There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part One Hundred and Five

Robert Propst (1921 – 2000)

An inventor has many obstacles to overcome to bring their idea to fruition. But even when it has seen the light of day and made their fame and fortune, they may be struck by another problem, something that might be characterised as inventor’s remorse. They have released a genie from the bottle and wish that they had let things be. One such, whom I featured in my recent book, The Fickle Finger, was Walter Hunt who came up with the first workable sewing machine and immediately feared for the employment prospects of hand weavers and sought to suppress it. Robert Propst could fairly be claimed to be another.    

Colorado-born Propst was a serial inventor with some 120 to his credit, including such things as a vertical timber harvester, a quality control system for concrete, an electronic tagging system for livestock, and a mobile office for quadriplegics. His claim to fame and the root cause of his bout of inventor’s remorse was to invent the Action Office whilst heading up the research division of furniture manufacturers, Herman Miller. In the 1960s Propst set out to reinvent the rather sterile office environment, based on the underlying premise that he worked better and seemed healthier and happier when he had different surfaces upon which to work.

In an attempt to move away from the serried rows of desks and the cacophony of noise and the clouds of cigarette smoke that were typical of offices at the time, with only the management having discrete areas of their own, he proposed what he called the “Action Office”. The layout of an office was to be defined by lightweight sitting and standing desks, filing systems and each worker’s space compartmentalised by acoustic panels which muffled extraneous sounds of conversation and typing.

Revolutionary as this way of organising and furnishing an office was, it did not meet much favour with the American corporate world. It seemed to be designed to meet the needs of the lowly workers rather than the businesses that needed to house them. Beloved by designers and, ironically, bought by executives for home use, Propst’s Action Office proved a damp squib.

Showing the tenacity that characterises many an inventor, Propst was undaunted and worked on a mark two. This time the acoustic panels were designed as miniature walls, varying in height, allowing the worker inside to have a degree of privacy and seclusion and yet see and communicate with their colleagues. As they were much lighter in weight and easier to construct, they were highly flexible. The corporate world saw the sense of having office furniture offering an extremely flexible and dynamic solution to fitting an ever-changing number of employees into limited floor space. Propst’s Action Office 2 went down a storm.

Unfortunately, businesses saw Propst’s invention as a perfect opportunity to cram as many workers into a set floor space as possible. Instead of an employee having a roomy workspace enclosed by partitions of varying heights allowing different sightlines to enjoy, corporate America installed tiny boxes with partitions of uniform size, making them seem like cages. The eager adoption of Propst’s design system was also aided by a change in tax laws which made it easier for businesses to write off furniture and prompted the adoption of temporary, throwaway structures.  

There were also health concerns. With more workers rammed into smaller spaces, contagious diseases spread more easily, productivity fell, and with more energy efficient and airtight offices, some of the more volatile organic compounds used in the construction of the cubicles like formaldehyde lingered in the air and caused illness. The materials used to construct the cubicles were changed but as time moved on open floorplan configurations became the office layout of choice. That said, some 30% of workers are still housed in box like cubicles.

Propst was horrified by the way his designs were used, spending much of his later life apologising for what he had done. “Not all organisations are intelligent and progressive”, he moaned. “Lots are run by crass people. They make little, bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places”.

But as Walter Hunt found out over a century earlier, once the genie is out of the bottle, it is difficult to put it back in.

If you enjoyed this, check out The Fickle Finger by Martin Fone.

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