Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

The Open-Plan Office Was an Auditory Disaster

Air-conditioned open plan offices at Lever House.

Offices, particularly the open plans touted for their creative collisions, were designed to foster interaction. Designers and promoters of the open plan compared it to “a busy restaurant or lively cocktail party,” writes Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler in her recent book, Open Plan: A Design History of the American Office, “where the general ambient noise of the space masked the individual conversations such that one could reasonably have a fairly private conversation despite being surrounded by people.” But as Robert Propst, the Herman Miller designer known as “the father of the cubicle” soon found out, most workplaces required a little more masking, and so the plans intended to spark our creativity also spawned a new set of designs to fix the noise.

In 1976, the Acoustic Conditioner was born. Each spherical conditioner, set atop a slender stalk, could be clipped to the top of a padded Action Office partition and was intended to “condition” the atmosphere for workers within a 12-foot diameter while looking like a George Lucas reject.