Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

Conference and Workshop:
“Media, Material, and Visual Components of Contemporary American Religious Erlebniswelten (‘experience worlds’)”

Titles & Abstracts

Kathryn Lofton

“Spiritless Space: A Religious History of the Office Cubicle”

In December 2009, Rich Sheridan, CEO of the Ann Arbor, MI software firm Menlo Innovations posted a blog entry to his company's site declaring that office cubicles “kill.” He wrote that cubicles “kill morale, communication, productivity, creativity, teamwork, camaraderie, energy, spirit, and results.” When ran an article about his post under the title “Death to Cubicles,” many replied, including its famed mother company. After a skirmish of posts and angry disagreement by critics and connoisseurs, Herman Miller waded into the fray, posting to their own web site a compassionate commiseration with Sheridan, as well as a reasoned reiteration of their own marketing clarity. “For us, the best places to work give people a choice of where to work and how to work-if wide-open spaces suit the kind of work you do, go for them.” This product was-and is-about choice, Herman Milller reminds its buyers. “People will always need privacy, and organizations around the world have found the good old cubicle a wonderful way to organize heads-down work and minimize distractions.”

In the annals of modern design, it is difficult to imagine a more spiritless object than that of the office cubicle. And yet it is to this object that this research will turn, focusing on the ambition of its designer, Robert Propst, and the aesthetic of its producer, Herman Miller, to consider the ideology behind this pervasive sensory experience. Starting in the 1930s under the direction of Gilbert Rohde, Herman Miller mass produced modernism through furniture designed for living rooms and offices. “Modern of our day and our spirit. It arises because there is a need for it,” explained a 1934 catalog. “Modern design seeks to combine...comfort and utility to provide us with furniture that is suited to our living needs and as always, satisfying our sense of the beautiful.” When George Nelson took over as head of Herman Miller design, the research offices focused on reimagining the organization and circulation of information in professional contexts. Propst described the workplace as a place where “workers performed meaningless, cog-turning activities where they had only to execute tasks.” The Action Office emerged from an ambition to counter this meaninglessness with private order and communal spacing. In 1968, Propst modified the original 1964 design for the Action Office to make its components mobile so that everything might be remade. Propst insists that the purpose of the design was to encourage mutability and creativity. “The Action Office was supposed to be invisible and embellished with identity and communication artifacts and whatever you needed to create individuation,” Propst later remarked. “We tried to escape the idea of being stylish, which is gone in five years. We wanted this to be the vehicle to carry other expressions of identity.”

Three intertwined chords of investigation will guide this study. First, how does this design emerge from a specific cultural context of the American 1960s? Second, how does the relationship between spirituality and modernism affect the designs of Herman Miler? And, finally, how does the prescription of creativity and individuality connect to the longer religious history of commodities? Here, finally, I will consider not only the spiritual intonations of the inventors and producers about their utopian product, but also the ritual formats through which commodities develop their ubiquity.