Good intentions

In the April 1965 issue of Canadian Interiors, assistant editor Susan Gemmell reported on Herman Miller’s Action Office, a colourful new line of furniture meant to promote activity in the workplace. Inventor Robert Propst had researched the project for three years; innovative industrial designer George Nelson created the furniture. As Gemmell put it, “Everything in the series has a specific function. The tables and chairs are various heights and sizes but all the legs are out of the way and the writing surfaces are smooth. Every corner is rounded. Filing space and thus the files are at hand for immediate use; the built-in cabinets can be covered quickly for privacy and a second working surface. The Action Office provides an environment which simplifies procedure and so speeds thought.”

Though hailed in the design press, Action Office proved too modern for conservative office managers and didn’t sell. So it was back to the drawing board for Propst and Nelson, who were soon fighting over how to proceed. Unable to come to an agreement, Nelson was taken off the project and Propst was free to explore his notion of allowing the employee a degree of privacy. The final result was Action Office II, which enclosed the entire workstation on three sides with interlocking adjustable walls covered by tackboards. 

Released in 1968, Action Office II was an unprecedented success, quickly copied by other manufacturers. As Nikil Saval writes in his recent book Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, “But the copycat Action Offices were starting to have strange, unforeseen effects on other workplaces. Rather than making them more flexible, they in fact appeared to be making them more regimented.” 

Herman Miller dropped the Action Office I series in 1970; in 1978, Action Office II was simplified to Action Office and continues to carry that name today. 

In 1997, Robert Propst said that he hoped his ideas would “give knowledge workers a more flexible, fluid environment than the rat-maze boxes of offices,” but regretted that these ideas had evolved to just the opposite, saying “the cubicle-izing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity.”   cI