This interview with Gabe Wing, who is a key member of our sustainable design team, marks the beginning of a green week here on Lifework. The company recently released our Better World Report at Greenbuild and it inspired me to look more closely at all things green here at Herman Miller. What do we mean by green? I think founder D.J. De Pree put it beautifully back in 1953 when he said “We will be a good steward of the environment.”
Studio 7.5′s Mirra Chair was the first piece to find itself under the bright lights of Wing and Charon’s new guidelines. Was that a smooth process? Bill Birchard in his book Merchants of Virtue tracks the development of the chair as it faced resistance from within the company by people under pressure to meet deadlines and budgets. Mirra’s initial design garnered a DfE score of 63 percent. After serious work and much heated debate it hit 80 percent on completion with 96 percent of the pieces that make up the chair being recyclable.
And while you’re waiting we’ll send you a copy of Birchard’s Merchant of Virtue so you can read some more (this is for store orders only). Birchard has written a really compelling book – and I know it’s about our company but I just finished the book and it certainly doesn’t sugar coat how hard it is to honor De Pree’s commitment to being good environmental stewards. It’s a frank look at what it takes to run a successful company that takes its environmental responsibility seriously.
We went to Wing to find out more about Mirra and the role it played in our ongoing commitment to sustainability.
1. The Mirra was the first design to be impacted by the environmental standards you were setting up back in 2003. What obstacles did you face getting the design to meet the new standards? The big obstacles were in obtaining detailed chemical formulations on all of the materials used in the chair down to 0.01%. This is like going to Coca-cola and asking for their secret recipe. It is easier now since our suppliers understand our design for the environment process but it was difficult in the beginning. Also we needed to develop alternatives to materials that we had used for decades like PVC used in arm pads.
2. Tell us about collaborating with Studio 7.5 who designed the chair. How did that process work? Working with Studio 7.5 was great. Very early on in the project, we shared our sustainable design protocol with them. We explained our focus on safe chemistry, designing for disassembly, recyclability and recycled content. They were already thinking in these terms. Working with our engineering team, they helped create what was called by Bill McDonough, “the most compete and thorough example of Cradle to Cradle design.” (Need to lookup actual quote. )
3. How did the work of Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart ( of MBDC) support and feed the work you were doing? C2C is one of the key tools we use as part of our sustainable design process. Working together with Bill and Michael, we embedded the principles of C2C into the development process that launched Mirra. We were struggling to find a replacement for PVC in the arm pads. The project team was dealing with a shrinking schedule and wanted to launch with PVC and fix it later. A visit from Bill inspired the team to find a solution which led to a material breakthrough and allowed the chair to launch on time.
4. You were brought on at Herman Miller to develop and launch Design for the Environment protocol. What was your background? I have a BS and an MS in chemical engineering. I spent the first 8 years of my career working in various roles in the plastics industry. I have been with HMI for 10 years, as part of our sustainable design team. My background in polymer science has been very helpful as we work with our suppliers to develop more sustainable materials.
5. Which chair do you sit in at work? I sit in an C-size Aeron chair at home and at work. I am fairly tall and find that I am just outside 95% size that Mirra was designed for.