Reintroducing Ray Wilkes
The witty minimalist designed Herman Miller’s most memorable foray into postmodern furniture, reissued 45 years later
Written by: Kelsey Keith
You probably don’t know Ray Wilkes, the person, as much as you recognize #raywilkes, the hashtag. The latter is usually paired with a photo of Wilkes’s most enduring design, a modular seating system that looks uniformly cheerful with its distinctive, rounded silhouette. You may also spot a #raywilkes in the wild, as I did when I found an Instagram post by a vintage dealer in the Bay Area, who had scored a pair of hefty chrome chair bases off the designer himself a few years ago. The bases are unusual, and rare—they were only prototyped for Herman Miller, never in production—and I was intrigued.
Chances are, I’m not the only person curious to know more about Ray Wilkes, now that Herman Miller has reissued his iconic Modular Sofa Group—dubbed “Chiclet”—for a new generation.
As it so happens, Ray Wilkes the person is 85, living in Southern California, and possessed with a keen memory for detail. He recalls the address of George Nelson’s Manhattan office (50th Street at 5th Avenue) when Ray first arrived in the U.S. on a study grant from the Royal College of Arts. He remembers the precise Herman Miller catalog (Action Office I, 1964, with a green cover) to which he contributed drawings, in collaboration with fellow Nelson Office alum Tomoko Miho.
As Lance Wyman—another friend and colleague from the Nelson days—attests, Wilkes is “always sharp as a tack and very witty.”
Problem-solving design, from the sling to soft seating
After Wilkes obtained his degree in furniture design from London’s Royal College of Art—with first-class honors, as he is quick to point out—he arrived in New York with his eyes on one prize: Working in George Nelson’s studio. He joined the team of designers (the aforementioned Miho and Wyman, as well as Hilda Longinotti, Ron Beckman, Bill Cannan, Irving Harper, and others) and was conscripted into troubleshooting a new piece of furniture: the Sling Sofa.
“I was given the responsibility of making it work once they had the design. They were having problems with the upholstery where it attaches to the frame, so I did some research," Wilkes recalls. “There was an English company that made rubber sheeting, so I attached that instead of webbing under the cushions. George told me, ‘Thank you, kid’—because I helped him get the sofa into MoMA.”
After three years at George Nelson & Associates, Wilkes returned to Britain, then boomeranged back to the United States—first to Rhode Island, where he worked for a time with Probber, and then on to Michigan, when he was recruited to a full-time position with Herman Miller. The Miller years were fruitful both creatively and personally—Wilkes met his wife, Anitra Seitamo, a Finnish designer who worked on the company’s showrooms, while on the job.
Several of his prototypes for the company never made it into distribution. Wilkes describes a desking system made of wood—an “alternative to Action Office, which was very bland to me.” His ideas proved challenging to execute during the mid-1970s, given the focus on the new office landscape. “The marketing department was always zipped up with Action Office II, doing [task] seating with mesh, not upholstery. All the energy in the company was in that area."
Ray Wilkes on his Rollback Chair at Herman Miller's exhibition in the Chicago Merchandise Mart during NeoCon exhibition of 1977.