BOOK REVIEW: 'Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace': How Tradition, Architecture, Office Furniture Shaped Our White-Collar Workplaces

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

Not until I reached Page 247 of Nikil Saval's "Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace" (Doubleday, 368 pages, many in-text photographs and other illustrations, notes, index, $26.95) did I experience a full explanation of cubicle culture in all its ramifications. I expected this to be addressed earlier, judging from the book's title.

 BOOK REVIEW: 'Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace': How Tradition, Architecture, Office Furniture Shaped Our White-Collar Workplaces

Not that this diminishes Saval's incredibly ambitious book on white-collar workplaces and how they were shaped by tradition, architecture and --of course -- those ubiquitous office furniture manufacturers in west Michigan,  Herman Miller of Zeeland and Steelcase of Grand Rapids.

I caught a glimpse of today's cubicle farm from a photograph on Page 184 illustrating French director Jacques Tati's  1967 movie "Playtime." The walls of the little boxes housing the workers in the photo are taller than the average cubicle of today, but the message is clear: You're boxed in, white collar worker! And Big Brother supervisor has his eye on you. I thought of the Malvina Reynolds satirical song "Little Boxes". Folksinger Reynolds was writing about the tract houses of Daly City, south of San Francisco, in the 1960s,  but I couldn't resist this comparison to the boxes housing white-collar workers.

Saval frequently references popular culture, including novels and movies about white- collar workers: "The Best of Everything," "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," Nine to Five" and many more in his discussion of office culture. This is a wide ranging book, as I indicated above, and Saval ran the risk of trying to get too much information in his book. I think he handled this situation quite well and I never got the feeling that he was padding out the book. On the contrary, his references seemed to me to be appropriate, especially the passages describing  the role of architecture in creating the workplaces of today.

A pioneer in the transition of workplaces from the small, dank spaces called "counting-houses" -- the offices that Herman Melville's fictional "Bartleby the Scrivener" and his fellow workers  inhabited -- to something much more inviting was Frank Lloyd  Wright's Larkin Building in Buffalo, N.Y.  Wright designed the building in 1904 and it was built in 1906 for the Larkin Soap Co. Saval  writes that Larkin was in many respects a predecessor of Amazon, selling many products by mail other than soap.

Unfortunately demolished in 1950, the five-story steel-framed brick building incorporated many modern innovations, including air conditioning and built-in desk furniture (Wright loved built-in furniture in his designs for private residences). 

From this pioneering effort by one of America's greatest architects, we experienced a major change in how white-collar workers were perceived. Offices became rationalized, designed for both greater efficiency in the accomplishments of clerical work and the enhancement of worker productivity. Women entered the office by the millions, and revolutionized the social world from within. 

Skyscrapers designed by Mies van der Rohe; Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill; Philip Johnson and many others changed the landscape of our cities -- and later suburban areas. Not all of the buildings were as successful as Lever House designed by Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and its neighbor on Manhattan's Park Avenue, the Seagram Building, designed by Ludwig Mies van deer Rohe. A case cited by Saval is the Portland Municipal Services Building, designed by Michael Graves. One critic called the downtown Portland, OR structure "an enlarged jukebox", while another said it was more suited to the Las Vegas Strip than "sober Portland."

Visionary designers like Florence Schust Knoll and Robert Probst created office furniture and proposed major changes from the traditional offices with row on row of desks (think of scenes from Billy Wilder's "The Apartment") to the cubicles of "Office Space" and the "Dilbert" cartoons of Scott Adams.

It's estimated that 60 percent of American white-collar workers inhabit cubicles -- and that 93 percent of them dislike them. With the downsizing corporations have experienced in recent years, the cubicle dwellers of today probably consider themselves fortunate to have jobs at all.

"Cubed" is the first book I've encountered that brings all the elements of workplace design together, in all its variations and placed in proper context. It's also a very readable account that will evoke laughter -- and maybe other emotions -- from those who've experienced cubicles and other types of office layouts.


Nikil Saval
Nikil Saval
Photo by Katrina Ohstrom

About the Author

Nikil Saval is an editor at n+1; he lives in Philadelphia.  "Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace" is his first book. He is completing a Ph.D. in English at Stanford University. His family comes from India's third largest city, Bengalura (Bangalore), India's Silicon Valley.

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