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The original cubicle was designed in 1964 to empower people.
Robert Propst, a designer for then-home furnishings company Herman Miller, designed the first cubicle. Propst studied how people worked and wanted to improve on the open-bullpen office that he had grown up with.
He designed the "Action Office," which had a huge desk, a space for making phone calls, a vertical filing system, and partitions, so workers could have privacy. What's more, the desk could be set at varying heights so people could stand while they worked — helping, he thought, with blood flow. That will be good for thinking and the health.
As Fortune reports, the young designer thought that "productivity would rise if people could see more of their work spread out in front of them, not just stacked in a closing whole place."
But when it was released in 1968, this saying flopped.
Though it looked futuristic, it fizzled.
"Then nothing happened," recalls Joe Schwartz, Herman Miller's former marketing chief, who helped launch the system in 1968. "We had a few orders in Canada, but the executive market was extremely hard to penetrate. It was the first attempt."
"The Action Office wasn't conceived to cram a lot of people into little space," Joe Schwartz says. "It was driven that way by economics."
After that, the dreamer has insisted their effort.
Back in the 1960s, the government also helped the cubicle take off, hoping to stimulate business spending, the Treasury made new rules for depreciating assets.
Companies can depreciate their furniture (including cubicles) in seven years, while permanent structures like actual walls are given a 39.5-year rate. Suddenly, the cubicle became even more attractive. Companies could recover their costs quicker by buying furniture that acted like offices rather than offices themselves.
The cubicle grew popular during a nasty period for white-collar labor.
The cubicle really caught on in the '80s and '90s, a time when mergers, buyouts, and layoffs became commonplace. The mergers meant more people were getting crammed into offices — perfect for cubicles — and the layoffs lead to a sense of alienation, Saval says.
"These were the years when the cubicle began to seem less like a space for exerting autonomy and independence," he says, "and more like a flimsy, fabric-wrapped symbol of workplace insecurity."
Today, the cubicle is as pervasive as it is abhorred.
In the past 50 years, cubicles have become ubiquitous and now represent a $3 billion industry. But people still hate them, and they've been found to be just as distracting as open plan offices. But if it could upgrade the efficiency of the job, it is certain that the unwilling would be put in the latter place.