Design Icon: The Cubicle - Design Bureau

Design Icon: The Cubicle

Monday, July 25th, 2011

by Kathryn Freeman Rathbone

In the 1950s, open offices were all the rage, but as corporate culture took off in the 1960s, so did employees’ desire for a bit of private space. Enter the cubicle: a small, customizable nook that offers every employee a semi-private personal office space. Since then, commercial architects and office managers alike have mobilized cubicles as the go-to office space division system. And although the cubicle’s typical structure and arrangement is commonplace, its design history is anything but.

Early 1960s: Robert Propst, a designer working for Herman Miller, proposes the cubicle’s design as a part of his Action Office system, a kit of interchangeable parts that prioritizes a highly organized individual workspace while creating a larger area for group collaboration. In Propst’s original plans, wall panels are to be set at 120 degrees, thereby making the configuration of three- and four-walled cubicles impossible.

Late 1960s: Recognizing the efficiency inherent in Propst’s design, office managers across the country scrap the original plan and decide to grid open office floors with cubicle modules in order to maximize the utility of square footage.

1970s: Cubicle craze spreads worldwide, reorganizing corporate offices across the globe. The term “cubicle farm” is coined to describe corporate spaces with seemingly unending rows of desk blocks.

April 16, 1989: American cartoonist Scott Adams publishes his first Dilbert comic strip, igniting a wave of pop satirizations of white-collar corporate culture. The cubicle becomes the butt of many of these jokes.

2000: Design think tank IDEO releases schematics for “Dilbert’s Ultimate Cubicle,” a space composed of smaller modules that can be rearranged to fit its dweller’s needs and preferences, with some even accommodating space and hardware for a hammock.

2003: IBM and furniture manufacturer Steelcase collaborate to create BlueSpace cubicle prototypes that feature a projection system and integrated computer screens. Disney World displays these in its theme parks as an example of design technology, encouraging all people to rethink the potentials of typical office space.

TODAY: Although many offices are now reverting back to the open-air style prominent in the ’50s, cubicles are being more seamlessly integrated into these floor plans, creating spaces that encourage creativity and collaboration, while still offering a sense of privacy.

Photos courtesy of Herman Miller and IDEO 




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