Thinking Outside the Box
Herman Miller's Action Office
Propst began an investigation into how the world of work operated, with a focus on how furniture was used, and not on the furniture itself.
Reflecting on the state of the modern workplace in his landmark book, The Office: A Facility Based on Change Robert Propst declared, “We find ourselves now with office forms created for a way of life substantially dead and gone.” When Propst became the president of Herman Miller Research Corporation in 1960, the corporate landscape looked much as it did in 1900—vast rooms filled with rows of traditional desks, devoid of privacy and lacking in personality. Although the nature of work had changed dramatically over the past century, the standard office layout had not, and modern workers suffered as a result. Consulting with an array specialists—psychologists, anthropologists and mathematicians—Propst began an investigation into how the world of work operated, with a focus on how furniture was used, and not on the furniture itself.
In 1964, he and his Herman Miller Research Corporation supervisor George Nelson, unveiled their solution to the modern workplace problem, Action Office I. Featuring an array of desks and workspaces with varying heights and configurations, the series allowed for much needed flexibility, personalization and freedom of movement. Despite garnering high praise for its sleek design and lofty concept, Action Office I performed poorly in the market, sending Propst and Nelson back to the drawing board.
Along with the smartly designed elements, Propst produced materials to assist corporations with utilizing the systems properly.
After several contentious years (Nelson was ultimately removed from the project due to creative differences), Propst rolled out the second generation of his concept in 1968. Action Office II built upon the core foundations of the first iteration, with the introduction of mobile wall units for privacy and lay-out personalization. Propst dubbed his concept the “back-up”, and these two or three-sided vertical divisions provided clearly defined workspaces without isolating the worker. The interchangeable, standardized components were easy to install and worked seamlessly with other furniture pieces from the Action Office series. Along with the smartly designed elements, Propst produced materials to assist corporations with utilizing the systems properly. Rather than leaving it up to business owners to design thoughtful and successful layouts, he and his team disseminated a thoroughly thought-out design philosophy outlined in instructional guides, informative consultations and to-scale model kits such as the present lot, allowing for buyers to arrange suitable and functional lay-outs (in miniature) customized to meet their unique needs.
The Action Office II was an unprecedented success, and was quickly replicated (albeit poorly) by other manufacturers. As happens with any cheap imitation, the original concept was gradually diluted and what we now know as the modern cubicle was born. Regardless, even as the workplace changes, Propst’s core ideals remain as relevant and essential as ever.
Watch The Action Office: The Secret History of the Cubicle to learn more.
The William Dorsey Collection
“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Like a thirsty man surrounded by saltwater, visitors to our midcentury modern home often glimpse more than 100, non-operating clocks on the wall and have this reaction. What use is a clock that isn’t plugged in and doesn’t tell time? The answer is that these are no ordinary clocks, as even a cursory inspection reveals. George Nelson and his team of designers—particularly Irving Harper—cared about function, but they were inspired by art, sculpture, innovation, and the philosophy of time.
A January 1, 1960 article in the New York Times put it succinctly. “Mr. Harper, seeking the soothing effect of shifting sands in hour-glasses, the mechanical wonders of eighteenth century clocks, and a new sculptural quality in time pieces, arrived [at the Motion Notion series]....By employing materials alien to clocksmiths of old, he has achieved a startling group of hypnotizing designs.” The designs are no less hypnotizing or influential sixty plus years later.