The History of Office Cubicles: From Concept to Pop Culture Icon

Who would have thought that when office cubicles were devised 40-plus years ago, they’d become a pop culture icon? Certainly not their creator. In fact, the current day cubicle is not at all how the originator had intended. Curious to learn more about the modular phenomenon much of the working world calls home for 8 hours a day? Read on for a complete history of the office cubicle.

Offices of Yore

Typical 1960's Office

Back in the 1960’s, wide open office spaces were the norm. Every employee could be seen by their fellow coworkers, and worse, by their supervisor or boss. A quick glance through an open office environment could result in the witnessing of every sneeze, wedgie-pick and personal phone call. Concentration was a challenge, privacy was nonexistent and the resulting vibe was chaotic at best.

Enter the Inventor

Action Office Inventor, Robert Propst

Seeing a need for morale-boosting aesthetic changes, Robert Propst, a talented inventor with over 120 patents on designs and systems for offices and other industries, devised a setup called the Action Office. With this design, short partition walls set at 90- or 120-degree angles allowed workers to face away from their coworkers, helping to give them a feeling of privacy and comfort, without concealing them completely. When Herman Miller, the office furniture company that Propst worked for at the time, released the Action Office, the working world went crazy for it.

If it Ain’t Broke…

From Awesome to Not So Awesome...
From Awesome to Not So Awesome…

As is the culture of our nation, what started out as the answer to employees’ prayers was finagled and “made better” until we ended up with something that barely resembled what was once intended. Yes, somewhere along the line, the partition walls became taller, doors were installed on some models, walls closed tighter together and windows were replaced by fabric solidity. Employees went from being in an approachable and “team player” position to being closed off from the rest of the office, the energy of their coworkers hidden and dulled. Workers began to feel trapped and smothered, and productivity began to wane.

Maze of Glory

Maze of Cubicles
Maze of Cubicles

Despite the fact that a nearly perfect office structure had been invented and employees could have been happy and fulfilled, the cubicle as we know it continued to evolve. The partitions found their way into maze-like structures, resembling an obstacle course fit for a mouse. During all this morphing, poor Mr. Propst was said to have been so disappointed that he called the cubes of new, “monolithic insanity.”

Modern-day Action Offices are still sold by Herman Miller, but since they cost more than the traditional cubicle system, it’s no surprise that Action Offices are passed up in favor of the new cubes in most cases.

The Future of Cubicles


While it’s hard to predict what might happen in the world of office furniture, we can only hope that employers will weigh the benefits of the original Action Office design, where employees can rid themselves of that “caged animal” feeling and once again thrive in an office environment where employee interaction and energy are key to productivity and employee satisfaction. Until then, modern cubicles with light colored walls and windows are a good choice, and Arnolds Office Furniture is happy to help match you up with a comfortable and affordable open cubicle.