Once upon a time, even the lowliest worker had some private space at the office, albeit via drab partitions that sectioned off employees with just enough space for a desk and chair: the cubicle.
Interestingly enough, the man who is credited with inventing the cubicle had a very different vision than the square pens that would become synonymous with the daily grind.
The cubicle is born
Inventor Robert Propst’s original concept presented to furniture maker Herman Miller in the 1960’s involved panels connected at 120-degree angles, creating a “clamshell arrangement that offered both privacy and a view, and equipping it with desks of different heights,” according to the Economist.
Working with designer George Nelson, Propst created the Action Office (shown here): a system that encouraged movement, flexibility, and productivity, with beautiful, modern touches and bold colour.
To quote Wired, “the cubicle you call hell was designed to set you free.”
But even by its second iteration, Action II, the system was morphing into something much different. By reducing the size of the modules, and switching to 90-degree angles, employers could fit more workstations into their offices.
And thus began the cubicle farms of the ‘70s, and ‘80s.
The cubicle is killed
By the start of the 21st century, forward-looking companies were doing away with confining cubicles altogether in lieu of open-plan offices that encouraged more of the movement and flexibility that Propst was dreaming of.
Furniture companies complied, offering new modular desk systems that could configure to any space, and expand as needed.
It was never quite right, though. Privacy and sound issues emerged, and caused problems with productivity, engagement, and general employee well-being.
So, again, manufacturers responded – this time with sound-absorbing wall tiles, soundproof phone booths, and womb-like armchairs that allowed workers to hide away from the bedlam.
But these were bandaids, not solutions. They don’t change the fact that open-concept workstations, like cubicles, are problematic at their very core.
However, things might be about to change.
The cubicle is reborn
For the last few years, Japanese furniture manufacturer Okamura has been fine-tuning an office furniture collection that offers a balance between overly-constrained and overly-exposed.
The Muffle collection is comprised of seating, tables, and other furniture, but the core of the collection is a series of boldly-hued (and sound-absorbing) panels at varying heights that curve around workstations and seating areas – a kind of modern take on the cubicle.
In many ways, it’s not unlike Robert Propst’s original vision for Herman Miller in the ‘60s – airy, flexible workstations that offer privacy while encouraging movement and productivity.
“Now that we have less and less boundaries of when and where to work, more and more workers crave a workspace where they can fully concentrate, without being interrupted by all these developed conveniences,” says Okamura. “That is the concentration promoting space, Muffle.”
And with new additions to the collection launching at this year’s NeoCon, the biggest office furniture fair in North America (and, incidentally, the launching pad for countless cubicles and open-plan systems alike over the past five decades), Muffle is poised to be a game changer.
The collection now has built-in power outlets and storage options, for example, as well as innovative cable management, additional furniture sizes, new colours, and more.
“While each space is divided, Muffle still connects the entirety of an organization with its round and soft walls. It’s not for separation but for inclusion,” says Okamura.
Propst would be proud.
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