Action Office

Robert Propst was an idealistic, inventive, and brilliant man who came to be known as the “father of the cubicle” through a series of office furniture systems he developed for Herman Miller in the 1960s.

The nickname is a bit unfair as Propst’s original intent with the Action Office was not to box people in but to “set them free,” he said, by “liberating them from the tyranny of the open office.”

Background

Before being hired by Herman Miller’s founder, D. J. De Pree, to head the company’s new research division in 1958, Propst worked as a graphic artist, sculptor, teacher, and inventor.

In the early 1950s, he founded a product development company as a way to monetize his seemingly endless flow of ideas for ways to improve the world. One of Propst’s early inventions was a children’s playground set made of concrete, which he called the “child volcano.”

Though never produced, it demonstrated Propst’s talent for combining sophisticated design and engineering concepts.

A few years later, he created a prototype for a hospital “bed-chair.” This one didn’t make it into production either, nor did his “livestock identification system,” which involved “a pistol that would shoot powdered asbestos or abrasive through a stencil into the side of a cow.”

Office Idealism

De Pree was so impressed with Propst that he put him in charge of the newly formed Herman Miller Research Division—located in Ann Arbor, Michigan—in 1960.

Propst’s role as head of research involved gathering data that would facilitate innovation across all departments, but De Pree essentially gave his protégé leeway to pursue whatever he pleased. 

He became obsessed with the world of work and found that most offices had a similar spatial arrangement consisting of a manager in a corner room looking out onto a sea of desks lined up in a perfunctory way with little to no regard for individual needs.

Noisy and lacking privacy, these so-called bullpen offices didn’t seem conducive to mental clarity or productivity.

After careful analysis based on research findings that drew heavily on behavioral psychology, science, and mathematics, Propst dourly concluded, “Today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.”

With that in mind, he began working on a new office system that would be more egalitarian, flexible, and user-friendly. 

Enter George Nelson

George Nelson, Herman Miller’s design director, was brought in to help manifest Propst’s vision. Nelson had received admiration in recent years for several modernist furniture pieces he had created, including the Ball Clock and Marshmallow Sofa.

After three long years of development, the pair emerged with the Action Office 1 (AO1) in 1964. From a design perspective, AO1 was impeccable. Modern, stylish, and forward-thinking, it was characteristic of all the things George Nelson did well.

The set included multiple writing surfaces, including a standing desk, sitting desk, and side table; acoustic panels to help block out the noise; and freestanding storage and filing systems, all of which could be arranged in various ways.

The goal was to promote freedom of movement, which Propst thought would lead to greater productivity and well-being.

Promotional photo of Herman Miller's Action Office 1
Action Office 1 (AO1) promotional photo, 1964;
Via Herman Miller

Action Office 2

Despite being applauded by the media and winning the prestigious Alcoa Design Award, sales of AO1 never picked up.

For one thing, the luxurious materials resulted in a high price point, and executives were reluctant to make such a big investment, especially since it was unclear how it would affect their bottom line.

Additionally, it required a certain amount of imagination on the part of upper management. The thought of replacing their bullpen offices with new, amorphous furniture sets for each employee may have felt like a logistical nightmare—and an unnecessary one at that. 

In hindsight, AO1 seemed ideal for independent designers and high-level creative professionals but somewhat impractical for most typical office environments of the day.

Propst, unsatisfied with the failure of Action Office 1, went back to the drawing board. He didn’t want his goals impeded by lofty design, which meant he’d have to work without George Nelson going forward.

He concluded that AO1 was too unforgiving, too focused on aesthetics, and too costly to manufacture. What companies wanted was affordability, flexibility, and ease of use.

Thus, Action Office 2 (AO2) made several key adjustments: it used lightweight, adjustable walls so users could create a semi-private office within a larger floorplan, its components took up less physical space, and it used cheap disposable material.

Propst thought this was the solution to give “human performers” the ability to personalize their own space and facilitate their best work.

Herman Miller's Action Office 2
Action Office 2 (AO2) at Braniff International corporate offices, Dallas, Texas, 1976;
Via Herman Miller

Cubicle Culture

When AO2 appeared in the Herman Miller catalog in 1967, it inspired a legion of copycats by companies that didn’t quite understand what Propst was trying to do.

The knockoff versions were cheaper, boxier, and far less flexible than the Action Office. It also gave corporate managers an assist in determining how many workers they could squeeze into a room.

The proliferation of cubicles in the 1970s also coincided with an energy crisis that resulted in a string of new national regulations, one of which made buildings more airtight.

With less circulation, volatile organic compounds—such as formaldehyde—that were being released from cubicle components lingered in the air and made people sick with coughs, sore throats, and, in some cases, cancer.

Conclusion

Years later, when Propst’s reputation as the father of the cubicle was cemented, he remarked, “Not all organizations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people. They make little, bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places.”

Action Office became a best seller for Herman Miller over the years, making Propst a wealthy man until he died in 2000.

By that time, it was estimated that as many as 40 million Americans worked in an Action Office or one of its knockoffs, which, by that time, were known only as the cubicle.

Cubicle farm
Cubicle farm, ca. 1980s
Cubicle farm
Cubicle farm, ca. 1990s