It is difficult to understand and quantify the importance of design in our lives. However, when we take a closer look at the pieces that inspire and transform our daily life, innovative furniture brings us new ways of seeing the world, further enhancing the meaning of simple concepts like beauty, comfort, and quality.
Herman Miller brings these three concepts, along with the latest technology and sustainability in the manufacture of his pieces. Furniture that’s signed by big names like Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard and Isay Weinfeld. The end product is flawless in every way, but understanding the process behind them is an even more interesting experience.
Below, learn more about how one of the largest furniture manufacturers in the world thinks and operates. From the project’s conception to various studies on the way we experience spaces, manufacturing, and testing of the pieces, up until the finished product.
History and Design
DJ. De Pree worked as an employee at Michigan Star Furniture Company starting in 1909. In 1923, his father-in-law, Herman Miller, gave him a loan to buy the company. In honor of that gesture, De Pree named the company after him.
De Pree was a great visionary and in 1948 invited the designer George Nelson, who created Heman Miller’s very first collection. From that point on, the brand became known for its "modern" furniture. Nelson was also responsible for bringing in big names like Charles and Ray Eames and Isamu Noguchi, as well as Alexander Girard, Robert Propst, Don Chadwick, Ayse Birsel, Studio 7.5, Yves Behar and many others who helped produce pieces that would become classics in industrial design.
The company became well known for creating only high quality furniture, real heirlooms due to their durability and quality. Here, the designs aren’t intended to fit the aesthetic trends of the market. Products are released after an average of two to three years of development to make them stand alone on their own merit.
To this day, more traditional designs are revisited as inspiration for new projects or to be reinvented, and improved according to new technologies. For example, the Aeron chair, which has been recently updated.
Having left the ages of industry and information behind, today we live the era of ideas and the way of working has changed. Our jobs no longer consist of just sitting at an individual desk; Now it’s about sharing information and growing globally. With the advancement of technology, the work never ends and now we can do it from anywhere. The challenge that then arises is how to attract people to the office?
After a great investment and much research, Herman Miller came up with a response and created the Living Office concept. One of the main conclusions of the study is that the happier people are in their workplace, the more they produce. That may sound obvious, but office projects typically don't treat this with any importance.
It’s essential to understand the clients’ culture and their habits to design the ideal configuration for each company’s reality, generating a new landscape in work areas, putting the human being back at the company’s center.
For this to take effect, it is important that the furniture not only is seen as a comfortable element but also as something that can influence how we interact and work with each other every day. For example, the Locale line allows people sitting at a meeting table to look into the eyes of people who walk by the window and be at the same height as someone who is standing up giving a presentation, breaking down hierarchies.
Instead of sitting at their own desk, a person can choose where to work according to the task at hand: in a closed room, having coffee or sharing a table with other colleagues, or even standing. All of these options can provide a more pleasant and humane work experience. Offering different opportunities for employees in their offices is a gesture that improves daily life at a company so that each person produces more and feels more important in the space.
It only takes a person nine seconds to decide whether or not they like an environment. An attractive space is fundamental to a company’s image when closing a deal or attracting good employees.
With all this in mind, Herman Miller developed a set of tools that help the architect, through various data and experiments, to determine the best space for each type of client - in addition to a line of furniture that fits this concept perfectly.
Manufacturing and Production
The “GreenHouse”, a Herman Miller factory, adopted the Toyota Production System, which makes the assembly process faster while creating less waste. The production line allows chairs to be ready in less than a minute. The Aeron model, for example, takes only 21 seconds to be assembled and finished. The production line is constantly being improved, working to identify and eliminate possible issues.
When it comes to assembling wood pieces, keeping in mind the raw material and its nature ensures that each product is unique. The design can be the same, but the finish comes with different nuances of textures, both in wood and leather, which makes them one of a kind.
Vice President of Product Design, Gary Smith, highlights the importance of experience through flaws. One of the greatest examples of this is the testing laboratory, where the furniture is tested to the extreme, in order to guarantee its quality. There, over a period of one week, a chair can receive up to one million movements that test the amount of weight that supports the inclination of the backrest and its displacement, in addition to measuring the quality of the materials used. This type of quality control is to ensure the 12-year warranty offered by the company on its products.
Open to new technologies and the way that 'information technology' products are encompassing audio-visual products, Herman Miller is looking for ways to apply this type of technology to its furniture design. In order to deal with new concepts that they are not entirely familiar with, Herman Miller has partnered with technology companies like Microsoft so that they can provide ideal furniture for video conferences, presentations, and meetings.
Over the last few years, the term 'sustainability' has gone from being an added bonus to becoming indispensable in all fields of production. Herman Miller was already worried about the issue before becoming the popular concept it is today. The environment is respected and kept in mind throughout their facilities and the initial ideas came from the founder of the company, D.J. De Pree. The company decided it would be "environmentally friendly" back in 1953, and holds the distinction of having the first official policy in favor of the environment in the nation.
Among his environmental guidelines, he asserted that all employees should be able to look out a window. Today, more than 50 years later, this is known as the presence of natural light in a space, reducing energy bills and eliminating pollution caused by electricity production. He also said that any new properties the company developed would dedicate 50 percent or more to green space to promote a healthy environment.
In addition to creating people-centered architecture, Herman Miller was also a founding member of the US Green Building Council (USGBC) and helped formulate LEED certification guidelines.
In addition to factories and offices that already have LEED certification, the company works only with suppliers that also follow a sustainable pattern, backed by different types of certifications such as FSC, Cradle to Cradle, and Greenguard Certification.
The Herman Miller Experience
Knowing the whole process behind the design of Herman Miller's products, and conversing with its directors, they reveal ways that design can change people’s lives, as well as - at the same time - how our way of life brings new challenges for designers. Beyond that, knowing the process behind the production of iconic pieces shows that design is not only the final product but the work of an entire team that collaborates to complete and improve each original idea.