The Boxed Rebellion

May 30, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — They were once heralded as a triumph that revolutionized the American office.

More than a quarter century later, cubicles remain a sound way to divide a large office area and define a person’s individual workspace.

Yet as the office changed and a new generation entered the workplace, the reputation of cubicles changed as well. Office cubicles for many people are the subject of ridicule and scorn, seen as a soul-crushing attack on human individuality in the workplace.

And Jeff Reuschel wants to know why.

After all, he says, the rectangular-shaped cubicle wall form has always been a cornerstone of the office environment, with workers each getting their own little piece of the world.

“It’s a rectangle. Why is it, when it stops short of the ceiling, we view it as the embodiment of evil belched up from the pit of hell?” asked Reuschel, manager of Haworth Inc’s. Ideation research and development department.

To answer that question, Haworth plans to launch a “Cubist Revival” by showing off four conceptual cubicle models this week at NeoCon, the office furniture industry’s annual trade show in Chicago. Using new designs and motifs — from placing the work surface in the middle of a cubicle, to using a Far Eastern aesthetic with a small water fountain — Haworth wants to know whether people will better accept cubicles if the workspace within the walls has a vastly different character.

“A lot of it is just understanding where people are coming from. Why is it there’s just a revulsion” toward cubicles? Reuschel said. “I feel we have a bit of an obligation here. It is not acceptable that people are uncomfortable being in these spaces. We have an obligation to make that as comfortable and inviting and desirable as we can.

“It’s more about challenging the whole bias that we have that these won’t work. What if we find out people are more comfortable with this other orientation?” he said.

Haworth’s Cubist Revival experiment at NeoCon in many ways typifies the growing challenge facing the office furniture industry. While modular office panels and cubicles remain a top-selling product and are still an effective way to divide an office and deliver office utilities to work stations, they are falling out of favor with some people, particularly younger workers whose view of the workplace is far different than their parents’.

“It’s a simple fact — people don’t want to work like their parents work,” said Jeff Harrison, a product manager at Herman Miller Inc. “Who knows, in 10 years maybe the generation coming through won’t want to work in the chaos of an open plan.”

In response to the trend for more visually-pleasing workstations, manufacturers in recent years have come out with new designs that are more open, have lower walls, and use screens and other materials to define and separate work areas. Herman Miller’s Resolve office system unveiled two years ago at NeoCon is one example, with its light-colored screens and 120-degree angles.

Manufacturers are also revamping cubicle designs to offer different looks and aesthetics that are designed to make them more palatable.

“We know that we’ve got key benefits here. How can we rebuild this product in a new way?” said Alan Rheault, manager of creative direction for Turnstone, a Steelcase Inc. subsidiary. “You can’t do it fast enough.”

Modular office panels, and the square and rectangle cubicles they create, were born in the late 1960s when Herman Miller introduced modular office panels to complement Action Office, a new style of roll-top desks, storage units and other furnishings the company debuted in 1964.

The panels were designed to build on the flexibility of Action Office by allowing Herman Miller customers to divide large open spaces into individual walled-off work areas, moving away from the “bullpen” office layout that had been used for decades with rows of neatly aligned desks.

Haworth built on the concept in 1976, when it beat its competitors to the punch and introduced ERA-1, the world’s first pre-wired modular office panel. ERA-1 was designed to get rid of the clutter caused by electrical and extension cords that were needed to accommodate electric adding machines and typewriters, as well as data and word processors that were quickly becoming fixtures in the office.

Fundamental to a modular office panel’s design today is its ability to organize and manage the telephone, computer and electrical cables that surround the modern office.

Twenty-five years later, in an era where design has a higher appreciation and a move toward more relaxed office environments have combined to make aesthetics increasingly important to people, office furniture makers are feeling increased pressure to produce something different. That need is heightened in an age of tight labor markets and a younger generation of employees that is far more selective about where they work and why.

Industry executives say customers have been telling them in volumes in recent years that workplace aesthetics that make a statement about a company and its corporate culture are playing an increasingly larger role in job decisions. The challenge for the industry is to maintain the desired aspects of cubicles, while addressing those issues that steer people away from them.

Many of the product introductions planned for NeoCon this year will offer new designs on modular office panels and office systems that are intended to give an existing product a fresh look.

“We’re seeing aesthetics as a bigger deal than people realize. If you’ve got a product that isn’t freshened up, it’s kind of shackled to the past,” said Ken Krayer, Haworth’s director of design. “When you freshen something up, you’ve got a lot of people going, ‘Cool, I can use this.’”

Using that “blending strategy,” Haworth this year will offer up Race, an office system that uses clear glass partitions to separate work areas, while delivering office utilities through a steel framework that features a metallic finish, Krayer said.

Herman Miller, which won NeoCon’s top award in 1999 with Resolve, has added a similar glass-topped partition to its Ethospace frame-and-tile office system that works like an office-panel system. Herman Miller will also offer Design on Textile, a process by which customers can have customized images printed onto the fabric sheets used in Resolve.

Turnstone has its “Kick” office system that’s designed to be more esthetically pleasing. “It addresses what we’ve been seeing and hearing,” Rheault said.

While modular office panels and cubicles won’t ever go away, the industry must adapt the product to the times, Krayer said.

“Everything’s in flux. Things have to move and change and the industry’s doing that. We can improve them for the millennium we’re in,” he said. “It’s more of an understanding of what people’s needs are and applying the furniture to that. There is still viability to the cubicle. It just has to be applied in another way.”

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