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Michigan’s modernist trailblazers remembered in ‘Herman Miller’

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I didn’t know it at the time, but I grew up in a modernist home. From the outside, our home looked like most vintage ’50s ranch-style homes. The inside, however, was transformed by my father’s advanced carpentry skills into a classic modernist abode with built-in wall systems, built-in stereo cabinet, hand-made benches and other furniture he built. Except for a single chair in each bedroom, all of the cabinets and the bed were built-ins.

I spent Christmas perusing “Herman Miller: A Way of Living,” a new, 614-page history of the iconic Zeeland, Michigan, furniture and design company and the designers who brought Modernism to life. The book by Phaidon is a passionate look at the 115-year-old company through interpretive prose and unparalleled photography. From it I learned that my father must’ve been drawn to the post-World War II futuristic look of Modernism and borrowed their designs.

Modernism is all the rage now. Modernist furniture and other Modernist decorations fly out of local estate sales. Modernist homes are bought in Michigan by collectors, such as homegrown musician Jack White. The former Lieberman’s gift store in downtown Lansing is listed on the market as Modernist building. In fact, there are enough modernism influences in the state that Susan Bandes, an MSU art historian and professor, authored “Mid-Michigan Modern: From Frank Lloyd Wright to Googie,” which showcased Modernism structures across the region.

“Herman Miller” begins in 1905 inside a former canning factory in western Michigan, which was retrofitted to manufacture replica Hepplewhite, Chippendale and Queen Anne furniture. By 1923, Dirk Jan De Pree, the son-in-law of one of the original founders, Herman Miller, became president and changed the company name to Herman Miller Furniture Co. His sons would lead the company through the ’80s.

Amy Auscherman, a co-author and the corporate archivist for Herman Miller, made herself available to City Pulse for an interview during the busy holiday break.

The book’s layout follows the design of the seminal 1931 “histomap,” an info-graphic by John B. Sparks which influenced the future designers behind “A Pictorial History of Herman Miller” in 1967. In the pictorial, the history of the company is depicted through photos and art designs decade-by-decade.

The new book uses that same approach, taking us through the company history. It starts in-depth with the '30s, when Herman Miller met with the designer Gilbert Rohde, a rising industrial designer. Rohde would begin a life-long relationship with Herman Miller Furniture Co., pushing the company into Modernism.

Highlights include Rohde designs of the Plexiglas chair, rolled steel chairs and the “z” clock, which debuted in the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair as a coming-out party for Herman Miller. Rohde and his designs for Herman Miller were prominently displayed in a 1935 article in Fortune magazine.

Subsequent chapters take the evolution of Herman Miller design decade by decade. Examples are the ’40s, which rolled out the 1944 Storage Wall Concept and the emergence of George Nelson, who would become the company’s second celebrity designer. Nelson used his design principles in the Lieberman’s retooling. In the ’40s, Herman Miller Furniture Co. also saw the rise of molded furniture and noted designer Charles Eames. Another high point of the book is a look at the Ergon Chair and the remastered Aeron chair of the 2000s, followed by the Herman Miller Performance System and the Living Office of the 2000s.

State of Michigan retirees will remember when these office furniture styles were installed in most state offices in Lansing. It was quite the change from large oak desks and closed doors, and acceptance came slowly.

“Even though there are more than 2000 images in the book it was hard to pare down the content,” Auscherman said.

One of her favorite pieces in the book and archives is the love seat designed by Alexander Girard, which she said never caught on for the commercial market.

She said it was important in writing and designing the book that it was not a “navel gazing” publication.

“We wanted to be honest and make the book objective, not a puff pieces.”

In addition to the pure furniture chapters, there is a look at the company culture, exemplified by the summer picnic, posters, which were unveiled in the ‘70s and designed by Stephen Frykholm, a Cranbook Academy of Art graduate. Frykholm’s designs were bright, fun and colorful takes on the delights of summer picnics, including eating watermelon, sweet corn and cherry pie.

In some ways, the posters represent the workplace culture of Herman Miller, which was an early adopter of the Scanlon employee participation system and transformed itself into an employee-owned company.

“We wanted to show something that most people don’t know — that Herman Miller is a human centered company in service of the people,” Auscherman said.

Now the bad news: The book has been so successful, it is sold out and won’t be available again until spring, according to Auscherman.

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