A pioneer within the office furniture industry, Herman Miller has been one of the most highly regarded manufacturers and designers of office furniture for over a century. Founded in 1905, originally under the name Star Furniture Co., Herman Miller has been producing groundbreaking furniture ever since. The company’s ingenuity when it comes to blending design and function has led to it being one of the most popular office furniture manufacturers. In fact, according to CNN Money, as of March 2011, Herman Miller was ranked as the second most admired company in the Home and Office Equipment’s Furnishing division. But, what is Herman Miller’s story and how did it come to be one of the top ranking companies within its industry?

Early Years 

Originally founded under the name Star Furniture Co. in 1905, Herman Miller has since become one of today’s leading office furniture designers and manufacturers. Upon its creation, the company originally produced high quality furniture inspired by historical revivalism. Revivalism was a movement in the architectural realm in the period 1880 – 1940. Herman Miller’s designers have always taken heavy inspiration from architectural movements, making them pioneers within their industry. By incorporating architectural elements in their designs, Herman Miller’s designers were stripping back the traditional formalities surrounding how furniture should be created to focus on the ways in which buildings are created, and how to replicate this strong foundation to enable maximum support and comfort in all their furniture, all the while still managing to incorporate luxurious styles. De Pree became a company clerk in 1909, and worked his way up to become the company’s president in 1919. Following this, in 1923 De Pree and his father-in-law, Herman Miller, purchased 51% of the company stock and renamed it the Herman Miller Furniture Company, it didn’t become Herman Miller Inc. until 1960.

The Great Depression 

The Great Depression had a huge impact on Herman Miller Inc., much like many other businesses during the 1930s. Up until the 30s, Herman Miller only produced traditional wood furniture, but with the economic turmoil created by The Great Depression, the company had to explore new products in order to survive, especially as the market was shrinking rapidly. In a bid to save the fate of the company, the decision to hire Gilbert Rohde was made, albeit reluctantly. Rohde was a designer who specialised in modernist designs, a market which wasn’t drastically impacted by The Great Depression, but was instead rather popular. 

A New Way of Designing Furniture – Gilbert Rohde

Rohde’s designs were visionary, and his creations resulted in turning the company in an entirely new direction. Rohde began experimenting with designs inspired by the modernist movement. Modernism rejected the ideas of realism and encouraged experimentation with form, thus allowing the company to create truly unique and groundbreaking furniture designs. In 1933 Rohde’s exemplary designs and new visions for the company were debuted, in the creation of a line of modern furniture at the Century of Progress exposition in Chicago. This line was well received, and Rohde had paved the way for the company’s future success. In 1941 the company opened two showrooms, one situated in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, and another in New York City. The company had survived The Great Depression and was thriving by the early 1940s. Rohde’s influence on the company didn’t end there, but it was his influence which led to the company entering the contract office furniture market in 1942. This was done through the introduction of the “Modular Executive Office Group”, or the EOG, which became the first of the company’s office furnishings lines, with many more to come. 

A New Era – George Nelson 

Upon Rohde’s death in 1944, Herman Miller Inc. hired architect George Nelson to take his place. Nelson joined the company as director of design, and moved Herman Miller into a new era in terms of his innovative designs for office furniture. Nelson’s influence upon the company was astronomical, not just because of his personal design contributions but for his recruitment of several talented designers including: Charles and Ray Eames, Robert Propst, Isamu Noguchi and textile designer Alexander Girard. During the next four decades, as a result of Nelson’s contributions Herman Miller produced several pieces of modern office furniture which have become some of the world’s most iconic within the industry. These pieces include the Noguchi Table and the Eames Lounge Chair. These innovative office furniture designs perfectly encapsulated the movement of modernism in relation to art, architecture and design. 

The Herman Miller Research Division 

In 1961 the company set up the Herman Miller Research Division, a facility entirely dedicated to the creation of groundbreaking and visionary furniture designs. In 1964 the Research Division developed the Action Office Line under Robert Propst and with design assistance from George Nelson. Unfortunately, the line was not a success, but this did not deter Propst. Spurred on by the failure of the initial line, Propst developed the Action Office II Line (changed to Action Office in 1978). This line was so revolutionary that it changed the office environment completely. The most notable of the Action Office II Line was the Office Cubicle, a piece of office furniture which was used globally for its ability to reduce distractions within the office space and provide each member of staff a level of privacy that they had not had before. By 1998, Herman Miller’s Action Office Line generated sales of over $5 billion. Many offices today still use variations of the Office Cubicle, showing the long lasting impact Herman Miller as a company has had on the office furniture industry and highlighting just one of the reasons they are still market leaders today. 

The Aeron Chair

During the 1970s, several new designers joined the company, widening the company’s scope and creative vision in terms of office furniture design. The new designers were to have a huge impact on the company, predominantly designers Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf, who co-designed the Equa chair, an office chair that is still widely marketed today. But perhaps, their most famous creation to date is their Aeron Chair, supposedly names of a Celtic God but also referencing aeration and aeronautics. The Aeron chair, called by Bloomberg as ‘America’s best selling Office Chair’ was such an innovative design, incorporating ergonomics with modernism, that it is featured in The Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. This highlights just one of the many ways Herman Miller have incorporated art and architectural elements with their office furniture designs, and are one of the pioneering furniture companies to do so. Their furniture designs are so innovative that they have made themselves a reputation in the world of art, rather than simply furniture designers. In the years 1970-1989, artist Stephen Frykholm produced a series of promotional posters for Herman Miller’s annual summer picnics, further integrating Herman Miller in the artistic world. Some of these prints are permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, and much like many of Herman Millers’ creations, remain highly sought after today. 

Herman Miller Today 

Even today, Herman Miller is thought of as one of the best companies in terms of office furniture design. In more recent years, with the introduction of desk chairs such as the Herman Miller Sayl Chair and the Herman Miller Embody Chair, they continue to astound the industry. Each office chair is thoroughly researched, designed and produced to the highest possible degree to provide the best quality product available. If you’re looking for innovative, ergonomic and contemporary office chairs, browse our Herman Miller collection today or contact us on 0845 0737230.