Roll-your-own new bones

The cubicle turns 40

It’s the 40th anniversary of the cubicle! Back in 1964, Herman Miller asked designer Bob Propst to create some office furniture, and Propst decided to engineer something to break up the sprawling, open-air offices of the day. Though many today people loathe cubicles with all their might, Propst’s invention was intended to reduce the anonymity of the workplace:

The austere quality for which cubicle-filled offices are now criticized was entirely intentional. “We tried to create a low-key, unself-conscious product that was not at all fashionable,” says Propst. “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.” When a member of the Herman Miller sales staff brought a plastic gorilla to his workspace, even the enlightened furniture company’s management looked at him askance, but Propst insisted that this was exactly the kind of thing he had intended.

This snippet is taken from a terrific profile of Propst that appeared in Metropolis magazine a couple of years ago.

Propst’s point actually strikes me as kind of interesting, because it reminds me of Anne Hollander’s point about suits and conformism in her superb book Sex and Suits. Hollander describes the effect of walking into a ballroom filled with people in formal attire. As she points out, one would expect that all the men would look like copycat robots, because they’re all in identical tuxedos, while the women — each one in a unique, specially-designed ballgown — would look really individual. But she finds the reverse is true. Because the women’s gowns are so diverse, the eye tends to be drawn to the similarities between the women: Their common woman-ness, as it were. As Hollander puts it, the women look like “the same Barbie doll dressed in a hundred different gowns”. In contrast, because the men are all wearing the same uniform, when you get up close to each one and talk to them, the eye is drawn to what makes them most unique: Their individual faces, skin, hair, expressions, gestures, etc. Uniforms, paradoxically, can allow for a greater sense of true personal uniqueness. I’m not sure I entirely buy Hollander’s thesis, but I have a lot of fun trotting it out at parties and watching hipsters — so maniacally devoted to the idea of personal expression and individualism — sputter and flail.

But what does this pendantic digression have to do with cubicles, you might ask? Well, Propst seems to have had the same idea. By putting everyone in the same bland cubicle, it would allow their individuality to flourish, since it would call attention to the things they’d done to personalize their workspace: A picture, a calendar, a plastic gorilla. And maybe this sounds the final death knell for both Propst and Hollander’s points: Office slaves may call their cubicles many things, but one thing they don’t call them is a vehicle for self-expression.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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