For almost a century, the Herman Miller brand has been at the forefront of the Modern Design, steadily maintaining its status as a household name in the design industry. The past hundred years of the brand have been marked by groundbreaking innovations and some of the most iconic designs of modernity, brought to life through partnerships with some of the greatest designers of the twentieth century. 

But who were the driving forces behind Herman Miller and where did it all begin? This is the story of one brand told through the stories of its many collaborators brought together by a common interest – great design.

No One Herman Miller

Herman Miller, the name behind the brand, was a real person, though he was not the company’s founder. The story actually begins with DJ De Pree back in 1909, who began working for a small furniture company based in Michigan as a clerk, eventually working his way up to the position of director. With the financial help of his father-in-law Herman Miller he purchased the majority of the company’s stock in 1923. As an homage to the man who invested in his vision, De Pree renamed it the Herman Miller Furniture Company, ultimately setting the foundation for the development of the brand we know and appreciate today. De Pree continued to mold the company’s ethos for the next thirty years. He is credited with being a man of great integrity, bringing inspiring values into the corporate world.

The Story of the Millwright Poet

It is the story of the millwright poet, going from one generation to the next, that sincerely illustrates the company’s incentive to maintain a sense of virtue within a disconnected world. 

We are all extraordinary” is what De Pree realised one afternoon in 1927, as he walked home from the funeral of a millwright who had worked for his company. De Pree went to pay respect to the family and during his visit the millwright’s wife read aloud some poetry which moved him profoundly. When he asked who had written the poem, she replied – my husband.

De Pree spoke of this encounter as a decisive moment in his perception of leadership and the direction in which he steered the values of the company. He went on to realize that enabling people to engage their entire being is the key to a thriving and innovative work environment. An authentic and diverse environment creates connections among people, which in turn inspires creation itself. This anecdote ultimately parallels the company’s greatest driving force – remarkable collaborations between remarkable people. There is no one Herman Miller! Behind the brand stands a powerhouse of dedicated individuals whose combined intellect over the course of a century has placed it the vanguard of the design world. 

From Traditional to Modern

Today, the company stands as a leading figure in the furniture industry and pioneer of modern design – a far cry from its humble beginnings. During its earliest days, Herman Miller’s primary focus was the production of traditional wood furniture in historic revival styles. The stock market crash of 1929 heralded the beginning of the Great Depression, an era which played a pivotal role in the future of the company. Forced to re-evaluate its direction in order to survive in a tumultuous time in American history, Herman Miller moved its focus away from the traditional and plunged into the modern, ultimately securing its place in a changing market. This marked only the beginning of the pioneering legacy of the brand. 

The Office Revolution 

In 1960, the Herman Miller Research Corporation was focusing on solving issues relating to the use of furniture. The greatest issue tackled by the research division was that of the office and its rapid evolution. It was during his tenure as president of the division that designer Robert Propst launched the Action Office – which eventually devolved into what we now know as the office cubicle. 

Despite the string of negative connotations attached to the cubicle today, the Action Office was, at the time of its proposal, a revolution in its own right. Fueled by ideas of increasing productivity and freedom within the work-space, the Action Office was a bold statement, with a bright color palette to match. However, it was an idea too progressive for a market whose only concern was making the most efficient use of space at the cost of the quality. It is no wonder the revolution didn’t catch on. Propst re-evaluated the idea. He substituted some luxuries in the original design in favor of functionality. That was a birth of a flexible workstation defined by three partition walls to be arranged according to the needs of its user. 

This time, the revolution took off, though not with the intended effect. It set in motion a dreary office culture which saw countless cubicles crammed into one continuous space with partitions rising above the height of the average person, blocking out any interactions among co-workers, subsequently leading to complete isolation. 

Despite this setback, Herman Miller still continues to evolve and develop the workplace as a front-runner in state of the art office furniture intended to provide comfort for its users and promote a healthier work environment. 

Herman Miller And Co.

Herman Miller has been associated with some of the most revered names in mid-century modern design. Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi, Irving Harper… to say the least. The company has a long-standing history of successful collaborations that have produced some of the greatest masterpieces of the twentieth century. It was these collaborations that brought us the Noguchi Table, Marshmallow Sofa, Aeron Chair and many more recognizable timeless designs. However, it was the company’s relationship with Charles and Ray Eames that has largely defined its design opus. 

“We don’t make art, we solve problems”

Charles Eames

This quote sums up the duos design philosophy, focused towards emphasizing the beautiful simplicity of functional pieces. Together, the Eameses took the world by storm in a way few designers in history have been able to, and their practice still stands strong to this day. However, it was during their early years, through their partnership with Herman Miller that Charles and Ray Eames brought to fruition some of their more famous designs. Perhaps most notably the Eames Lounge and Ottoman, which has almost become the piece one buys as a display of wealth while at the same time trying to come across as design-savvy. Irony aside, the lounger is perhaps the apotheosis of the Eameses’ work with Herman Miller, while the Molded Plastic Side Chair is also an iconic piece whose significance shouldn’t be overlooked. 

Towards a Sustainable Future

The original design of the aforementioned Eames Lounge called for Brazilian Rosewood to be used for the shell. Decades later, it became clear that Rosewood wasn’t a sustainable choice. So, despite a lot of controversy, it was switched to Santos Palisander. Long ago, the company had made a commitment to the environment, and it planned to honor it, no matter the cost. 

Herman Miller has a long-standing reputation when it comes to preserving the environment. Sustainability is a keyword that is always a driving initiative in the company’s design process and they are not taking it lightly. The company has a strict policy when it comes to waste, opting for recyclable materials and an energy efficient production process. As part of its “Perfect Vision” initiative for 2020, Herman Miller has set a series of targets that aim to push the boundaries of what can be achieved in the name of sustainability. 

Throughout the years, Herman Miller has shown that it takes vision to endure. The company’s success stands in testimony to its foresight. However, it is without a doubt, the collaborative nature of the firm which has ensured its survival on the market. Though not without its shortcomings – namely, their early office initiatives – it is the perseverance and eagerness to overcome obstacles that has maintained Herman Miller’s status at the forefront of innovation, sustainability and recognisability in the design industry.

Featured Image: Striad Lounge Furniture by Herman Miller

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