Culture

Herman Miller, an American saga

Herman Miller is a name that counts in the history of design, but even more so in the history of the American furniture industry. For aficionados of vintage design, the brand name of the American furniture manufacturer from Michigan is closely linked to one of the most famous duos in post-war furniture design: Charles & Ray Eames. As a pioneer of original design, which is primarily based on the quality of the products, the American company has evolved and continues to be admired by leading industrialists, becoming, for example, the global specialist in ergonomic office chairs. In 2010, the office furniture and equipment company was named the industry leader for the 22nd year by Fortune Magazine in its “Most Admired Companies” ranking.

A family saga, Herman Miller was founded in 1923 by Dirk Jan De Pree (1891-1990) who, with the financial support of his father-in-law Herman Miller, bought The Michigan Star Furniture Company (founded in 1905) and immediately renamed it after his benefactor. D.J. De Pree, who joined the Michigan Star Furniture Company in 1909 as a clerk, patiently built up a family empire. At first, he specialized in the reproduction of traditional interior furniture.

The Great Depression forced the founder to innovate to survive. He took a decisive turn for the company when he met Gilbert Rhode (1894-1944), a New York designer, who convinced him to break the market codes by creating innovative furniture. In 1942, Herman Miller entered the American furniture market with the Executive Office Group collection designed by Gilbert Rhode, the precursor of system furniture , which was to become one of the company’s great successes.

With the death of Gilbert Rhode in 1944, D.J. De Pree once again had a keen eye for design and a year later recruited the designer George Nelson (1908-1986) as design director, a position he held until 1972. Together, D.J. De Pree and George Nelson defined the design DNA of the Herman Miller Group and created some of the most iconic pieces of modern design in collaboration with talented designers.

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From left to right in the photograph: George Nelson, DJ De Pree, Jim Eppinger, Hugh De Pree, Alfred Auerbach and an unknown man.

In 1944, Herman Miller created the famous Coffe Table by Japanese designer Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), which it produced from 1947 to 1977. In 1959, the Noguchi Rudder Table came out in the same line as the coffee table. Two original pieces with architectural shapes which, based on two legs supporting a table top, celebrate organic design(link to Design Market website).

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Coffee Table, design by Isamu Noguchi for Herman Miller, 1944

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Isamu Noguchi, Noguchi Rudder Table, 1949. The Noguchi Rudder Table is the heir to the 1944 model and stands on chrome-plated legs, a successful contrast to the finish of the top in walnut, ebony, maple or white ash.

But the masterstroke that put Herman Miller on the map was achieved in 1945-1946 with the American couple Charles (1907-1978) & Ray (1912-1988) Eames. The Eames developed the iconic Eames Lounge Chair Wood (LCW), also known as the Eames Plywood Lounge Chair.

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Eames Lounge Chair Wood (LCW), designed by Ray and Charles Eames in the 1940s.

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Eames Lounge Chair Wood (LCW), detail of the frame, 1945-1946.

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The Eames Moulded Plywood Chairs now available from Herman Miller

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An incredibly innovative chair for its time with an inimitable style, resulting from the Eames couple’s work for the US Navy. The Eames’ strength lies in their ability to work plywood into complex curves. An iconic piece of modern design, the Eames LCW was voted Design of the Century by Time magazine.

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In the photograph, in the background, from left to right: Alfred Auerbach, Jim Eppinger, D.J. De Pree, Max De Pree, George Nelson. Seated, from left to right: Charles Eames, Hugh De Pree.

Continuing their successful relationship with the Eames couple, Herman Miller, who acquired exclusive marketing rights to the award-winning Eames moulded plywood products in 1947, achieved a second master stroke in 1950 with the release of the Eames Plastic Chair. Guided by their desire to bring the best of design to the general public at an affordable price, the Eames created a one-piece seat shell using the properties of fibreglass. Herman Miller then marketed what would be the first mass-produced plastic chairs. As with the Plywood Chair, the Eames’ plastic chairs were produced with different seats and different bases. These chairs have become icons of modern design furniture.

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Eames Plastic Side Chair (DSR models for Dining Side Chair Rod Base) and their famous Eiffel base in the Vitra catalogue. Design: Charles & Ray Eames, 1950. In 1957, Herman Miller signed a licensing agreement to market the Eames chairs for the American market, while Vitra took over the European and Middle Eastern markets.

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The Eames Plastic Chairs range published today by Vitra for Europe and the Middle East. The Eames Plastic Armchair (armchair version has the A shell); the Plastic Side Chair (chair version has the S shell). The DSR/DSS/DSX/DSW models are distinguished from the DAR/DAS/DAX/DAW models. The last letter indicates the type of base.

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DAW chairs for Dining Armchair Wood Base at Vitra. Designed by Charles & Ray Eames, 1950.

The 1950s saw the release of models that are now universally acclaimed by design enthusiasts, even though Herman Miller stopped producing them in the late 1950s and 1960s, only to resume production in the 1980s and 1990s.

Examples include the Coconut Chair and the famous marshmallow benchboth designed by George Nelson (the latter with Irving Harper), as well as the Eames Lounge Chair and its Ottoman footrest released in 1956.

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Coconut Chair, design by Georges Nelson for Herman Miller, 1955.

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Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman footrest, designed by Charles & Ray Eames for Herman Miller, 1956. Today, the Eames Lounge Chair and its Ottoman are signed by either Herman Miller or Vitra Design.

A major turning point in the history of the family business – Hugh De Pree and especially Max De Pree, D.J. De Pree’s two sons, rose through the ranks of the Michigan company to become its directors – was the recruitment in 1958 of Robert Propst (1921-2000) as a researcher. In the 1960s, Propst invented the Action Office System, an open modular panel system with ancillary fixtures for open office environments. Herman Miller revolutionised the design of the office environment and continues to do so today with modular systems that are constantly being improved and adapted to the realities of business.

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Action Office System, the modular system for working environments designed by Robert Propst, is now in the Herman Miller catalogue. The first version of the A.O. was introduced in 1964, designed by Robert Propst and Jack Kelley.

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Action Office System in the Herman Miller catalogue. Design Robert Propst and Jack Kelley.

Since then, Herman Miller has continued to be the global benchmark for office furniture and workplace design, while maintaining its past with the post-war design pieces it is known for and continues to produce in the Herman Miller Collection.

Herman Miller continues to collaborate with contemporary designers for interior and office furniture. These include designers Sam Hecht and Kim Colin, Studio 7.5 and the Belgian architect and designer Vincent Van Duysen. Not forgetting the historic collaborations with the designer Ward Bennett (1917-2003), the designer Bill Stumpf (1936-2006) and the industrial designer Don Chadwick (1932-).

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The Ergon 3 office chairs released in 1995. A variation on the Ergon chair designed by Bill Stumpf for Herman Miller in 1976. With this chair, Herman Miller ushered in a new era of ergonomic seating.

Written by François Boutard