The Forward Pull
After 33 years working in Research and Design at Herman Miller, Don Goeman knows design talent when he sees it. Here, he reflects on why, after two decades of working with Burkhard Schmitz, Claudia Plikat, and Carola and Roland Zwick of Berlin-based Studio 7.5, their collaboration still feels fresh.
Written by: Sam Grawe
Artwork by: Damien Florebert Cuypers
How did Herman Miller start working with Studio 7.5?
We first encountered Studio 7.5 in our international group. We were trying to expand our presence in Europe, and Germany, in particular. At the time the German market comprised a large part of our revenue in that region, so we had this notion of moving into some indigenous design. The R&D group opened a little shop in Munich. We had a gentleman working there, Herman Schaefer, who made the introduction.
Schaefer had run a design brief for some office settings out to a few design teams, and somehow 7.5 caught his eye. There was an immediate contrast in their work.
At that stage, what made them stand apart?
They were like kids compared to the other designers we briefed. They were less reverent towards the norms at the time. We still wore ties and jackets. The 7.5 team was more hip, more cool. There was a generational difference. They exuded this casual attitude, which is still important to their work today. They seemed to have the behavior and attitude down. They were sort of carefree and disruptive in their proposal. The other two studios proposed things that were a step-change from the norm; 7.5 turned things inside out.
At the time, their proposal was a little too disruptive for us. We were trying to land in Germany with something mainstream that would round out our product portfolio and that would be authentically German. So Studio 7.5 didn’t pass muster in that first situation, but we saw the potential in them.
What were your impressions when you first met them?
There was a quirkiness to 7.5—but it was all real. They named their firm after the largest size cargo van that you can drive without a special chauffeur’s license. They had this cabinet that looked like a giant suitcase that opened up into a little workstation. Franz Bigel, who was one of the partners at the time, commuted to Berlin on the train and was inventing a bicycle that he could [fold and] carry on. They just exuded this problem-solving focus from the start.
And so this kind of attitude, or something in the relationship, appealed to you despite the fact that you were looking for a more mainstream kind of solution at the time?
As often happens, it takes a few years before you get into a groove of steady work with a designer, but I had an immediate bond with these guys. One other aspect that stuck out to me early on was that Burkhard [Schmitz] loved to watch American TV. He was an early fan of "Letterman" and "Seinfeld." In those early days, he had an up-to-the-moment awareness of cultural phenomena in North America—in politics, too. Studio 7.5 are really good designers for Herman Miller because they have a global perspective; they can see things that we don’t even sense ourselves. When we were getting serious with them about seating, I arranged a meeting with Burkhard and Bill Stumpf in Minneapolis. Bill Stumpf’s observation was that he thought Burkhard could have been from Dayton, Ohio.
Despite being outwardly casual, it seems they were totally rigorous in their approach.
The interesting aspect of their approach to design is they are constantly doing things with their hands and with the materials. They do a little bit of sketching of their thoughts early on, but just enough to leapfrog into building a model. It’s not a form model. When they grapple with problems, they’re immediately iterating their ideas in foam core, CNC, cast metal, and so forth. That’s how they work.
Even from the beginning, there were shared values between Herman Miller and Studio 7.5. How has that relationship evolved?
There have been a number of times when I think they’ve tried to pull us to a purer place, but I think the place they come from is so pure to begin with, I have a hard time charting how it has changed.
We had an incident during the development of Mirra 2 where the engineers felt we were too far over the edge and wanted to pull the performance back a bit to over-comply with the standards. When the engineers repositioned the kinematic of the tilt and sent the chair over to Berlin, 7.5 was furious. I got a call from Burkhard, and he was so upset he could hardly speak English. We had gone so far as to encroach on the aspirational performance that they were fighting for. It wasn’t a question of cost or the aesthetic details. Some of what they were upset about we couldn’t even feel in the chair, but they could. They hold us to a higher standard.
“They have a global perspective; they can see things that we don’t even sense ourselves.”
That really speaks to their ethos of “every molecule counts.” They undoubtedly feel the molecules more closely than our engineers.
That’s a common thread about other Herman Miller designers, too. When we get designers that are too compliant, we consider it a weak spot—it sets off a warning bell. We wonder if this individual has enough conviction around their idea to actually lead us to a better place. It’s kind of a funny relationship that we have with designers. At one level, we want them to provoke us. When they over-provoke us, we get upset like we can’t do what they’re asking for, and we wonder why they don’t understand the limits of reality. And if they don’t provoke us far enough, what’s the point—where’s their backbone?
When 7.5 works with our engineers, they want to do a lot of the preliminary engineering work themselves. They come with their own pre-established proof statements because they sense they may encounter negative feedback. You wouldn’t believe some of the contraptions they’ve made in their own studio. We have an industry chair base requirement for 2,500 pounds. A few years ago we were trying to get a beautifully designed wood base to pass the test, but being made of natural, fibrous materials, we couldn’t get it to pass. Meanwhile 7.5 built this elaborate test fixture where they were pouring water into a big vat to get it to the right weight. Then they were channeling it to the right spot on the chair base. It was bizarre, but they were going to do the testing themselves because they didn’t trust even how we did the test. If anybody dares say no to what they’re trying to do, they’ll work twice as hard to prove their point before they come to us. It’s amazing.
Now that Mirra 2 is complete and out in the world, how do you see Herman Miller’s relationship with Studio 7.5 evolving?
I think of 7.5 as the best seating designers in the world. In an earlier time, I would have said that of [the late] Bill Stumpf. It was interesting to see the interplay with Stumpf when he was still alive. There was a common bond about the mystery of seating and discussion about where you can take it.
Studio 7.5 has some aspirations of higher levels of ergonomic performance with amazing adaptations of material that enable the performance in a natural—almost biomimetic—way. They are passionate about the problem. They’re in a groove, where those four individuals are perfecting their craft and striving for some outstanding performance. You’ll also see that in some other products—they are not just capable at seating, they can solve problems in different realms.
I think the real magic of 7.5’s future is how they will blend material innovation with their own ideas and problem-solving design. They don’t just make a chair overnight in response to a brief. In fact, we don’t give them a brief. They are ahead of us, pulling us.
“I think of 7.5 as the best seating designers in the world. In an earlier time, I would have said that of [the late] Bill Stumpf.”