledge workers a more flexible, fluid environment than the rat-maze boxes of office,” had been reduced to a crass application that emphasised only the cost-effective use of real estate. As Propst later bemoaned to the New York Times, “The cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity.”
Nevertheless, Propst’s thinking has had lasting power – not least in Living Office. “There’s this notion of moving from the era of industry, on to the era of information, then to the era of ideas,” says White. “In analysing all of this data that we collected as part of ‘How to Catalyze the Workplace for Growth’, we realised that this notion of eras doesn’t fit anymore, and we need to become comfortable moving into this state of constant gradual evolution.” While the report validates the company’s legacy of design, White is adamant that the work of designing better work is never fully completed. “This report gave us a lot of practice in making us ask ourselves, how do we learn enough to inform our next steps?” he says. “Evidence- based design is a constant learning process.”