The Origin of Cubicles and the Open-Plan Office

Privacy-challenged office workers may find it hard to believe, but open-plan offices and cubicles were invented by architects and designers who were trying to make the world a better place—who thought that to break down the social walls that divide people, you had to break down the real walls, too.

In the early 20th century modernist architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright saw walls and rooms as downright fascist. The spaciousness and flexibility of an open plan, they thought, would liberate homeowners and office dwellers from the confines of boxes. But companies took up their idea less out of a democratic ideology than a desire to pack in as many workers as they could. The typical open-plan office of the first half of the 20th century contained long rows of desks occupied by clerks in a white-collar assembly line.

Cubicles were interior designers’ attempt to put some soul back in. In the 1950s Quickborner, a German design group, broke up the rows of desks into more organic groupings with partitions for privacy—what it called the Bürolandschaft, or “office landscape”. In 1964 American furniture company Herman Miller introduced the Action Office system, which offered such improvements as larger surfaces and multiple desk heights. In 1968 Herman Miller began to sell its system as modular components, with the unfortunate consequence of letting companies cherry-pick the space-saving aspects of these designs and leave out the humanizing touches.

As corporations began to shift all their employees, not only clerks, into open-plan offices, Herman Miller designer Robert Propst disavowed what he had spawned, calling it “monolithic insanity.” Today, many companies are even reverting to the precubicle rows of desks, now called “pods” to make them sound vaguely futuristic.

Although open plans do have advantages in fostering ambient awareness and teamwork, a meta-analysis published last year in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management by Vinesh Oommen of the Queensland University of Technology in Australia found that they cause conflict, high blood pressure and increased staff turnover. Let us hope that architects’ next idealistic impulse will be rather more successful.