Little Boxes' Big 4-0

As the cubicle turns 40, we look back at the great (and not-so-great) moments in cube history.
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This story appears in the August 2008 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

1968: It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it was. Robert Propst, head of research at home furnishings manufacturer Herman Miller, set out to improve how people worked. So he created the Action Office, a work space with partitions designed to give employees privacy. It was later dubbed the cubicle.

1970s: As corporations quickly embraced the effectiveness of cubicles and crammed them onto floors, cubicles got smaller and smaller.

1989: Dilbert emerged as a humorous ode to cubicle life. When the comic strip debuted, creator Scott Adams still worked his day job in a cube of his own. Future Dilbert books would boast titles like, In Your Cubicle No One Can Hear You Scream!

1991: Novelist Douglas Coupland's Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture famously likened the cubicle to a "veal-fattening pen."

1997: Knoll Inc., one of the nation's largest cubicle manufacturers, went public. Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that an estimated 40 million Americans (nearly 60 percent of the white-collar work force) worked in cubicles.

1998: In February, Steelcase, another huge cubicle manufacturer, went public.

1999: The movie Office Space became a cubicle-life cult classic. The same year, an Atlanta day trader killed nine people and wounded 12 others before turning the gun on himself, and the media coined a new term: cubicle rage.

2000: Cubicle inventor Propst died. In the years before his death, Propst lamented what the cubicle had become.

2006: Cubicles were estimated to account for the lion's share of office furniture sales--about $3 billion a year.

2008: Eric Abrahamson, a professor at Columbia Business School and the co-author of A Perfect Mess, ruminates about the future of office cubicles: "In the new Bloomberg building, there are no cubicles. You can see everything and everyone." It is, he notes, the complete opposite of the typical cubicle city. And yet, cubicles aren't going anywhere. In fact, the office cubicle refurnishing industry--which makes old cubicles new again, saving on energy and costs for buyers--has grown from one company in the '80s to several hundred now.

Edition: July 2017

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