“Let the material be itself and do what it does best,” explains designer and Herman Miller Creative Director, Susan Lyons. Material honesty is about being true to the natural attributes of a material and taking full advantage of its capabilities.
The Eames molded plywood lounge chair (LCW), as Lyons mentions, is an example of this philosophy at work. The lounge, crafted from molded plywood and left uncovered, allows the wood’s natural beauty to shine. Combined with a sculpted form designed to the contours of the human body, the LCW has a utilitarian elegance that rightly earned it the distinction of Best Design of the 20th century by Time magazine.
Honesty is one of five material design principles Lyons and Herman Miller live by: honesty, utility, economy, pleasure, and possibility.
“It’s not about the pieces. It’s how the pieces work together,” says LA-based rapper Ice Cube. Whether sampling beats or designing architecture, beautiful things happen when you “take something that already exists and make it something special.”
Touring the Eames House, Ice Cube calls attention to the off-the-shelf pieces that make up the modern icon. Built by designers Charles and Ray Eames using a steel-frame, factory windows, and prefabricated walls, the home is more than its parts—a fine example of the rapper’s maxim.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but if you look back far enough you’ll find that it rhymes.” Futurist Paul Saffo recently said this in a meeting with us. He was paraphrasing an aphorism often attributed to Mark Twain, but whatever its source the maxim relates to the discussion taking place about the future of work.
There’s plenty of “rhyme” in the words of Robert Propst, inventor of the Action Office system. In 1968, he wrote that “The real office consumer is the mind. More than anything else, we are dealing with a mind-oriented living space.”
Given the ubiquity of technology today, Propst’s words were prescient. The office is a state of mind. We once used to enter that state of mind by crossing the threshold of a building called “the office.” Today, we enter that state of mind by simply accessing our work-related data on our mobile devices. Work is no longer a place we go. It’s a thing we do, anywhere we are and at anytime.
Not surprisingly, because of the different properties offered by digital space, interacting with each other in the physical world is taking on new forms. This is evidenced in the proliferating new business models for delivering physical places dedicated to work, work clubs being one example.
Because so many people work so often and so meaningfully in digital space, they now seek new forms and new levels of social connectivity in the physical place. It is the human experience in the digital workspace that now drives the meaning, expectations, and behaviors that take place in our physical workplaces.
In 1971, Alexander Girard decided to inject some color and pattern into the modern office, combating what was becoming a sea of bland beige.
Girard designed more than 40 graphics as part of the Environmental Enrichment program. Created to work with Herman Miller’s Action Office system, the graphics were silkscreened on cotton panels that could be applied to panel walls, file drawers, acoustical panels, and practically any flat surface. The graphics could also be bought unmounted and hung as art.
Girard’s panel graphics varied from bold geometric patterns to the iconic Love Heart to a smiling moon sporting an American flag—seemingly inspired by the, then recent, moon landing. The panels were distinctly Girard and brought visual interest to any environment. They were one of the last projects Girard did for Herman Miller.
Five principles guide Lyon’s work as our Materials Creative Director: honesty, utility, economy, pleasure, and possibility. Each is essential when creating innovative products and environments.
Susan Lyons got her start printing “artsy” t-shirts for a college fundraising project which caught the attention of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, who later ordered 200 of them.
As her career grew, Lyons’ passion for textiles turned towards sustainability. “Spending my days in the [textile] factory made me realize how much I enjoyed the process of making. I had this idea that we could make things more intelligently, more green,” she said. Working with other environmental advocates, Lyons developed an award-winning collection of cradle-to-cradle compostable textiles.
At Herman Miller, Lyons has her hands in nearly every project. From color palettes to textiles and materials, she works with our other designers to make sure every design is just right.
“The stakes are high, the budget low, the deadline impossible.” Doesn’t that sound like every project you’ve ever been involved in? For George Nelson, who said this about the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, the need to succeed was set against the backdrop of nuclear threats and deep distrust.
It was the height of the Cold War, and the United States Information Agency (USIA) chose to burden and bless Nelson with the mission of exhibition design director. The pressure on Nelson came from all sides; even President Eisenhower asked the exhibit to “open the door of the Iron Curtain a crack.”
If being design director wasn’t harrowing enough, Nelson later took on curator duties. With time running short, he designated tasks to outside designers, including Buckminster Fuller, who built a geodesic dome where Charles and Ray Eames’ short film, “Glimpses of the U.S.A,” was shown.
Nelson, who was also juggling the role of Herman Miller design director during this time, built an intricate jungle gym structure featuring a number of Herman Miller furnishings—the Nelson Coconut Chair and the Eames Lounge were among thousands of products. Another of his exhibition designs featured 90 fiberglass umbrellas that canopied over photography, architectural, and fashion collections.
In the end, Nelson was blessed with success. The first major American exhibition in the USSR over six weeks enticed three million Soviets to come and catch a glimpse of mid-century American life.
The idea of the Herman Miller Collection is not entirely new. In his introduction to our 1952 catalog, George Nelson wrote of “the continuing creation of a permanent collection designed to meet fully the requirements for modern living.” Nelson established a program and a philosophy for the Collection that allows us to continue it today.
The Collection began with classic pieces from the Herman Miller’s archives that have stood the test of the time. We then added complementary furnishings from our partners, such as Magis and Mattiazzi. Most importantly, we are developing new designs with today’s most talented designers. Each piece will present a solution that is as purposeful as it is beautiful.
The Herman Miller Collection will preview at Art Basel Miami Beach, where we are the exclusive furniture sponsor. More to come in Spring 2012.