Birth of the Cube Farm
By the time De Pree hired Propst in the late 1950s, the company's star designers were segueing into other pursuits. Herman Miller kept producing modern furniture, as it still does, but De Pree was looking for new projects. Since he didn't want to offend his existing talent, he originally stipulated that Propst should "find problems outside the furniture industry and to conceive solutions for them." As it turned out, Propst didn't stay out of furniture development but instead invented the company's next major product, office furniture systems.
Propst was born in 1921 on a Colorado cattle farm. Jack Kelley, Propst's right-hand man and co-holder of twenty-eight patents, thinks that was where he learned to make things work: "When you live on a farm, if something goes wrong, you're the only one to fix it."
Propst's college and work life was an unusual mix of the artistic and practical. He entered college to study chemical engineering but switched to fine arts. During World War II Propst was in charge of beachhead operations in the South Pacific, which he later said taught him to innovate. When he returned from the war, he taught art, started an architectural sculpture business, and worked as a freelance inventor.