Author: Grace Shackman, Nancy Deromedi
Date: June 2014
Driving by the deserted, dilapidated one-story building at 2285 S. State, no one would ever guess
it was the birthplace of the office cubicle, an invention that radically changed the American
workplace. The much-maligned "cube farm" has been the butt of untold numbers of Dilbert cartoons.
But like many new products grown commonplace, the panel systems were innovative in their time,
giving workers formerly stationed in rows of open desks a semiprivate space of their own.
Action Office, the original "office system," was the invention of Bob Propst, a brilliant artist
and inventor hired in 1958 to create new products for west Michiganbased Herman Miller. The man who
hired Propst, Dirk Jan De Pree, had already turned a small Zeeland furniture company into a major
design force by being an excellent spotter of talent.
When De Pree started working as a clerk at what was then the Michigan Star Furniture Company in
1910, the company was making household furniture that replicated historic styles. In 1923 De Pree
and his father-in-law, Herman Miller, took over the business. And in 1930, De Pree turned the
company 180 degrees by hiring Gilbert Rohde to design modem-style furniture- a daring move to stave
off bankruptcy at the start of the Great Depression. The experiment paid off when Rohde's unique
designs turned out to be big sellers. "He demonstrated that mass production had the potential to
spread modernism to consumers in all regions of the country," explains Phyllis Ross, Rohde's
biographer. When Rohde died in 1944, DePree again looked for a star designer, and after a yearlong
search, hired George Nelson. Nelson in tum recruited other talented modernists to design products
for Miller, among them Charles Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and textile designer Alexander Girard.
By the time DePree hired Propst in the late 1950s, the company's star designers were segueing
into other pursuits. Herman Miller kept producing modem furniture, as it still does, but De Pree was
looking for new projects. Since he didn't want to offend his existing talent, he originally
stipulated that Propst should "find problems outside the furniture industry and to conceive
solutions for them." As it turned out, Propst didn't stay out of furniture development but instead
invented the company's next major product, office furniture systems.
Propst was born in 1921 on a cattle farm. Jack Propst's right-hand man and co-holder of twenty
eight patents, thinks that was where he learned to make things work: "When you live on a farm, if
something goes wrong, you're the only one to fix it."
Propst's college and work life was an unusual mix of the artistic and practical. He entered
college to stw.dy chemical engineering but switched to fine arts. During World War II Propst was in
charge of beachhead operations in the South Pacific, which he later said taught him to innovate.
When he returned from the war, he taught art, started an architectural sculpture business, and
worked as a freelance inventor.
The monumental meeting of De Pree and Propst was totally accidental, according to Clark Malcolm,
Herman Miller writer and researcher. De Pree had a free afternoon while visiting his son, who was
teaching math at the University of Colorado. A young architect recommended he go hear a lecture by
an interesting researcher. "D.J. went to hear Propst, was impressed, and sent his son Hugh to meet
Propst," Malcolm explains. "Hugh did, was impressed, and began the relationship that eventually
resulted in Propst moving to Ann ·Arbor to become president of the brand-new Herman Miller Research
Corporation in 1960."
The official explanation for locating the company in Ann Arbor was to be close to the U-M.
Malcolm suggests a more practical reason: Propst "didn't want to move to Zeeland, and he wanted to
be near an international airport. He decided either Chicago or Ann Arbor would be good, opting for
Ann Arbor because the drive to Zeeland in the morning would be west and back to Ann Arbor in the
east. That way the sun would never be in his eyes." When these trips were necessary, Propst raced
his beloved Porsche across the state.
Propst set up shop in a former .rnr,ee-loav garage on S. State. Built of poured concrete and
perched on a hill, its basement was on ground level on one side, perfect for delivering prototypes
of Propst's designs. Kelley, then a U-M senior studying industrial design, came to work as an intern
after seeing a posting on a school bulletin board. When Kelley graduated, Propst hired him full
Dave Armstrong, who joined the company later, recalls that the two men worked so closely together
that "Kelley could finish Propst's sentences. He was good at thinking, at making things happen." The
office had only two other employeesPropst's wife, Lee Propst, who was the business manager, and Del
Coates, an automotive designer, later replaced by another designer, John Holmes.
Action Office grew out of Propst's interest in trying to make offices more efficient. Its first
iteration, although based on Propst's concept, was styled by George Nelson in New York (Nelson
didn't want to live in Zeeland either). Introduced in 1964, Action Office I included a stand-up
desk, storage unit, and accessory pieces.
"It was nice looking but too expensive and didn't work," Kelley recalls. "It was a pain in the
neck to put together and not easy to work in." But though it didn't sell, it did get some good
reviews, and four years later Herman Miller replaced it with Action Office II.
This time the design was completely the work of Probst and his Ann Arbor office. "It had thirteen
components. It was a wonderfully simple program," recalls Kelley. The pieces included wall units,
desks, storage cabinets, and file bins. A table could be brought out for meetings.
The dividing walls provided some privacy and muffled the sound of meetings and telephone calls.
But the main reason for the panels was more efficient use of space. Shelves, bulletin boards,
storage units, or personal items could all be hung on them without taking up desk space.
D.J. and Hugh De Pree asked Nelson and Propst to collaborate, but they never got along. When
Nelson received an award for the first iteration of the Action Office, he didn't even mention
Propst. When a model of the Action Office was sent to Charles Eames, in California, he sent it right
back without comment.
The feelings were mutual. "Propst thought Nelson and Eames were more about aesthetics than
problem solving. And they thought his stuff so ugly, who would want it?" explains Malcolm.
While Nelson and Eames thought in terms of individual pieces of furniture, Propst was interested
in developing a system where the components worked together. He started by studying how people
actually worked and then developed a system that facilitated productivity. "He always said, 'The
solution is easy if you can define the problem,' " recalls Kelley.
Propst's concept was that the pieces could be assembled in different ways to meet each person's
needs and easily adapted when their requirements changed. "People should not be planted like onions
in pots to sit somewhere," he said. The thought of offices full of square cubicles horrified him. In
his 1968 booklet "The Office: A Facility Based on Change," he recommended a layout of "three sides
with a slightly widened opening," explaining "there is good definition of territory, privacy is well
expressed and the ability to survey or participate is well maintained." Kelley admits that he was
the one who unintentionally made the cube farm possible by creating a rigid connector.
Action Office II -- later known simply as Action Office -- proved to be very successful and
profitable. "Propst changed the world of office design for the next forty years," says Kelley.
Herman Miller added an addition onto its main building in Zeeland to manufacture the systems. In
1964 Herman Miller's sales were $10 million. By 1970 they had more than doubled to $25 million.
Other western Michigan furniture companies, such as Hayworth and Steelcase, also began producing
office systems. Today most residential furniture is made in North Carolina or abroad, but western
Michigan is still the world's largest producer of office furniture.
Propst's next big project, introduced in 1971, was Co/ Struc (Coherent Structures), a system for
use in hospitals. Propst thought of it when he was in traction at University Hospital for back pain
in the 1960s. "He watched how nurses moved around and noted inefficiencies. They noticed he took
notes and told their manager, who became interested in Propst's ideas," explains Malcolm. An
interchangeable system with containers, frames, carts, and wall rails to support storage cabinets
and lockers, Co/Struc, like Action Office, is still in production. Kelley recently bought a storage
system for his son, a dentist.
Propst's team left the old garage in 1972 for a rented building at 3970 Varsity Drive. In 1979
the company was reconfigured as the Facility Management Institute, and its mission was expanded to
address more general questions of how offices could work efficiently. FMI eventually built its own
building at 3971 Research Drive (now the Social Security Office). At its height, the company
employed fortyfive people-architects, designers, planners, and human behaviorists-to study such
subjects as how people interact in offices, optimum work environments, and training of managers.
Propst hired Dave Armstrong when he was organizing FMI in 1978. They had met when Armstrong, as
associate dean of agriculture at MSU, was one of the first customers for Action Office II. Later,
whenever they were in the same town, the two men would meet for dinner. Propst would always ask,
'When are you coming to work for me?'" recalls Armstrong.
"When Propst developed his theories, the modem office was just emerging and hadn't been
scientifically studied by anyone," Armstrong recalls. "The white-collar boom was just starting."
Today facilities management degrees are offered at universities all around the country. The
International Facilities Management Association began in Ann Arbor as an outgrowth of a conference
organized by Herman Miller. Armstrong was its first head.
The Propst family lived at 2347 Londonderry in a house designed by·modem architect David Osler.
Kelley remembers that the house was filled with "stuff he designed, sitting on classic pedestal
columns. He was always moving around, so the sculpture was always shaking." Kelley describes Propst
as "really down-to-earth. There was nothing pretentious about him. He knew he was smart, but thought
life was to be lived."
Propst left Herman Miller in 1980. There were differences of opinion, especially over the way
Action Office was being used, and a new president coming in. Armstrong took over FMI.
Clark Malcolm joined the office in 1983, so he never worked under Propst. However, he had seen
him a few times when he was working at the Centicore bookstore near campus -- "an odd guy who came
in to buy art books around Christmas for his employees. he would spend a couple thousand. He was
tall, bald headed, stocky, and crotchety." Propst eventually moved to Seattle, where he pursued new
design interests, including modular homes, until his death in 2000.
The State St. building served as the retail outlet for Ann Arbor Plastics, then was occupied by a
series of food-related businesses. Ali Hijazi opened La Zamaan Cafe there in 2007, but stayed only a
few months before deciding "it was not suitable for sit-down customers." Several other eateries have
come and gone since. At present it stands empty.
Armstrong left FMI in 1986, when Herman Miller reconfigured the company as Metaform. A reduced
staff of about ten studied products that could help older people stay in their own homes longer.
When Metaform closed five years later, the remaining staffers transferred to Zeeland, except for
Malcolm. Working out of an upstairs office in his house, he wrote five books with D.J. De Pree's son
Max and wrote or co-authored more than ten more about facility management, architecture, and design.
The fiftieth anniversary of Action Office this year has renewed interest in Propst's work-in May,
he was written up in both the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker. Though never as famous as some
of Herman Miller's other designers, his designs touched more people's lives, for better or worse.
Asked about the long-term effect of Propst's work, Malcolm answers, "Bob Propst and his invention
completely changed the way we think about knowledge work and the places it happens."
From diagram (print edition): Three sides with a slightly widened opening appears to be
the best enclosure of all as a generality. There is good definition of territory, privacy is well
expressed and the ability to survey or participate is well maintained.
Four sided enclosure is bad for the wide awake and activity-oriented man. He is isolated,
insulated, and remote. His ability to be part of an organization family is diminished. Bad
Propst saw his invention as a way to customize spaces to meet people's needs -- the thought of
offices full of square cubicles horrified him. His right-hand man, Jack Kelley, admits that he was
the one who unintentionally made the cube farm possible by creating a rigid connector.
Photographs (in print edition): (Top) Bob Propst (right) with fellow designer George
Nelson. Though they collaborated on Herman Miller's first office system, Action Office I, they never
got along. "Propst thought Nelson and [Charles] Eames were more about esthetics than problem
solving," says Miller writer and researcher Clark Malcolm. "And they thought his stuff was so ugly,
who would want it?" The far more successful Action Office II (below left and right) was entirely
designed at Propst's Ann Arbor office.
See also the following video, in which author Grace Shackman talks with Bob Propst, former president
of the Herman Miller research Corporation. He designed the Action Office furniture system, which
reshaped the American office by providing a semi-private space to work in.