The word design can bring about many thoughts and meanings. It can be applied to so many things we see in everyday life-processes, objects, environments, and so much more. Design affects everyone; it especially affected a company named Herman Miller.
Herman Miller, in every way, is a design-driven company. They not only used design to create and build products, but also to help their business succeed. It helped to solve problems such as generating new products, organizing the company, creating new industries, and redefining how consumers live and how work. Design helped Herman Miller make their company who they are today.
Herman Miller was founded in 1905 as the Star Furniture Company, in Zeeland, Michigan. D.J. De Pree becomes the first president of the company in 1923, which is also the year the company changes their name to the Herman Miller Furniture Company.
D.J. De Pree was a man from Zeeland, Michigan born in 1891. In 1909 he began working for Michigan Star Furniture Company as a clerk, which consisted of general office work. A few years later, De Pree married Nellie Miller, Herman Miller's daughter. They bore seven children; 3 boys and 4 girls.
In 1923, De Pree wanted to start his own business. In order to make this dream a reality, his father-in-law, Herman Miller, loaned him enough money to buy the Michigan Star Furniture Company, purchasing 51 percent of the stock. It was at this time that De Pree renamed the company Herman Miller, in honor of his father-in-law.
The company originally sold traditional-style home furniture, usually for bedrooms. These high-end pieces of furniture were financially out of reach for most people during the Great Depression and caused business to go down, almost to the point of bankruptcy. The morale of employees at Herman Miller was very low and was not a pleasant time for the company. In the year 1930, a man named Gilbert Rohde came into the picture and designed a new life for Herman Miller.
Gilbert Rohde, a furniture designer, introduced himself to D.J. De Pree in July of 1930. He walked into a showroom unannounced and spoke to De Pree about a new philosophy for Herman Miller. He explained to De Pree that the furniture was inappropriate for the hard economic times. He proposed a new line of furniture, which was more functional and simple rather than the dominant feature in a space.
Rohde discovered that the lifestyles of Americans were shifting; moving from rural environments to cities, from houses to apartments. For people to move into smaller spaces, furniture had to change from heavy and traditional to a more simple and flexible approach. Initially uncomfortable with the idea, De Pree had a company that had been quickly devastated by the Depression and he realized Rohdes' ideas might provide Herman Miller with a new future. Rhodes came up with designs that were efficient, adaptable, had clean lines, and smaller proportions. De Pree recalled years later in an oral history,
"Some weeks later, we received our first drawings from Gilbert Rohde. I thought they looked as if they had been done in a manual training school and told him so. 'Eye Value' had become very important in selling. Rohde replied with a letter explaining why he designed the way he did. For his designs, there should be utter simplicity: no surface enrichment, no carvings, no moldings. This brought the necessity of precision. We would not cover up with moldings and carvings. He wrote about using the best materials for the job; he used chrome tubing where it was structurally better for the purpose. Nothing should cry for attention. (Berry 50)"
His furniture was slow to sell, but was eventually noticed. Catalogues being sold showed photos of environments with the furniture placed inside. It helped people imagine how the furniture could be used in their own home. Gilbert Rohde once said, "The most important thing in the room is not the furniture-it's the people." (viii, Berry) and that is exactly how he designed. He passed away in 1944, which led De Pree on another quest to find a new designer who could make as much of an impact as Gilbert Rohde.
An architect, author, critic, industrial designer and visionary, George Nelson saw the world as a place to understand problems and resolve them. His first major impact on the furniture industry was is storage wall design. He was really interested in creating economical and efficient housing for returning veterans and created "storage wall" units into the walls between two rooms. They were about 12 inches deep (thicker than walls, but not as deep as closets). They provided storage for household items, which made other storage furniture, such as bookshelves, chests, and cabinets, unnecessary. This gave environments a more efficient use of floor space. The storage wall concept was published in several magazines, such as Life and Architectural Forum. Like Gilbert Rohde before him, he was not content just designing furniture; he wanted to create a brand new lifestyle for consumers. Nelson's ideas caught D.J. De Pree's attention, saying "Nelson is actively working on the things that will make for better living" and decided to hire George Nelson as the first design director at Herman Miller.
Nelson had only experimented in furniture design, but when he did, his designs were farsighted. He had already designed the, now famous, slat-bench for his office, which was intended to pile materials and for visitors to sit for a short time. He did not want to make the bench too comfortable because he did not want visitors staying long. This later became part of his first collection for Herman Miller.
Nelson, after accepting his new position, continued to live in New York and write publications. He convinced Fortune Magazine to allow him to research the furniture industry and tour the facilities. This experience allowed him to gain much knowledge on the strengths and weaknesses within the industry. He was highly critical, and set his mind to creating a new relationship between the manufacturer, dealer, architect, interior designer, and customer.
Within the first year with Herman Miller, Nelson had designed almost eighty pieces of furniture. Most of these pieces were modulate storage spaces, most including his slat bench piece as a base.
Nelson's furniture designs were not the only thing he designed while with Herman Miller. His design efforts went past the products and began affecting the company itself. He believed "in order to earn a reputation for quality products, all the public elements of the company, particularly those that included the consumer, must represent quality too. (Berry 69)" This led him to create a consistent image for Herman Miller-his company created a logo and a graphic style. Within the 1948 catalogue, which was designed and written by Nelson's office, Nelson summed up the design philosophy of Herman Miller, which is still relevant today: "1. What you make is important. 2. Design is an integral part of the business. 3. The product must be honest. 4. You decide what you will make. 5. There is a market for good design."
Nelson created displays in showrooms to show how the products may be placed in a realistic environment and helped customers visualize it within their own homes. Prior to this, showrooms were set up as rows and rows of furniture. George Nelson changed this to display vignettes of bedrooms and living rooms. Showrooms were strictly "for the trade" but sometimes professionals would bring their clients to view a specific piece of furniture.
George Nelson was the one who recruited other designers to Herman Miller. These designers were Isamu Noguchi, Charles and Ray Eames, and Alexander Girard-they went on to change the face of design.
The effects of Nelson's innovations were unreal. When he was first recruited to the company, sales were less than $500,000. Within four years, sales rose to $1.2 million, and 3 years after that were over $3 million. The company began with 120 employees when he first started, and after the Eameses came on board, over 600 people were working for Herman Miller.
Charles and Ray Eames became acquainted at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1940, Charles being co-director and Ray attended as a student. They first worked together in late 1940 in a design competition for "Organic Design in Home Furnishings" sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in Ney York. The team's proposed designs included molding plywood and cycle-welding rubber to wood. Their entry included molded-wood chairs, sofa, and benches, cabinets, desks, and tables formed by a modular system. The entry won first place in two categories, which immediately acknowledged Charles Eames a recognized designer, as well as his partner Ray. They were married in 1941 and moved to California to explore many different interests, including graphics, set design, and film making. Although they enjoyed all of these interests, molded plywood had been a focus ever since the design competition they had participated in. They were determined to create a molded plywood chair that was economical and mass produced. They had a slight problem, though. There was no molded plywood manufacturing process that existed. The Eames then had to design and develop all aspects of production. Although they struggled to understand some aspects of the process, they eventually ended up creating a machine called the "Kazam". They used this to test full-size prototypes, since they preferred three-dimensional models over drawings.
A doctor friend visiting from St. Louis once told them about wounded soldiers in World War II who had been further injured due to the metal splints being used. Inspired, the Eameses began to design a molded plywood leg splint. Throughout their process, they learned a lot about plywood and how it worked. Once their design was finished, they took it to the Navy. The Navy initially made an order of 5,000, but eventually over 150,000 were used. The need for the leg splints decreased as the war came to an end. With this end came another beginning, however. The Eameses used their knowledge from creating the splints and applied it to their original problem of chairs.
In 1945, the molded-plywood lounge chair (LCW) and dining chair (DCW) were introduced-they were both beautiful and functional. These chairs did not get much attention until they were displayed at the Barclay Hotel in Ney York in 1945. The preview attracted the much deserved attention of consumers, and also that of George Nelson. It was at this time that Nelson recruited the innovative couple to Herman Miller. A year later, Herman Miller launched the Eames chairs, and since then, they have not been out of production.
The Eameses also studied fiberglass, which was then a recently new material to use. They experimented with molding fiberglass into seating, which resulted in great things. The chairs were stackable, easy to clean, and light weight, which was perfect for places like schools and offices. Unfortunately, the chairs were cut from production due to the material not being recyclable, evemtually (2001) using plastic instead.
Designers today sometime speak of an "Eames style" product, which usually means the piece is simple and minimal. But in reality, the Eameses did not have a style. They just designed a product to solve a problem that was given. As said by Charles Eames, "The real questions are: Does it solve a problem? Is it serviceable? How is it going to look in ten years?" They did not necessarily focus on the beauty, but the use of the product. "What works is better than what looks good," said Ray. The Eames worked together and built a legendary reputation for themselves and the Herman Miller Company.
The products that Herman Miller produced were obviously a large part of their success, but another way they prospered was within the workplace, taking on a new management style. The company adopted a program called the Scanlon Plan, created by Joseph Scanlon. The idea of adopting this was to foster better communication and more respect between management and labor.
When a millwright who worked for the company had passed away, D.J. De Pree attended his funeral. There, the millwork's widow read a piece of poetry aloud which moved De Pree; this poetry was written by the millwright. This affected De Pree greatly and made him realize that his employees had their own passions and dreams. After this, he decided to create an environment where his employees would be able to thrive.
With the Scanlon plan in place, people were able to communicate with other departments and ask questions to the CEOs of the company. When meetings were held, several hundred people attended, listening to the president speak. Normal employees were able to ask questions and get answers about stock prices, products, and production issues. Open communication had even pushed more boundaries-"designers might visit a manufacturing floor to make sure that a product was being made to the specifications. At the same time, someone on the production floor could offer suggestions for how to improve a product. (Berry 113)" The Scanlon plan was used for decades at Herman Miller. It shows that design is not confined only to physical products, but also to a plan, a problem-solving process. This carefully designed communication plan helped Herman Miller and its management maximize their potential.
In 1960, Herman Miller began designing flexible work spaces, or panel systems, like we see in work places today. Robert Propst was in charge of research and found his attention was continually turned toward office settings, and began defining concepts for new possible designs. He met with a variety of people to do much needed in-depth research, such as office users, architects, mathematicians, psychologists, and many others. After gaining all of this information, Propst set out to create products to serve the current workplace. In this time, the war had ended and businesses were booming, which meant many places had to move into a larger area or renovate their current space, which was expensive and permanent. He decided to create a more flexible office product. This product was named Action Office 1. The design was attractive, but not very easy to move, so the design was revamped and relaunched a few years later, named Action Office 2.
Like we see now, these modular systems have interlocking wall panels, work surfaces, and storage spaces. The faces of the walls have multiple options for color and patterns. It gave freedom and openness to the existing traditional workspaces.
When the product was first produced, many people did not understand how to use it or why it was necessary. When a competitor created a similar product and gave Action Office 1 and 2 some competition, it validated the product and convinced consumers to buy.
Along with the modular office systems comes somewhere to sit. Bill Stumpf, and industrial designer, studied human factors compared to current seating options, and made his own chair to experiment what was most comfortable with the majority of people, no matter what their height or weight. This study is currently known as ergonomics.
Stumpf established four basic design criteria for chairs: comfort, task motivating, accommodating, and health giving. Herman Miller had asked Stumpf to create a chair using these criteria, and came up with a product he called Ergon. People were extremely skeptic about this new-fangled sitting device, one man even commenting that it looked like "two hemorrhoid pillows put together to make a chair." This was, obviously, not the reaction they wanted, and needed to educate and create a marketing campaign. Eventually, with a couple problems resolved, Ergon was accepted.
More recently, Universal Design has become a goal many interior designers are architects are trying to accomplish in spaces they create. Universal Design is a way to create products to make them comfortable for virtually every user, no matter their height, weight, or whether or not they are disabled. Products, such as work spaces, chairs, even household items like sinks, can be height adjustable for whomever the user. If an employee is tired of sitting and would like to stand and work, some workspaces even rise to a 43-inch adjustable height. This creates less stress within these environments, more flexibility, and usually with these also comes along efficiency.
Herman Miller is a company that has grown so much throughout the years, and continues to want to improve themselves by incorporating new and exciting technology into their products. Whether the consumer enjoys the Herman Miller classics or their newer products, they cannot deny the design and passion that has brought them to this point today. Design affects everyone in a unique way, but it had a very special and successful impact on a company named Herman Miller, making the company who they are today.