Nikil Saval joined the cohort of Americans who work from home in 2008, when he quit his last temp job to work on an article for the literary journal n+1, of which he’s also an editor, on the history of the cubicle. Six years later, that article is now the basis for his first book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.
The book, a page-turning, genuinely entertaining history of the dreary American white-collar workplace and its most hated structure, the cubicle starts with a simple question: How did our offices, whether they’re fluorescent cube farms or open-plan hacker spaces, end up this way? And where do we go from here?
Saval’s intriguing tome basically outlines the ad hoc history of office design; generation after generation of well-intentioned architects and designers who come up with seemingly revolutionary ideas only to see them fall flat once they’re introduced to the real world of day-to- day office life. He chronicles the progress of the cramped counting rooms of 1850s shipping clerks as they became the factory-style layout of the typing pool. Saval goes on to cover the history of the Aeron chair and the European origins of the “open office” concept.
Along the way, we’re treated to tales of each era’s biggest office interior design blunders, including… drumroll…The Action Office, the high-minded workspace concept that eventually turned into the cubicle. Had things turned out the way Robert Probst, the Action Office’s designer, intended, your cube would have widespread walls that were more like a folding screen, and incorporate a standing desk and a privacy nook for phone calls, to better promote constant motion and creativity in the knowledge worker. As we all know, this is not quite how things turned out.
It would be impossible to talk about the cube without talking about its discontents, and Saval doesn’t stop his story at office design. He treats the office not just as a physical space, but a place with a culture of its own, its own complicated relationship to class, and the question of what it means to be a white collar “worker.”
“I got fascinated with how the structures of authority, status, and power in the workplace just inhered in the ways these were designed,” Saval says. “Or not designed, since the cubicle is almost anti-design.” While he doesn’t disagree with the idea that talking to people can be a good thing, he thinks the whole top-down office design approach is flawed.
The book further focuses on how the office is portrayed in fiction and (often pseudo-) scientific studies and leaving out the testimony of the unhappy office workers of today. However the final few chapters do talk about the change in today’s office spaces, where he visits high-design offices in the Netherlands, office parks outside of Bengaluru, India’s booming tech capital, and the experimental offices of homegrown tech companies like GitHub and Google.
Saval’s book still stands out as one of the best pop histories to come out in years, and on a topic that most of us can relate to. (Image via Shutterstock)