Birth of the Cube Farm
How Bob Propst reinvented the American office in a garage on State St.
by Grace Shackman with Nancy Deromedi
From the June, 2014 issue
Driving by the deserted, dilapidated one-story building at 2285 S. State, no one would ever guess it was the birthplace of the office cubicle, an invention that radically changed the American workplace. The much-maligned "cube farm" has been the butt of untold numbers of Dilbert cartoons. But like many new products grown commonplace, the panel systems were innovative in their time, giving workers formerly stationed in rows of open desks a semiprivate space of their own.
Action Office, the original "office system," was the invention of Bob Propst, a brilliant artist and inventor hired in 1958 to create new products for west Michigan-based Herman Miller. The man who hired Propst, Dirk Jan De Pree, had already turned a small Zeeland furniture company into a major design force by being an excellent spotter of talent.
When De Pree started working as a clerk at what was then the Michigan Star Furniture Company in 1910, the company was making household furniture that replicated historic styles. In 1923 De Pree and his father-in-law, Herman Miller, took over the business. And in 1930, De Pree turned the company 180 degrees by hiring Gilbert Rohde to design modern-style furniture--a daring move to stave off bankruptcy at the start of the Great Depression.
The experiment paid off when Rohde's unique designs turned out to be big sellers. "He demonstrated that mass production had the potential to spread modernism to consumers in all regions of the country," explains Phyllis Ross, Rohde's biographer. When Rohde died in 1944, De Pree again looked for a star designer, and after a yearlong search, hired George Nelson. Nelson in turn recruited other talented modernists to design products for Miller, among them Charles Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and textile designer Alexander Girard.
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.
The monumental meeting of De Pree and Propst was totally accidental, according to Clark Malcolm, Herman Miller writer and researcher. De Pree had a free afternoon while visiting his son, who was teaching math at the University of Colorado. A young architect recommended he go hear a lecture by an interesting researcher. "D.J. went to hear Propst, was impressed, and sent his son Hugh to meet Propst," Malcolm explains. "Hugh did, was impressed, and began the relationship that eventually resulted in Propst moving to Ann Arbor to become president of the brand-new Herman Miller Research Corporation in 1960."
The official explanation for locating the company in Ann Arbor was to be close to the U-M. Malcolm suggests a more practical reason: Propst "didn't want to move to Zeeland, and he wanted to be near an international airport. He decided either Chicago or Ann Arbor would be good, opting for Ann Arbor because the drive to Zeeland in the morning would be west and back to Ann Arbor in the east. That way the sun would never be in his eyes." When these trips were necessary, Propst raced his beloved Porsche across the state.
Propst set up shop in a former three-bay garage on S. State. Built of poured concrete and perched on a hill, its basement was on ground level on one side, perfect for delivering prototypes of Propst's designs. Kelley, then a U-M senior studying industrial design, came to work as an intern after seeing a posting on a school bulletin board. When Kelley graduated, Propst hired him full time.
Dave Armstrong, who joined the company later, recalls that the two men worked so closely together that "Kelley could finish Propst's sentences. He was good at thinking, at making things happen." The office had only two other employees--Propst's wife, Lee Propst, who was the business manager, and Del Coates, an automotive designer, later replaced by another designer, John Holmes.
Action Office grew out of Propst's interest in trying to make offices more efficient. Its first iteration, although based on Propst's concept, was styled by George Nelson in New York (Nelson didn't want to live in Zeeland either). Introduced in 1964, Action Office I included a stand-up desk, storage unit, and accessory pieces.
"It was nice looking but too expensive and didn't work," Kelley recalls. "It was a pain in the neck to put together and not easy to work in." But though it didn't sell, it did get some good reviews, and four years later Herman Miller replaced it with Action Office II.
This time the design was completely the work of Probst and his Ann Arbor office. "It had thirteen components. It was a wonderfully simple program," recalls Kelley. The pieces included wall units, desks, storage cabinets, and file bins. A table could be brought out for meetings.
The dividing walls provided some privacy and muffled the sound of meetings and telephone calls. But the main reason for the panels was more efficient use of space. Shelves, bulletin boards, storage units, or personal items could all be hung on them without taking up desk space.
D.J. and Hugh De Pree asked Nelson and Propst to collaborate, but they never got along. When Nelson received an award for the first iteration of the Action Office, he didn't even mention Propst. When a model of the Action Office was sent to Charles Eames, in California, he sent it right back without comment.
The feelings were mutual. "Propst thought Nelson and Eames were more about aesthetics than problem solving. And they thought his stuff so ugly, who would want it?" explains Malcolm.
While Nelson and Eames thought in terms of individual pieces of furniture, Propst was interested in developing a system where the components worked together. He started by studying how people actually worked and then developed a system that facilitated productivity. "He always said, 'The solution is easy if you can define the problem,''' recalls Kelley.
Propst's concept was that the pieces could be assembled in different ways to meet each person's needs and easily adapted when their requirements changed. "People should not be planted like onions in pots to sit somewhere," he said. The thought of offices full of square cubicles horrified him. In his 1968 booklet "The Office: A Facility Based on Change," he recommended a layout of "three sides with a slightly widened opening," explaining "there is good definition of territory, privacy is well expressed and the ability to survey or participate is well maintained." Kelley admits that he was the one who unintentionally made the cube farm possible by creating a rigid connector.
Action Office II--later known simply as Action Office--proved to be very successful and profitable. "Propst changed the world of office design for the next forty years," says Kelley. Herman Miller added an addition onto its main building in Zeeland to manufacture the systems. In 1964 Herman Miller's sales were $10 million. By 1970 they had more than doubled to $25 million.
Other western Michigan furniture companies, such as Hayworth and Steelcase, also began producing office systems. Today most residential furniture is made in North Carolina or abroad, but western Michigan is still the world's largest producer of office furniture.
Propst's next big project, introduced in 1971, was Co/Struc (Coherent Structures), a system for use in hospitals. Propst thought of it when he was in traction at University Hospital for back pain in the 1960s. "He watched how nurses moved around and noted inefficiencies. They noticed he took notes and told their manager, who became interested in Propst's ideas," explains Malcolm. An interchangeable system with containers, frames, carts, and wall rails to support storage cabinets and lockers, Co/Struc, like Action Office, is still in production. Kelley recently bought a storage system for his son, a dentist.
Propst's team left the old garage in 1972 for a rented building at 3970 Varsity Drive. In 1979 the company was reconfigured as the Facility Management Institute, and its mission was expanded to address more general questions of how offices could work efficiently. FMI eventually built its own building at 3971 Research Drive (now the Social Security Office). At its height, the company employed forty-five people--architects, designers, planners, and human behaviorists--to study such subjects as how people interact in offices, optimum work environments, and training of managers.
Propst hired Dave Armstrong when he was organizing FMI in 1978. They had met when Armstrong, as associate dean of agriculture at MSU, was one of the first customers for Action Office II. Later, whenever they were in the same town, the two men would meet for dinner. Propst would always ask, 'When are you coming to work for me?'" recalls Armstrong.
"When Propst developed his theories, the modern office was just emerging and hadn't been scientifically studied by anyone," Armstrong recalls. "The white-collar boom was just starting." Today facilities management degrees are offered at universities all around the country. The International Facilities Management Association began in Ann Arbor as an outgrowth of a conference organized by Herman Miller. Armstrong was its first head.
The Propst family lived at 2347 Londonderry in a house designed by modern architect David Osler. Kelley remembers that the house was filled with "stuff he designed, sitting on classic pedestal columns. He was always moving around, so the sculpture was always shaking." Kelley describes Propst as "really down-to-earth. There was nothing pretentious about him. He knew he was smart, but thought life was to be lived."
Propst left Herman Miller in 1980. There were differences of opinion, especially over the way Action Office was being used, and a new president coming in. Armstrong took over FMI.
Clark Malcolm joined the office in 1983, so he never worked under Propst. However, he had seen him a few times when he was working at the Centicore bookstore near campus--"an odd guy who came in to buy art books around Christmas for his employees. He would spend a couple thousand. He was tall, bald headed, stocky, and crotchety." Propst eventually moved to Seattle, where he pursued new design interests, including modular homes, until his death in 2000.
The State St. building served as the retail outlet for Ann Arbor Plastics, then was occupied by a series of food-related businesses. Ali Hijazi opened La Zamaan Cafe there in 2007, but stayed only a few months before deciding "it was not suitable for sit-down customers." Several other eateries have come and gone since. At present it stands empty.
Armstrong left FMI in 1986, when Herman Miller reconfigured the company as Metaform. A reduced staff of about ten studied products that could help older people stay in their own homes longer. When Metaform closed five years later, the remaining staffers transferred to Zeeland, except for Malcolm. Working out of an upstairs office in his house, he wrote five books with D.J. De Pree's son Max and wrote or co-authored more than ten more about facility management, architecture, and design.
The fiftieth anniversary of Action Office this year has renewed interest in Propst's work--in May, he was written up in both the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker. Though never as famous as some of Herman Miller's other designers, his designs touched more people's lives, for better or worse. Asked about the long-term effect of Propst's work, Malcolm answers, "Bob Propst and his invention completely changed the way we think about knowledge work and the places it happens."
The following Calls & letters item was published in the July 2014 Ann Arbor Observer:
West Michigan design
Observer co-founder Mary Hoffmann Hunt emailed to add a West Michigan perspective to Grace Shackman's article on designer Bob Probst ("Birth of the Cube Farm," June).
"The original Star Furniture Company that later became Herman Miller was one of many, many Grand Rapids-area furniture companies that grew up before World War I. They capitalized on wood from northern Michigan's forests and on a stable, hard-working Dutch-American and Polish-American work force. (Herman Miller was in the Dutch farm town of Zeeland, outside Holland.) But even before the Great Depression, the Grand Rapids furniture industry faced a crisis because so many factories had moved to North Carolina to take advantage of cheaper labor.
"Area manufacturers, by then often led by the second generation, sought out specialty niches. As Grace notes, Herman Miller's son-in-law, D. J. De Pree, hired famous designers like Charles Eames and his wife Ray Eames, George Nelson, and Isamu Noguchi, and later recruited Bob Probst. Steelcase, based on a super-successful fireproof metal wastebasket, expanded into metal office furniture. Baker, Widdicomb, and Kindel went for the high end, including museum reproductions.
"By 1989, when I was researching Hunts' Guide to West Michigan, the Holland area had become cosmopolitan enough that cutting-edge design types were willing to live there. Creative new restaurants, interesting retailers, Lake Michigan, the dunes, and proximity to Chicago all drew design transplants.
"Google 'Herman Miller Design Yard' and use the 'images' tab to see the company's contemporary, farm-influenced design center just south of Holland. Its recently re-imagined interior spaces foster many choices for work: long or round tables, lounges, outdoor terraces, and individual places like library carrels. (They don't quite resemble cubicles.)"
[Originally published in June, 2014.]