Birth of the Office

Alderman Studios, Action Office, 1979, B/W Photograph, Courtesy of Herman Miller, Inc.

In 1958, the Herman Miller design company hired Robert Propst, a professor of art at the University of Colorado, to head the company’s new research wing. The company was aiming to expand beyond its traditional realm, furniture design, and into realms hitherto untouched by designers—agriculture, hospitals, schools—and Propst seemed an ideal candidate: though moonlighting as an arts academic, he was in fact an exuberantly, almost maniacally creative freelance intellectual, sculptor, theoretician. He “immediately began flooding us with ideas, concepts, and drawings ranging from agriculture to medicine,” Hugh DePree, who was Herman Miller’s president at the time, told John Berry, a historian of the design company. “It is interesting, though, that despite our mutual desire to explore other fields, the first project that attracted his continuing attention was the office.” Interesting, perhaps, but unsurprising. Propst, in his move from art and academia to corporate life, simply discovered what millions of Americans have discovered since—that anyone who works in an office spends an extraordinary amount of time thinking about the arrangement of offices.

Propst found that he hated the rigid furniture Herman Miller gave him; he hated the static layout of the office in which he was supposed to invent dynamic concepts; and when in the next few years he began traveling the country, meeting with white-collar workers, designers, architects, mathematicians, and—crucially—social and behavioral psychologists, he found he was not alone. The postwar explosion of office work, in the newly great corporations of America—IBM, GE, Whirlpool—had created legions of employees with good benefits, relatively short working hours, abundant vacations. What is more, they were doing a different kind of work. “In the last fifty years,” Propst would later write, “in the most dramatic contrasts, activity has moved from tasks of rote to tasks of judgment.” Blue-collar workers organized, went on strikes, and were subjected to vicious state-sanctioned violence. White-collar workers, on the other hand, expecting to be promoted from within their organization, resisted unionization; each depended on himself to rise. Yet simmering below the surface, and bubbling up sometimes in the darker novels and plays of those years, something was definitely wrong.

“Today’s office is a wasteland,” Propst concluded. “It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.” Worst of all, it was failing to keep up with the times. Human beings were performing new kinds of work, giving birth to new forms of socially sanctioned desires. “We are in an era of rising awareness of the importance of individuality,” Propst stressed, and the workplace needed to express this. Instead, bull-pen offices were the norm—vast caverns of undifferentiated desks, office workers bowed intently at the paper piles or rudimentary counting machines in front of them, encircled by a corridor of offices where management presided behind closed doors. At best, workers had two or three thin, waist-high partitions, which generated a poor semblance of privacy and individual space.

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