It’s funny the way business works. What starts as the densely forested state of Michigan, attracting logging companies and lumber yards, ends up being home to some of the largest contract furniture providers in the world.
The particular company of interest is Herman Miller, located in “Furniture City”, or as it’s better known Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids is located around the fleshy part of the hypothenar, to use a popular geography visual aid of Michiganders.
For those who aren’t students of anatomy, the hypothenar is the group of muscles located in the center of the palm that controls the pinky.
In the early days of Herman Miller, then known as the Star Furniture Company, the company was largely in the same boat as many other turn-of- the-century factories across America. Building ornate Victorian furniture from raw timber and selling hand-crafted pieces individually.
However, a fellow named D.J. De Pree joined the Star Furniture Company in 1909, fresh out of high school, and ready to change the future of the company. De Pree rose from the ranks of clerk and by 1919 was president. Not only this, but in 1923 he convinced his father-in- law to purchase the majority of Star’s shares, making him not only president but owner. His father-in- law’s name? Herman Miller.
From this point onward, Herman Miller started a radical shift, foretelling the success the company would enjoy later in the century. This so-called shift began in the early 1930’s, with De Pree shifting the company towards a more modern aesthetic to grow beyond the limits of western Michigan.
Things are going well for Herman Miller until the Great Depression hits. An economic crash that demolished thousands of businesses, fledgling and deep-rooted alike.
Amy Auscherman, corporate archivist, provides some insight around that Depression-era for Herman Miller, “Once the Great Depression hits, no one is doing well in the industry. D.J., who’s very religious, prayed for an answer as to how to save the business.
“Once the Great Depression hits, no one is doing well in the industry”
They’re six months away from not being able to make payroll, and the answer to his prayers: Gilbert Rohde coming into our Grand Rapids showroom.” Rohde, an industrial designer from New York who ended up serving as the company’s first creative director, appealed to De Pree by pitching him on new modern designs instead of the antique reproduction furniture that he maligned as “not honest.”
Herman Miller’s first foray into office furniture—the Executive Office Group from 1942—came about under Rohde’s purview. When Rohde died suddenly in 1944 (legend has it, into his dessert at an Upper East Side restaurant), D.J. De Pree contacted another designer out of New York, one George Nelson, whose storage wall he had seen in LIFE magazine.
Though at that time Nelson was an architect and not a furniture designer, “D.J. thought Nelson was a genius, Nelson thought D.J. was a genius in running his company, and when he took on the design director role he was given carte blanche,” Auscherman explains.
It was under Nelson’s tenure that Herman Miller’s sporty logo came about, and the midcentury dream team was assembled (Charles and Ray Eames, Irving Harper, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard, Ezra Stoller). Nelson also engineered five points for good design, which Herman Miller still employs, in modified form, today.
During the time of the midcentury growth in Herman Miller, there was also a nation-wide business shift. The advent of office systems. It was this simple innovation that caused a boom in the furniture business. The reason?
Office systems and other commercial and civic enterprises suddenly required mass amounts of furniture, i.e. rows of airport seating, an entire floor of cubicles, a hotel’s worth of chairs. In response to the aforementioned need, the contract market was born and for companies like Herman Miller, American corporate culture’s insatiable need for more and more office furniture in the second half of the 20th century meant consistent double-digit growth.
“Office systems and other commercial and civic enterprises suddenly required mass amounts of furniture”
Over the next several decades, other monumental changes took root. Herman Miller, specifically, adopted a “participative management” structure in 1950, debuted an open-plan, modular Action Office in 1968, and introduced its first ergonomic task chair, Ergon, in 1976.
While the office systems—introduced in the Executive Office Group, revolutionized by Action Office I and II in the 1960s, and expanded in several product lines for today’s Living Office—are what have carried the bulk of Herman Miller’s business in the last half a century, a sea change is happening in the way people work.
Technology has liberated many of us office drones from a static workstation, and the types of large, cash-flush corporations that can afford Herman Miller furniture are bending to pressure from younger employees for kinder, more flexible work environment. Almost residential, in fact. Which is perhaps part of the reason Herman Miller began producing, and more importantly, marketing some of its discontinued icons in the 1990s: the Nelson Platform Bench, the Noguchi accent table, the graphic Girard prints, the Eames walnut stools, lounger, Hang-It- All.
Now you can furnish your hard- working employees’ flex space with a melange of old classics and new designer commissions, collaborative office systems and seating that wouldn’t feel out of place in your living room at home.
Meanwhile, the Eames molded plastic shell chairs, which have undergone material change (original fiberglass, polypropylene, wood, wire, and a new “eco” fiberglass) and enduring popularity since their production debut in 1950, saw their best sales to date in the fiscal year 2016. Of course, it’s not the branded icons that keep a corporation afloat in real money. It’s being able to produce them—and an ever-diverse product line—with ultimate efficiency.
In 1997, Herman Miller adopted the much-vaunted Toyota Production System, a “lean” method that lowers the cost inefficiencies of long lead times and producing on spec. (The enforcer of this method, Hajime Ohba from the Toyota Supplier Support Center, is a mythical figure on the Zeeland campus, referred to in the most reverent of tones.)
Factories using TPS produce goods according to real orders, taking an inventory of parts every 2.5 hours.
That one thing (a) reduces the amount of floor space required for storing components and (b) minimizes the lead time when bundling orders of the same product type. It’s also worth noting that (c) Herman Miller’s own facilities are used for assembly, not fabrication. These three factors drive down real estate costs since less square footage is needed in the assembly process. As a side effect, the company’s full-time employment rate can retain some stability during market downturns.
“the company’s full-time employment rate can retain some stability during market downturns.”
Mary Stevens—a “water carrier” in company parlance, with 31 years of experience at Herman Miller across 13 different departments—is exceptionally qualified to outline the company’s current strategy and how it’s adapted over time. Stevens notes that in adopting the Toyota process, Herman Miller’s assembly production became efficient enough to “keep manufacturing in western Michigan.”
The company still sources components—injection-molded plastic, bent plywood, upholstered cushions—from area producers dotted from Grand Rapids to Holland. Without a trade school feeder, Herman Miller employees with a gift for teaching often go through product development training so they can mentor others.
Kuperus mentions one employee, now a trainer, “who will freak you out because he looks like he’s 12, but he’s one of our best upholsterers.” It’s all a part of what some employees call tribal knowledge, and most of Herman Miller ascribes to the aforementioned water carriers: “The reality is you cannot put into a manual what they need to know.”