50 years old, the cubicle changed the office forever
Only one person is actually going to eat the curry, but after a thorough re-heating in the perpetually crusty break room microwave, everyone in Cubicleville gets to enjoy it. Cue the e-mails:
Can you even??
I am this close.
That the cubicle walls are low enough to say all this aloud simply by standing up is beside the point. Curry Eater might hear, as she/he sits in the ol’ ergonomic re-enjoying last night’s dinner, and that’s just not the way it works in Cubicleville. Popping up, Whack-a-Mole style, to say something over the cube walls is reserved for “The Bachelor,” the weekend, the passing parade of life lived outside the office.
Maybe that’s part of the problem and why the cubicle, since its introduction in 1964, is so universally reviled. There’s the perception that life happens around, beside, outside the cubicle, but not inside it.
Fifty years later, and there’s no end of discussion about what Robert Propst, a former professor of fine arts at the University of Colorado, wrought upon the world.
To be fair, Cubicleville was not Propst’s intention. Working as president of Michigan-based Herman Miller Research Corp., he sought a solution to what he perceived as the problem: “Today’s office is a wasteland,” he wrote. “It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.”
That is, the “bullpen office” — a hamster maze of offices and, essentially, the typing pool.
“It’s truly amazing the number of decisive events and critical dialogues that occur when people are out of their seated, stuffy contexts,” he told Metropolis magazine in 1998, “and moving around and chatting with each other.”
In 1964, Propst and a team of designers introduced the Action Office, “the world’s first open-plan office system of reconfigurable components and a bold departure from the era’s fixed assumptions of what office furniture should be.”
And it was amazing: a huge open area that could be sectioned off into enclosed spaces, if needed, or semi-enclosed spaces for a more social privacy. The work areas had two adjustable-height desks, several chairs, vertical filing stands and a small table. It was spacious! It offered a modicum of privacy!
It didn’t sell. Wow, did it ever not sell. It was difficult to assemble, costly to produce and required an amount of space that big companies, in the rising real estate prices of the 1960s, couldn’t afford.
Back to the drawing board. In 1968, Propst and his team introduced the Action Office II, which gave each employee one desk and incorporated low walls so employees had some privacy but could still interact with co-workers over the walls. It required less space, so more work areas could be fit into an office.
Dun dun DUNNNN. The cubicle.
Oh, the ennui. The existential despair. Before his death in 2000, Propst called Cubicleville a “monolithic insanity.” And he wasn’t wrong. His intention, as he told Metropolis magazine, was “to create a low-key, unself-conscious product that was not at all fashionable. The Action Office was supposed to be invisible and embellished with identity and communication artifacts and whatever you needed to create individuation. We tried to escape the idea of being stylish, which is gone in five years. We wanted this to be the vehicle to carry other expressions of identity. That’s why we provided tackboards and all kinds of display surfaces.”
Companies, in turn, simply crammed a soulless grid of these babies into shrinking floor space (today’s fodder for proletariat rage: the average office worker had 90 square feet of space in 1994, according to the International Facility Management Association, but that shrank to 75 square feet by 2010. Meanwhile, executive office space increased).
That grid of cubes — so uniform, so impermanent — came to signify all that is soul-crushing about a paycheck earned somewhere between CEO and ditch digger. Scott Adams built a cartoon career on them. The movie “Office Space” seems, at its heart, to be a reaction against cubicles: “We don’t have a lot of time on this earth!” shouts Peter Gibbons, the film’s lead who reacts against all that modern office work. “We weren’t meant to spend it this way! Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements!”
Plus, there’s the wall carpet. Why the drab walls upholstered in a scratchy fabric usually reserved for the mysteriously stained furniture in a methadone clinic? Why the flimsiness, the sense that one irate worker burning through his/her last straw could kick it all over, domino-style, in a King Kong rage?
Why the palpable sense of dreams dying?
Maybe that’s the problem — not so much the cubicle, but what it represents: He wanted to be a documentary filmmaker, but landed on the 12th floor as team leader for business innovation, whatever that even means. She dreamed of Doctors Without Borders, but somehow worked her way up to account executive with a parking spot.
Perhaps it’s not the cubicle, but the fact that paths can take a sudden, unexpected right and then suddenly it’s 15 years later. Does anyone dream of office work in a grid of 50 desks?
But then there’s the hula girl. You know the one, the hip-wiggling figurine perched next to the keyboard, wafting coconut breezes every time idle fingers give her grass skirt a flick. In the impersonal grid, in the dystopia of Cubicleville, hula girls stand languidly on beige desks.
Smiling families grin from Hobby Lobby frames, thick-lined crayon drawings shine where they’re tacked to the scratchy-carpeted cubicle walls, palm trees sway from the desk calendar next to the computer monitor.
Perhaps Propst’s dream did not die in the cubicle, but became the dream deferred, because the human spirit is strong. The walls may be gray, but inside the drawings, the picture frames and the hula girl’s beguiling smile, the sun shines.
Work gets done, and maybe it’s satisfying or maybe it isn’t, but the paychecks clear and glad of it! Over the cubicle walls, co-workers become friends, perhaps to the time-wasted detriment of the company but to the mental comfort of all.
In the cubicle, everyone smells the lunch and the perfume, everyone hears the braying phone conversations of the office loud-talkers, everyone passive-aggressively fights over the ambient temperature, everyone pisses and moans about the boss, about the policy changes, about the tenuousness of the economy.
It’s not so much what’s inside the cubicle, then, but what’s inside the heart and the head.
“There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it, and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself,” wrote Lin Yutang in “On the Wisdom of America.”
So, innovators may strive to redesign offices, some companies may make it work, the visions of future office contentment are pure. But as a $3 billion a year industry, give or take, cubicles remain the dominant paradigm. And so does the co-worker with a curry lunch, heated in the break room microwave, wafting to all in Cubicleville.
That can’t even taste good.