Cubicles and Wall-free offices did not work as well as their utopian creators had hoped.
Remember open-plan offices before we all worked from home? They were often criticised for being noisy and distracting, but now many people miss the social interaction and collaboration they provided.
Architects and designers who wanted to improve the world created open-plan offices and cubicles. They thought that if you wanted to break down the social walls that separate people, you had to break down the real ones too. (Musser, n.d.)
At the beginning of the 20th century, modernist architects like Frank Lloyd Wright thought walls and rooms were fascist. They thought that the space and flexibility of an open plan would free homeowners and office workers from being stuck in boxes. But companies took up their idea less because they wanted to be democratic and more. After all, they wanted to fit in as many workers as possible. In the first half of the 20th century, a typical open-plan office had long rows of desks where clerks worked in a white-collar assembly line.
Cubicles were a way for interior designers to bring some life back. In the 1950s, a German design group called Quickborner broke up the rows of desks into groups that looked more natural and had walls between them for privacy. This was called the Bürolandschaft, or “office landscape.” In 1964, Herman Miller, an American furniture company, came out with the Action Office system. It had improvements like larger surfaces and different desk heights. In 1968, Herman Miller started selling its system as separate pieces. Unfortunately, this meant that companies could pick and choose the space-saving parts of these designs and leave out the more personal ones.
As companies started to move all of their employees, not just clerks, into open-plan offices, Robert Propst, a designer for Herman Miller, said that what he had started was “monolithic insanity” and that he didn’t like it. Even now, many companies are going back to rows of desks that used to be called “cubicle rows,” but are now called “pods” to make them sound more futuristic. Propst’s comment highlights the negative effects of open-plan offices on employee productivity and well-being. The shift back to cubicles or pods suggests that companies are recognising the importance of providing employees with private workspaces to increase their job satisfaction and efficiency.
ICID 2023: 17 International Conference on Interior Design
August 24 – 25, 2023, in Sydney, Australia
Musser, G. (n.d.). The Origin of Cubicles and the Open-Plan Office. Scientific American. Retrieved March 11, 2023, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-origin-of-cubicles-an/
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