‘Good Design: Stories from Herman Miller’ evokes modernity at the Museum of Craft and Design

New exhibition examines the company's history and inventive marketing campaigns

Herman Miller, Inc./Courtesy

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“Good Design: Stories from Herman Miller” at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design manages to make one of the most fundamental aspects in our domestic lives — furniture — an expression of modern company culture and consumerism. “Good Design” emphasizes the story behind the design of the furniture by providing extensive written information on Herman Miller Inc.’s company history and the sales campaigns that led to the success of modern design in the furniture market.

To set the foundation, the exhibition begins with a discussion of Herman Miller Inc.’s founding figures and the company values they established in the 1930s. One of them, Gilbert Rohde, was the operative force moving the company from period reproductions into modern furniture. During the heart of the Great Depression, he understood that design had to take on a new focus, namely “Design for Living,” which was Herman Miller Inc.’s exposition house at the 1933 to 1934 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.

Company leadership tied its Midwestern straightforwardness in with Rohde’s cosmopolitan regard for style; Herman Miller Inc. furniture was meant first to optimize its function — as with the company’s most famous design, the ergonomic Aeron chair — and then to be beautifully designed. George Nelson, a founding figure of the company, explained to Fortune magazine in August 1946, “Enclose space as if it were precious … for the sake of … the life that goes on within it.” This fundamental attitude toward design being “little to do with conscious style” and “a lot to do with human scale — and human need” informed everything that the company did in later years.

This modern way of “doing design” expanded into the realm of marketing and merchandising as well. Rohde, who had worked in journalism and advertising before joining Herman Miller Inc., recognized that people’s antiquated conception of furniture would have to change if they were ever to be convinced of the modern aesthetic. However, he also noticed that Americans were ready for new ideas as the nation recovered from the Great Depression.

In order to do this, Herman Miller Inc. pursued some of the most inventive sales methods the furniture industry had seen, setting up complete home miniature displays in department stores, even staffing some of the displays with designers who could help customers plan their own homes. While scale models were a typical sales device, the concept of putting them in full apartments and allowing people to rearrange the furniture meant that they could really come to see how Herman Miller Inc. furniture could fit into their lives and living spaces. Also featuring in as many design publications as possible, Herman Miller Inc. was out to get noticed and ready to convince the world of their furniture concept.

Design feats in their own rights, many of the advertising campaigns that Herman Miller Inc. has run through the years were also defined by the same company values that informed their furniture design. For example, advertisements for Chadwick Modular Seating were bold black-and-white presentations with a dynamic image of the modular sofa and the simple phrase, “It turns, circles, winds, and zigzags.” The rest of the text in the ad refers to the functional benefits of modular seating, in a humorous description of all the various issues that traditional couches present in life (“keep your people from catching the dreaded ‘stuck-in-the-corner’ disease”).

The ad exemplified exactly what Herman Miller Inc.’s founding figures aimed to achieve with their furniture — unfussy style and optimum functionality for a modern life. As Marc D’Estout, curator of the museum, has explained: “The company culture is exactly why Herman Miller has been able to work with and embrace forward thinking design … This is important contextual information that enriches an exhibit of displayed objects, and speaks to the importance of design philosophies in the creation of products.”

“Good Design: Stories from Herman Miller” is on show at the Museum of Craft and Design through Oct. 6.

Contact AJ Kantor at [email protected].