There’s a changing of the guard going on at Herman Miller when it comes to design. We are working with the new convenant partners to guide design at Herman Miller for the next couple of decades. Don Goeman, Herman Miller’s executive vice president of research, design and development, interviews five design partners.
What started out as George Nelson and Charles Eames and Alexander Girard gave way to Bill Stumpf, Don Chadwick, Tom Newhouse, and Jack Kelley. Now we have a new crew. Compare George, Charles, Alexander, Bill, and the rest to the first names of the group I talked to in June—Ayse, Bibi, Burkhard, Carola, Yves—the difference is obvious. And I would add a few names of people who weren’t present—Eric Chan, Jeff Weber, Claudia Plikat, Jerome Caruso, and Roland Zwick.
The group that I talked to know in their bones who Herman Miller is. They’ve got a vibe about our history and our view of design. I hope that we can maintain these kinds of relationships—we’ve learned from the past how productive they are. A lot of companies are doing what Yves Béhar calls “guest designer” relationships. We don’t follow that approach. The people in this conversation are not guests—they are at the heart of our creative network.
DG: What has the design agenda been at Herman Miller?
Burkhard Schmitz: It’s been like a reorientation. You could say it’s like a post-Aeron, post-systems agenda. I would like to say that the underlying principles of design at Herman Miller persist, although the circumstances are very different now.
DG: Designers are never content.
BurkhardS: Nope—and contemporaries are never content. Either they hope for the future or long for the past.
Carola Zwick: In our ongoing projects, I see Herman Miller using their designers as ears and eyes on reality. And usually the company is willing to take the risk in following their lead.
Ayse Birsel: Some things haven’t changed. Herman Miller still works with outside designers to propel change. But there are also uncertainties—the economic situation isn’t certain. How will we respond to that? We don’t quite know how we are going to grow—or where. There are many things about Herman Miller that we designers are glad won’t change—the drive for innovation and the willingness to take risks—but the direction we are pushing is changing—furniture, technology, Convia.
Bibi Seck: We don’t know that. Maybe it’s impossible to know. I went to a presentation about Convia—the new electrical infrastructure, they called it. Five years ago we would have said this was impossible. But now it’s here—and we have lots of questions about what we can do with it.
Yves Béhar: My own expectation is that Herman Miller would accelerate change—to be at the forefont of the dramatic change that I think is going to happen to work and the work environment. The change, I think, will be especially dramatic in the U.S., because we’ve been very static about the way people work here, in organizational structures—mostly hierarchies, processes based too much on cubicles. Also a great deal of social change.
CZ: It would be almost naïve to think that there is always some master plan in place. For me, the real value comes from stumbling in many directions and finding the right one to bring into reality. I think design at Herman Miller is a dynamic process—related to technology, of course. The risk lies in not allowing different levels of complexity to exist for different products.
AB: I agree with that, but I think there should be some broad principles—environmental perspective, for example.
DG: Are there global realities that are or should be shaping Herman Miller’s design?
BurkhardS: Factors like the environment and demographics are shaping the whole world. They also shape Herman Miller. There are certain constraints that you cannot escape.
YB: I see Asia as another center of activity that we need to look at. I don’t think there’s less to be done in the U.S. or that the challenges here are any less significant. Something like 50 percent of the infrastructure here will have to be changed over the next 20 years or so.
DG: Could we say that people can expect from us products that solve problems across multiple cultures?
BurkhardS: Yes, definitely. But I would say this is very different from designing a “world car,” de-nationalizing and stripping any identity from a product.
YB: A main criteria for me is keeping up with social change—the only uncertainty here is how fast it will happen. We also need to deal with the pace at which technology will affect work surfaces, our walls—every part of work environments.
BurkhardS: That’s problem solving, to me. The most successful products in Herman Miller’s past came from problem solving—and I believe that’s the way it will be in the future. If you asked people whether they wanted an office chair that looked like lawn furniture and had a mesh seat, they would have said no. And if Herman Miller and Bill Stumpf had listened, we wouldn’t have the Aeron chair.
DG: Herman Miller has always had a breadth of approach to aesthetics, just as we have had a broad group of designers. I believe that’s another characteristic we should hang on to.
CZ: Absolutely, yes. The time has gone when we can have a design that transfers to all levels of products. A richness of diversity both asthetically and functionally can adapt much more easily to a diverse range of people and cultures. It’s more about fusion and eclecticism than ever.
AB: I very much agree. Even though we all work independently and in different ways, we are all held together by the company’s core values, its DNA, its history—and of course the people at Herman Miller.
BibiS: That helps the products we design for you say “Herman Miller.” The engineers are another force that makes sure the products we design are right for Herman Miller.
DG: I see many advantages in this group’s diversity. You work in the white space outside the corporation, in a learning space with other industries that we, of necessity, can’t inhabit. It’s hard for companies to go beyond the boundaries of their own problem spaces. Our relationship with you all helps us do that—see change on a global scale and respond to it.
BurkhardS: It’s a networked relationship, one that started years ago with Nelson and Eames. It makes the design function at Herman Miller very resilient.
YB: For me, the challenge for companies like Herman Miller is to integrate many things, especially numerous and incomplete technologies, into their own thinking. The technology companies in Silicon Valley are more aggregators. Companies like Herman Miller need to integrate—applying technology A to field B.
DG: What about innovation in the next few years? Does this relationship we’ve been discussing influence the nature or form of innovation Herman Miller is able to produce? It seems to me we nudge things along as you pursue a design and, when it all works, somewhere along the way an innovation pops. This happens because you have been noodling around on a problem and also because we have what I call a convenant relationship.
BurkhardS: Big hits like Action Office and the Aeron chair don’t come every day.
AB: When Action Office and Bob Propst came along, Herman Miller wasn’t really in the office furniture business. Now the “office” as a set of problems to be solved has also gotten too small to handle the innovation Herman Miller is capable of. We will begin to hit the boundaries of the office and bump into something else—I don’t know what that is, but I think it’s going to happen.
YB: It seems to me that a first mover who can bring simplicity, clarity, cost savings, and energy savings to offices has a bigger advantage today than ever. Lifestyle and workstyle changes are happening faster than ever, and they will change workplaces. I don’t see much response so far to trends toward residential furniture, for example.
DG: Do you think systems furniture will eventually become an appendage of technology in U.S. offices?
BurkhardS: I’m not sure that systems furniture equals the American office, even though systems furniture has matured American offices. People now routinely think hard about planning offices—break areas and work spaces. People actually think about how the whole thing works. That’s not so true in Europe. European offices are basically a collection of stuff acquired in exactly the way Bibi describes, mostly driven by economics. I would never tie the fate of the American office to systems furniture.
YB: I wouldn’t either. It is changing drastically and so is the technology it is currently designed around. Technology will make things easier, simpler, more horizontal—technology will make for less structure, certainly less heavy infrastructure. Portable technology will allow companies to express offices in a much simpler way.
AB: Systems thinking is a strength of Herman Miller’s, but that doesn’t mean you have to end up with a systems product. Creating an ergonomic work environment—
CZ: —Right, in the U.S. there is a strong desire to create healthy and ergonomically correct workplaces—
AB: —and what I’d like to think about is whether creating that kind of healthful environment has to be limited to offices. Everybody needs a decent place to work, but that doesn’t mean everybody needs an office. Offices, themselves, with all their huge overhead costs, may be becoming obsolete. We can certainly take ownership of all the places people work—whether that’s at Starbucks, at an airport, or at home.
YB: The European model is more collaborative, lower walls, and I think this model will drive the market here in the U.S., as opposed to what’s happened since the 1970s with the cubicle driving the market. It’s funny the structures are more open in Europe, but the organizational structures are more open in the U.S.
DG: Should we pursue the problems of working in places outside office buildings?
YB: Herman Miller could certainly apply its knowledge or ergonomics and work environments to these places—communal places, home.
YB: And people are working everywhere. Companies have to create a work environment that’s so much more about projects—young people are motivated by what you give them to do, not by the company. Add this change to changing attitudes about sustainability and we are at a unique place in developing products for work environments. The insistence on sustainable practices is in my mind a certainty, and Herman Miller and every other manufacturer will have to deal with it.
CZ: The office won’t vanish because it’s a social place, where you need to go to make connections. It helps to organize your life and inspire you. But dedicated workspaces in offices will shrink.
DG: Let me change direction slightly. What about the potential for corporations to do good in the world—Ayse you have written about this before—should people expect something along these lines from design at Herman Miller?
AB: Working with Herman Miller, we have learned to use “doing good” as a filter. Not as something sentimental, but in the same way we put environmental thinking or a high level of performance—as Burkhard has said—into our thinking about design. If we put the people truly in need into our thinking, we may accomplish great things. I think about healthcare, where a good design actually helps people survive. When we look at problems in healthcare, we should look at it with an aim toward doing good, not simply just to design a bed or a chair.
DG: DJ De Pree, Herman Miller’s founder, was the first person who learned to, in his words, “abandon” himself to creative partners and ideas. We understand that we don’t know everything you do—we want to follow your aspirations. We think the most important result is a product that actually improves the worlds around our customers. That’s what it’s all about.
CZ: I recently saw the new Embody chair by Jeff Weber and the late Bill Stumpf. Every detail is right—you can really tell that this chair results from a thorough push and pull between Herman Miller and designer. Even if you’re not trained to see a good chair, you sense a credibility in Embody. I think this kind of effort is unique—customers will sense that. And that’s what they should expect from Herman Miller. It’s not about shape, it’s an attitude about design and problem-
YB: So many companies are now adopting design into their way of doing business, but Herman Miller is unique in that it has done this already for decades. You’ve learned that it’s about creating relationships—independent designers and Herman Miller educate each other. These design relationships are a real competitive advantage.