The Desk Set: The History of the Open Office

Most of us have worked (or will work) in an office environment at some point in our adult life and unless we start our own company, we are likely to end up in an office organized in what is described as an “open office.” You might call it a cube farm, cubicle land, rat maze, or equally derogatory term. Do you know how the cubicle was invented?

Prior to the mid-20th century, clerical workers sat at desks in the middle of what might have once been a factory or warehouse space– just rows and rows of desks in an open room with no privacy or sound dampening. By this time, the type of work was also changing — workers weren’t just typists and computers (in the add-up-this-column-of numbers sense) anymore.  It was becoming apparent that workers needed to be able to interact more as well as have privacy to concentrate.

George Nelson in the Action Office

In 1960 Robert Propst and George Nelson (yes, THAT George Nelson!) at Herman Miller set out to solve the issue by creating the “action office” with desks and work spaces of varying heights (standing desks in 1960!). The AO-1 was a bit too revolutionary for the time and Propst and Nelson set to work on a new version — the AO-2. I work in what I’m pretty sure is an original AO-2 from 1978. It’s since been renamed to “Action Office”  and is still in production.

Original Herman Miller Action Office designs including the standing desk
Original Herman Miller Action Office roll top standing desk

I think I might like the original Action Office. I love the standing roll top desk!

What was originally conceived for the Action Office and what it devolved into for many of us is pretty strikingly different.

You’re in luck. This week, the folks over at Freakonomics feature Cubicles on their podcast. Go over and add this episode to your playlist and make that Thanksgiving drive to grandma’s house a little more informative.

Are you a cube dweller? Do you work from home? Do you like open office plans?

Written by

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. AO2s! Thanks for the Origin Story. Your piece has reminded me of the many variations on a cube I enjoyed over the years. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.