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Cubicle desk

A cubicle desk forms an integral whole with the five or six foot high partitions that separate it from the neighbors. There are usually no standalone supports for the main work surfaces, or the shelves around them. Everything is connected to the wall-like partitions. Like the older Carrel desk, it seeks to give a certain amount of privacy to the user while taking up a minimum amount of space in a large or medium sized room. Like the Modular desk of the middle of the 20th century it is composed of a variety elements that can be arranged at will with special or standard fasteners, by trained personnel and/or sometimes by the users. Buyers can choose to have the desired number of drawers or none at all, the desired number of overhead bins, or none, etc..

Some sources attribute the invention of the cubicle desk to the computer chip manufacturer Intel Inc. during the 1960s. Others say that the cubicle desk was invented earlier in the 60s by the big office furniture maker Herman Miller Inc.

Table of contents
1 Bad planning and cheap approaches
2 The versatile cubicle walls
3 Explorations of the cubicle form

Bad planning and cheap approaches

The cubicle desk is a much reviled and often mocked piece of office furniture in our modern society in large part because of the expectations it provokes but rarely fulfils. An array of cubicle desks gives more peace and quiet to its users than if they were all working in an open office with no partitions, as is the case with many newsrooms and quite a few other kinds of offices. However, promoters of cubicle desks often present them as magic ingredients which can make noise levels and other distractions fall to zero in any office after their installation.

As a result of this, scant attention is paid, most of the time, to the design and correct installation of specially designed baffled ceilings, acoustic floor coverings, staggered corridors and tactically placed enclosed meeting rooms. Without a global approach to all these elements, the cubicle desk offers only a limited form of visual privacy and no sonic protection whatsoever, since traditional suspended ceiling tiles are insufficient to prevent noise conduction in very large office spaces, despite their being sold as "acoustic" tiles. This global approach is sadly lacking in most installations done in large companies or large government bureaucracies.

The versatile cubicle walls

On the positive side the cubicle desk offers an occasion for customization by its users which is not comparable to other Desk forms, past or present. The secret is that it can transform all of the walls surrounding the Office worker in productive work surfaces, or nooks for personal expression. Because all of the walls are within grasp or reach all of the time, and because many of them offer holes and hooks for hanging small shelves, bulletin boards or other accessories, elements which were once placed only on the horizontal surface of the desktop can be moved to the vertical surfaces all around. While the makers of cubicle desks usually employ proprietary standards for their fasteners and accessory hooks, this has not stopped the makers of small scale desktop accessories from producing and marketing myriads of pen holders, magazine racks, and other items which are made to fit the most popular brands of cubicle desk partitions.

Note that it is also possible to create a cubicle filled office environment without the use of cubicle desks by combining traditional free standing desk forms like the pedestal desk with special types of free standing partitions.

Explorations of the cubicle form

Some interesting R and D has been going on in the field of cubicles at the turn of this millennium. One of the most sarcastic critics of the cubicle has been Scott Adams, speaking through his comic strip, Dilbert. In 2001 he teamed up with the San Francisco design company IDEO to design "The perfect cubicle". It had some whimsical aspects but there were also some very sound design ideas such as an original modular approach and attention to usually neglected ergonomic details like the change in light orientation as the day advances.

On a more somber note, between 2000 and 2002 IBM partnered with Steel case, the office furniture manufacturer and did some very thorough research on the software, hardware and ergonomic aspects of the cubicle of the future (or the office of the future) under the name "BlueSpace". They produced several prototypes of this hi-tech multi screened workspace and even exhibited one at Disneyworld. Bluespace offered movable multiple screens inside and outside, a projection system, advanced individual lighting heating and ventilation controls and a host of software applications to orchestrate everything.

Not all innovative designs require the efforts of celebrities or monster corporations. In 1994 the designer Douglas Ball planned and built several iterations of the "Clipper" or "CS-1", a "capsule" desk looking like the streamlined front fuselage of a fighter plane. Meant as a computer workstation it had louvers and an integrated ventilation system, as well as a host of built-in features typical of the Ergonomic desk. An office space filled with these instead of traditional squarish cubicles would look like a hangar filled with small flight simulators. It was selected for the permanent design collection of the design Museum in the UK.

See also the list of desk forms and types.