Tuesday, June 7, 2016


"Cubicle" was mentioned somewhere or other recently, and it got me thinking about where the word comes from. I had what seemed a likely theory, which was that it originated whenever the vogue for these little compartments came into popularity in the corporate world. It's pretty much the only place you hear it, isn't it?

Well, it turns out that I am right in one way and wrong in another. "Cubicle" isn't a made up word, or no more than any other word is a made up word.According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, in it's current form it actually goes back to the fifteenth century, when it meant "bedroom". That's because it derives from the Latin cubiculum, also bedroom. The Latin verb was cubare, meaning "to lie down". Originally it meant "to bend oneself." That's a kind of interesting transition of meanings, but I don't know how that happened. Maybe the Roman beds were very, very small. Hard to tell from this one, which was retrieved from the Casa del Tramezzo di Legno in Herculaneum--after a volcano destroyed the town:


"Cubicle" became obsolete in the 16th century--don't ask me why. Curiously, though, it was revived again in the 19th century to describe a dormitory sleeping compartment. From there the sense of any separated space was an easier leap. In 1926, it was used to describe library carrels.

A Wall Street Journal article called A Brief History of the Cubicle by Nikil Saval mentions that Richard Yates novel Revolutionary Road  used the word cubicle in 1961 to describe an office space, so the word has been used in this way for awhile. But it's real resurgence came  a little later in the 60s with the design of the modern day cubicle by one Robert Propst, who worked for a large office furniture design company called Herman Miller. Propst detested the open plan office that was currently in vogue. As Saval, who is also the author of a book on modern office spaces called Cubed: a Secret History of the Workplace, quotes him on the open plan:

It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.

What's amusing to me is that the open plan was intentional back in the sixties, not accidental. Here's another quote from the article about a German design plan that swept America:

The 1960s witnessed the rise of an even more open plan: a new concept imported from Germany called the Bürolandschaft, or office landscape. It called for cultivated chaos: desks grouped together in pods across a sprawling floor plan, with sightlines blocked by tall ferns and soundscreens and not a private office in sight. This new, swirling design—meant to flatten hierarchies and ease communication—became a big hit with architects, planners and designers. Soon it was springing up all over Europe—and, after the first U.S. office landscape was installed in the headquarters of DuPont in 1967, across the U.S. as well.

As Saval points out, the people who actually had to work in these spaces hated them. So the soulless, conformist cubicle as it has come to be thought of it in recent times, was actually a delight to people when it first came on the scene. The first, transitional version at Herman Miller was called the Action Office, or later the Action Office 1, and was designed by George Nelson under the direction of Propst.

Although designers agreed that the Action Office was beautiful, it didn't sell. So, back to the drawing board. Except, like many before and after them, Propst and Nelson couldn't agree on their vision of the workplace. They parted ways and Propst went on to design Action Office 2--better known now as the cubicle, a term not restricted to one company's design.

                                                                                      Asa Wilson

Now the trend is again toward the open office, cost cutting and yet another new philosophy of the workplace having swung the pendulum the other way. Here's an article on this trend from Forbes if you're interested. Apparently, the Millennials are down with it, the Boomers not so much. 

I have to laugh, as this dynamic is very familiar to me from my frequent viewings of various shows on HGTV. The trend in home design seems to be almost universally toward open concept, and a component of most of these shows is the breaking through of those nasty old walls that block the open sightlines so valuable to seemingly everyone. (I think I've only seen one person so far who protested, "But I don't like open concept.") However, like the quartz countertops and the stainless steel kitchen appliances, there's bound to come a time when the open concept becomes passé, if not actually irksome. Walls, perhaps in some new material, will once again be built. Nothing in this world is perfect, my friends, and especially not the things that your parents once thought were the bees knees. 


  1. So anyone caught sleeping at his or her cubicle can claim to be honoring the word's Roman history.

    It's hard to imagine anyone regarding any new office design these days as anything but a way for consultants to make money. Those were different times.

  2. Good ploy for the sleepers. Hadn't thought of that.

    It's funny for me as someone who worked on the floor for a large part of my retail career. It's a big perk just to be able to sit down, never mind anything else. Of course, now we know that sitting down is what kills you. I say, from my chair...

  3. Of all the nonsense that gets endlessly replicated on Facebook, one of the very few worthwhile examples (I think it's from the Onion) was article announcing that scientists recommend standing up at your office desk, walking out, and never coming back.

    I suspect that one cause of tension, sleeplessness, and head and muscle aches here in America is constant worry that we may may not be living our lives in the most salubrious possible manner.

  4. That reminds me of an article I read recently by a woman who realized that focusing so much on "wellness" had somehow become a problem for her.

  5. Yes, I think that's a longstanding theme in American history, dating back at least to medicine shows and snake-oil salesmen and finding more recent expression in the lucrative belief in the talismanic power of "all-natural" products.

  6. Though I admit that that bed from Herculaneum made me first think of something a good deal uglier that I saw recently--the torture beds at the Khmer Rouge's S-21 detention center in Phnom Penh.

  7. Yes, I can see that. Although there are paintings that contain images of the furniture, there doesn't seem to be much left, so this was what I was left with.

  8. I've dreamed for years of a nice quiet cubicle and a good supply of manilla file folders.

  9. I bet you would do wonders with them, Nancy.