Introduced to the market in 1967, Action Office II promised to revolutionize the office furniture and office architecture industries by adding humanity, flexibility, and integrating sophisticated technology into spaces previously ignored by architects and designers. Twenty-five years after its launch, however, Action Office was widely understood as the progenitor of the dreary, uniform, and inflexible cubicle system appearing in office spaces worldwide.
This paper bridges the well-meaning intention of Action Office with the negative spatial realities the system brought about. This paper positions Herman Miller’s flagship Action Office furniture system within contemporary political and ideological frameworks, suggesting that these frameworks and understandings paved the way for later metamorphosis of the well-intentioned system into the basis for the much-maligned office cubicle.
This paper proposes that Herman Miller’s rosy outlook toward labor relations, the nature of capitalism, and the company’s understanding and implementation of research, testing, and proof lead to the design of an office furniture system which did not anticipate divergent needs and expectations of employees and employers. In not considering this disconnect and friction between employee and employer, Herman Miller was unable to design a system for the true way power and control play out in workplaces, ultimately resulting in the evolution from Action Office to the cubicle.
Drawing upon primary materials from the Herman Miller archives including internal memos, lectures, newsletters and promotional materials, this paper maps the research, design and promotional process of Action Office against the broader contours of Theory Y understandings of work and workplaces. This novel approach allows for exploration both of Action Office as a discrete piece of design and of, but also the relationship of this particular office design system to larger political trends and ideologies popular at the time.
Petra Seitz is a PhD candidate at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL where her doctoral studies explore commercial office interiors as they relate to the labor process. She holds an MA in Design History from the Royal College of Art/Victoria and Albert Museum, and a BA in Political Science from Oberlin College. Petra works as a lecturer in Architectural History and Theory at the University of Greenwich and as a PGTA at the Bartlett, alongside freelance design research work, most recently for the V&A. She is a principal investigator in the Chandigarh Chairs project, exploring the modernist furniture of Chandigarh, India.
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