Interesting Facts About Robert Propst: He Came To Hate His Invention

Privacy-challenged office employees are uncomfortable working in an open-plan office system. Do you want to know who invented it? Robert Propst invented the Action Office that evolved into the cubicle office furniture system. He was born in 1921 in Colorado. Propst worked for Herman Miller in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
In 1958, Herman Miller Inc. president Hugh DePree hired to “find problems outside of the furniture industry and to conceive solutions for them.” The work of Propst has been exhibited at the Henry Ford Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
A native of Colorado, Propst drew on his impatience and independent nature with the status quo to attack various problems, whether anyone asked him to or not. He formed the Propst Co., a Denver-based firm specializing in speculative product development in 1953. Propst started his career in the late 1940s as a sculptor, teacher, and graphic artist.
Robert Propst signed on as a top consultant for Herman Miller and started conducting unprecedented studies of people in workplaces as the basis for extending the line of products of the company. Interestingly, he had called on the Herman Miller with one of those speculative developments—a unique fishbone connection system for the furniture components.
Propst did not intend to come up with the so-called “cubicle farms” when he designed the Action Office system. His research into developing the action office philosophically was against the cubicle in several ways. That is why referring him as “Father of the Cubicle” is a misnomer. Today, companies usually design cubicles to maximize efficient use of space. Propst designed the Action Office system to improve privacy, health (they attempted to increase blood flow), and productivity at the cost of some inefficient use of space.
After their introduction into the marketplace, companies and organizations started modifying the Action Office II and other office systems to pack in as many employees as possible into an office space. The efficient “cubicle” became quite popular in office design thanks to the movable wall seen in the Action Office II (AO2) system that initially saved cash in development and construction costs. Such vision was contrary to the intentions of Propst. In fact, he once remarked, “The cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity.” In 1953, he established Propst Co. in Denver, Colorado to handle the commercialization of his inventions.
Here are some interesting facts about Robert (Bob) Propst you probably didn’t know:
1. Today, many people see the cubicle as a symbol of the control companies have over their employees and the drudgery of office work. However, the design was meant to give employees more freedom when Propst first introduced it in 1968.
2. Propst was not interested in developing individual “things” that have no impact on complex situations. Even though they may seem unrelated, all his inventions spring from the same source: his relentless research on how the world operates and then find new answers. For that reason, he researched big issues and focused on creating new, large-scale systems that simplify and improve people’s lives.
3. Propst became the president of Herman Miller Research Corp. in 1960. This gave him an excellent opportunity to continue investigating how the world of work operates. Finally, he concluded that “today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.” In 1968, Herman Miller introduced Propst’s answer to this unhappy situation.
4. As the world’s first open-plan office system comprising of reconfigurable components, the Action Office system represented a bold departure from the era’s fixed traditions of what office furniture should be. Wildly successful, the Action Office system transformed the workplace significantly, and Herman Miller and the whole furniture industry that scrambled to copy it. With the introduction of Action Office system, Propst assailed traditional, complacent office design with the concept that suits the way people work.
5. Propst initiated a thorough research into the troubled state of patient care delivery in hospitals in the early 1960s. As usual, he developed a revolutionary solution that Herman Miller introduced in 1971. The Co/Struc system introduced mobile and modular containers, rails, carts, and frames that streamlined hospital services. With more than 120 patents under his belt, Propst still carried out his relentless research until his death in 2000.

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