No other brand has done more to elevate the culture of everyday American design than Herman Miller. The Zeeland, Michigan-based company has produced some of the most iconic furniture of the modern era, due in large part to its insistence on partnering with top design talent, which over the years has included everyone from Ray and Charles Eames to Yves Behar.
You're probably familiar with the company as the maker of the Eames Lounge, Noguchi Table, sling sofas, or perhaps that Aeron office chair you're currently reading this from, but here are 10 other things you may not know about the legendary manufacturer.
1. For better or worse, it's credited with inventing the office cubicle.
In the 1960s, designer Robert Propst was president of the Herman Miller Research Corporation and dreamed up a modern reinvention of the workspace called the "Action Office." Ironically, it was developed to curb the sedentary nature of office work, but soon devolved into what we now can all agree is a miserable cubicle culture. While Propst later distanced himself from the project, it became one of the company's banner products, having generated over $5 billion in sales to date. However, Herman Miller continues to work toward creating better and healthier workplace environments with its Living Office series.
2. The Aeron office chair was originally designed for the elderly.
Before its debut in 1994, the designers of the chair that became so popular among web startups that it earned the nickname of "the dot-com throne" were struggling to come up with better living spaces for the elderly. However, Herman Miller couldn't find a good way to market a particular foam-padded chair it came up with, and instead asked them to rejigger it to fit the office, an area they knew they could market to.
3. Herman Miller was a real guy, but not the one who started the company.
The true founder's name is DJ Depree, pictured above in his Eames Lounge. In 1923, he had worked his way up through the ranks at The Michigan Star Furniture Company, where his new father-in-law, Herman Miller, was part owner. He eventually asked Mr. Miller for a loan to help him buy a majority stake in the company, as he had plans to take over and build the business. Depree made good on his plan, and in appreciation of his father-in-law's generosity, renamed the company after him.
4. It was an early pioneer of green design.
By decree of founder DJ Depree in 1953, the company committed itself to not harming the Earth early on, and many of its products are almost entirely recyclable. Herman Miller also developed a special process of mixing sawdust from the assembly line with chicken manure to return fertile topsoil to the environment. Plus its Holland, Michigan manufacturing facility—known as the GreenHouse—is a green building, and was instrumental in helping to found the United States Green Building Council. Frankly, it's making most of us run-of-the-mill earth-lovers look like a bunch of lazy losers.
5. It once hired a new design director with zero experience designing furniture.
In 1945, company execs brought on George Nelson in an effort to rebrand after reading about him in LIFE magazine and checking out his groundbreaking book, Tomorrow’s House, in which he introduces the idea of a “family room,” and various other innovative concepts. Under his leadership, the brand recruited some of its most famous design partners and introduced much of the furniture pieces it's best known for today.
6. Each line of furniture undergoes absurd tests to mimic extreme real-world scenarios.
Apart from the stress tests, which include pushing each chair to be pressed down with average human weight and recline at least 1,000,000 times over without incident, there are also special chambers that it places items in to simulate humidity, salty air, and extreme cold. Wonder how that compares to other manufacturers? Consider this: you must only prove that your product can endure 150,000 weight/recline tests to be certified as a commercial grade chair.
7. Until 1930, the company primarily produced traditional wooden furniture.
Once the Great Depression hit, Herman Miller was forced to diversify its product line in order to survive in the market. Good thing, too, or we would have never been gifted its bountiful catalog of modern masterpieces.
8. It spun off a separate company just to make clocks.
In 1937, the brand's division of mantle and chime clocks became the Howard Miller Clock Company (named after and helmed by Herman’s son). It went on to produce some of the most iconic modern clocks (including the ball and spike). These days, it has no connection to Herman Miller, although their headquarters are across the street from one another in Zeeland, Michigan.
9. Despite its legacy, it'll never rest on its laurels.
In July 2014 it announced it was acquiring the brand Design Within Reach in order to maintain an even greater influence in the modern era. That's wisdom in old age, people.
10. Some of the biggest designers who worked with Herman Miller may have later regretted it.
Both Harry Bertoia and to a lesser extent Isamu Noguchi (whose iconic Herman Miller table design is shown above) reportedly later expressed some regret for their involvement with the company. Though without firm evidence, it's unclear exactly why.
Joe McGauley is a senior editor at Supercompressor. He wonders if he's ever eaten anything grown in Herman Miller topsoil.