An Unfortunate History

Even if you solve All workspace problems with FURNITURE The questioN remains how much is enough?

There have been many visceral responses by authors and office workers alike to the ubiquitous, soulless, unproductive office environments that have spread across the globe like a zombie apocalypse. 

When talking about the Scott Adams comic strip Dilbert in his brilliant and dark "Cubed: A Secret History of the Modern Workplace" Nikil Saval states that, "As bleak as Dilbert sometimes was, running through all of it was a simple, even humanist sentiment, most succinctly expressed by one of the characters in Office Space: “Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day.” Or you might take a cue from Rousseau: Man is born free, but he is everywhere in cubicles."

Peter Gibbons is the character in the movie Office Space that Saval refers to.

The film is a comedy, so you might reasonably ask if Peter Gibbons is simply joking. That is, it could be an exaggeration of a seemingly obvious truth meant for a quick if somewhat uncomfortable laugh. It’s also possible that Peter is just being irreverent. For example he could be attempting to reinforce what we’re already predisposed to believe is an oppressive office environment where he works at Initech. This could be a way of rationalizing his exit from the company to sidestep a somewhat unenviable predicament he's gotten himself into there. (Sorry, that might have been a minor spoiler alert). If this is the case, then his statement could be seen as misplaced rage that has little to do with cubicles at all.

Office Space is a work of fiction, but whatever Peter Gibbons’ motives are for saying them, his words in many ways reflect the frustration that’s been felt for generations by office staff suffering the indignities of ineffective working environments. It’s heartbreaking, infuriating even, to imagine legions of creative individuals like scientists, computer programmers, engineers, writers, architects, and the rest, slowly unhinging in oppressive workspaces that fail to support the kinds of work strategies they require on a daily basis.

Such a dystopian sentiment was especially familiar at the end of the last century when the movie Office Space was made. And judging from the war cry, “Death to the Open Plan Office” from Inside the Design of the New Gawker Media (and Gizmodo) Offices, the feeling exists to this day. Are office workers doomed to be perpetually abused by such a sad state of affairs?

For much of the late 20th century furniture manufacturers like Herman Miller, Knoll, and Haworth dominated the office landscape and provided bold leadership for the industry. They’ve offered tremendous insights into the nature of productivity in the workplace. Steelcase in particular has been remarkably influential. But like a nail to the hammer, these agents believe that all problems can be solved with furniture. This may or may not be true, but the question still remains, how much is enough?

It’s no secret that there have been both designers and business strategists alike with dogmatic views of contemporary office life that have neglected or oversimplified the kinds of spaces that creative human beings require to remain productive. Maybe these are the people that Peter Gibbons mocks in Office Space. But Aenvision hopes to prove here that there is no reason to believe that workspaces are condemned to be carelessly created in this way forever.