Building a Collection

Nearly a half-century after its first publication, George Nelson’s 1948 catalog introduction still speaks volumes about where we’ve been as a company and serves as a guiding light for where we’re going.

Written by: Amber Bravo

WHY Magazine - Building a Collection

1948 Herman Miller Collection catalog cover

In a characteristically wry 1944 correspondence with Herman Miller founder, DJ De Pree, George Nelson wrote that “your reservations on my suitability as a designer for Herman Miller Co., impressed me very much for they seem to be well founded… the question of lack of experience in the commercial furniture field is also important, but here, I am afraid, you and your associates will have to make the decision on your own.” Fast forward four years later, and Nelson once again found himself reflecting on the integrity of the Herman Miller Co., but this time, not as a potential hire but rather as Herman Miller’s founding creative director. In the 1948 introduction to the catalog for his first ever collection for the company, he writes, “From the viewpoint of the designer, which is the only viewpoint I can assume with any degree of propriety, the Herman Miller Furniture Company is a rather remarkable institution.”

Whatever leap of faith was required of De Pree to hire Nelson, the affinity and mutual respect shared between the two was undeniably fruitful. Nelson credits Herman Miller’s singularity as a result of a “philosophy” or “attitude” compounded of a set of principles—that what you make is important; that design is integral to business; that products must be honest; that only we can decide what we make, and that there is a market for good design—that allow for a degree of autonomy and innovation unavailable to companies driven by the shallow demands of the market or sales. “There is no attempt to conform to the so-called norms of ‘public taste,’ nor any special faith in the methods used to evaluate the ‘buying public.’ The reason many people are struck by the freshness of Herman Miller designs is that the company is not playing follow-the-leader.”

WHY Magazine - Building a Collection

George Nelson at a sales conference in 1952

Of course, only a company that does not play follow-the-leader would be suitable for a designer like Nelson, whose objectives in designing furniture were as lofty as they were pragmatic (his goal for those first pieces for Herman Miller was to create “a permanent collection designed to meet fully the requirements for modern living”). Nelson’s belief that a collection should elevate each product beyond its individual merit to serve the greater “program,” to borrow an architectural term, is still appreciable today, particularly when “the program is strengthened by the participation of a group of designers who share Herman Miller’s particular attitudes.” Each piece in the Herman Miller Collection was required to reflect this affinity and fidelity—it must present a solution that is as purposeful as it is beautiful.

Revisiting Nelson’s introduction to the 1948 catalog, one begins to understand that by anchoring a design portfolio in an ethos as opposed to aesthetics, you not only insulate yourself from the capriciousness of market trends, but also from the threat of obsolescence. If you start with a problem and create an elegant solution to that problem, there is a strong chance your design will endure. Herman Miller may be a much larger company than it was when Nelson and DJ De Pree set about launching the 1948 collection, but the foundation upon which it was built is as boundless as it is timeless.

WHY Magazine - Building a Collection

George Nelson, DJ De Pree, Jim Eppinger, Hugh De Pree, Alfred Auerbach, and an unknown gentleman

1948 Herman Miller Collection Introduction
by George Nelson

From the viewpoint of the designer, which is the only viewpoint I can assume with any degree of propriety, the Herman Miller Furniture Company is a rather remarkable institution. Seen solely as a business enterprise, it is probably indistinguishable from thousands of others scattered through the U.S. It is a small company, it is located in a small town, its production facilities are adequate but not unusual, and it is run by the people who own it. What is remarkable about this enterprise is its philosophy—an attitude so deeply felt that to the best of my knowledge it has never been formulated.

Stated in its bare essentials, this philosophy—like others that have been solidly based—is so simple that it sounds almost naïve.  But it is not widely held by business, and perhaps it would be naïve if it were not so astonishingly effective. This company today occupies a very solid position as a manufacturer of modern furniture and enjoys a prestige all out of proportion to its size. The attitude that governs Herman Miller’s behavior, as far as I can make out, is compounded of the following set of principles:  

What you make is important. Herman Miller, like all other companies, is governed by the rules of the American economy, but I have yet to see quality of construction or finish skimped to meet a popular price bracket, or for any other reason. Also, while the company has materially expanded its production, the limits of this expansion will be set by the size of the market that will accept Herman Miller’s kind of furniture—the product will not be changed to expand the business.  

Design is an integral part of the business. In this company’s scheme of things, the designer’s decisions are as important as those of the sales or production departments. If the design is changed, it is with the designer’s participation and approval. There is no pressure on him to modify design to meet the market. 

The product must be honest. Herman Miller discontinued production of period reproductions almost twelve years ago because its designer, Gilbert Rohde, had convinced the management that imitation of traditional designs was insincere aesthetically. (I couldn’t believe this story when I first heard it, but after my experience of the past few years, I know it is true.)

WHY Magazine - Building a Collection

George Nelson talking with Ray & Charles Eames and Alexander Girard

You decide what you will make. Herman Miller has never done any consumer research or any pre-testing of its products to determine what the market “will accept.”  If designer and management like a solution to a particular furniture problem, it is put into production. There is no attempt to conform to the so-called norms of “public taste,” nor any special faith in the methods used to evaluate the “buying public.” The reason many people are struck by the freshness of Herman Miller designs is that the company is not playing follow-the-leader. Its designers are therefore not hamstrung by management’s fear of getting out of step. All that is asked of the designer is a valid solution.

There is a market for good design. This assumption has been more than confirmed, but it took a great deal of courage to make it and stick to it. The fact is that in furniture as in many other fields, there is a substantial segment of the public that is well in advance of the manufacturers. But few producers dare to believe it. 

In this outline of an attitude, you will no doubt recognize several familiar patterns: there is a hint of the craftsman as opposed to the industrialist; there is a suggestion of the “better mousetrap” theory in another form, and the rugged individual with convictions is in evidence throughout. But if the philosophy sounds somewhat archaic, it is interesting to see its manifestations in terms of the furniture shown in this book. It is unlikely that any person would be equally enthusiastic—or unenthusiastic— about every piece shown, but I think it would be difficult not to conclude that the company had a real interest in exploiting some of the possibilities open to furniture today in the areas of design, materials and techniques. The furniture shown here is the result of a program as well as a philosophy. The program includes an assumption that plywood and lumber are only two of a whole range of materials suitable for furniture. A considerable amount of experimental design work is being done on new pieces that explore the possibilities of others. It also assumes that the program is strengthened by the participation of a group of designers who share Herman Miller’s particular attitudes. I belive that the range of the collection—from Noguchi’s sculptured table to Hvidt and Neilsen’s impeccably crafted pieces to Eames’ magnificent designs in molded wood, metal, and plastic—could never be encompassed by a single designer, for the various underlying approaches, while related, are too intensely personal. A final word on the Herman Miller program:  its goal is a permanent collection designed to meet fully the requirements for modern living. The collection is to be permanent in the sense that it will not be scrapped for each market, or for each new “trend” as announced by the style experts. It is designed to grow, not necessarily in size, but in the perfection of its component parts. No piece will be kept if a better design can be developed to take its place, nor will a given way of making things be followed simply because that’s the way they were always made. Also, ways of living are continually changing.  Again, I think, the material in this book suggests the attitude more clearly than any statement.

WHY Magazine - Building a Collection

George Nelson and Charles Eames working on the on Moscow Exhibit

There is one other point that may be of interest to those concerned with problems of design: by far the largest part of the collection was designed by people trained in architecture. It may be no more than a coincidence, and I must certainly confess a prejudice in this regard, but there is this to be said for the architectural approach to any design problem, and particularly that of furniture: the problem is never seen in isolation. The design process is always related on the one hand to the houses or other structures in which the furniture is to be used, and on the other to the people who will use it. When successfully followed through, the approach of the architect-in-industry goes much deeper than styling and is far more likely to create trends than to follow them. To reinforce this point it is not necessary to use only the Herman Miller program as an example. The work of Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer, Eero Saarinen and many others could be cited.

A word about this book. It is primarily an illustrated record of furniture currently in production, and as such it has been planned for convenient use by those whose business it is to purchase or specify furniture. It is also intended as a guide for professionals such as architects and interior designers. In addition to photographic illustrations, the book presents full dimensional data, so that the relationship of rooms and furniture can be accurately studied. Design students, it is hoped, will find the book equally valuable as a reference.         

All material for the book was assembled and prepared by various members of the Herman Miller Furniture Company. In planning the layout and typography of the book, I found that the restraint exercised in the choice and amount of written material most unusual in a manufacturer given an opportunity to talk about his product. Here as elsewhere the Herman Miller philosophy is manifest: let the furniture speak for itself.