About 60 percent of Americans work in cubicles, and 93 percent of those dislike them. How did that happen? Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, tried to answer this question during a recent lecture.

Saval began by summarizing his own work experience, one that we can all relate to, which involved receiving an assigned cube and his feelings of excitement at being able to personalize the three walled space. He soon transitioned to freelance work, a change that took him to loud, overpriced coffee shops. These work experiences precipitated his book, Cubed, that seeks to discover the changes in the workplace from employees at cubicles to today’s freelance worker.

He began his research with the 19th century when America saw the advent of clerical work, and as Saval explained, “a much-despised position by the public.” Even Walt Whitman wrote against men working in offices, while others painted them as weak and pale as compared to manual laborers.

As Saval moved on throughout the centuries he eventually landed in the 1950’s where the workplace gave rise to different pools/departments of work. Desks were grouped together (aka the accounting pool) and upper management had coveted offices on the perimeter surrounding this pool of desks.


In 1968 Robert Propst of Herman Miller worked to create the Action Office. The Action Office proposed to do away with the fixed furniture of the office, and instead, provide workplaces with flexible office components that could be combined to best fit the needs of the employee. Unfortunately, Action Office didn’t sell well, and gave rise to Action Office 2, which provided the workplace with the now oft-seen modular, interlocking three walls. All furniture manufacturers, eager to have a piece of the profits, began churning out three-walled cubicles without regard for the office or worker.

The lecture ended somewhat abruptly with a brief nod to Google and their innovative workplace design, but offered no blueprint for how we can refresh and do away with these “cubicle farms.” Fortunately, IIDA continues to celebrate workplace design through our competitions and pushes the industry forward through our industry round table discussions, while also stopping to ask how happy designers are in their workplace. Will cubicle farms be a thing of the past? Will open concept rule the workplace? Where do you think the future of the workplace is headed?


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