Founded in the small town of Zeeland, Michigan, in 1923 by D. J. De Pree and named after his father-in-law, who stumped up the cash to buy the former Michigan Star Furniture Company, Herman Miller made its name with the Mid Century furniture that has once more become a staple of stylish homes and workplaces internationally.
But a few years ago the company – by then a publicly listed rather than family concern – was flagging creatively. The vast majority of its income came from workplace fit-outs that, in the aftermath of the tech revolution, had come to epitomise old-school, hierarchical offices, not the ideas-sharing spaces demanded of the knowledge economy.
A team of advisers was appointed to advise the board, who in turn advised that the brand needed to appoint a creative director to refocus its vision. They approached Ben Watson. Born in small-town Michigan, Watson had vowed never to be dragged back after he “ran away” to a stellar career that led him to become the creative director for Nike apparel and took him to Basel for a decade to help shape Vitra (the classic furniture giant that has the licence to manufacture Herman Miller in Europe and the Middle East).
But, for Watson, the Herman Miller challenge was ultimately too tempting and in 2010, after two years of wooing, he accepted. After all, he had written his Harvard thesis on Charles and Ray Eames’ curvaceous La Chaise, a piece from two of Herman Miller’s most celebrated designers.
“I can’t imagine any work that’s a greater privilege or brings me more pleasure,” he concedes. “And something you find pleasurable you are usually good at.” He now divides his time between Michigan and New York, and spoke to Rapha during a trip to Switzerland for an exhibition on the Mid Century designer Alexander Girard.
Watson’s first move at Herman Miller was to establish 10 principles that would guide the company in future decisions about how it chooses designs and designers to work with. One of the most important of these tenets is that their output would be “human-centred” rather than following superficial fashion trends in furnishings. For Watson, this is about not just the ergonomics of matching posteriors to comfortable chairs but less tangible needs as well: “It can also be an emotional desire for beauty in one’s life.” A second, related principle is that “our designs should be useful and beautiful”, not one or the other. This echoes the sage advice of William Morris, the socialist leader of the late-19th century Arts and Crafts movement: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
Watson was also keen to shift the image of a company that for decades had been almost exclusively associated with office fit-outs, moving away from its “historical home” – the Modernist designs that revolutionised how we think about furniture. With this in mind the Herman Miller Collection was set up to showcase pieces from the archives – not just the Eames icons (and here that overused word is deserved) but also unknown gems that had not been seen for decades or may only have reached the prototype stage. One designer whose work is being reissued is Ward Bennett, who designed more than 150 chairs, including the 1966 Sled Chair that reinterprets the folding chair of Greek antiquity.
“It’s not just a nostalgia exercise,” says Watson of the reinvigoration programme, “but is also about finding new work from contemporary designers.”
Recent collaborations have produced the elegant, branching Carafe Table by the Sydney designer Charles Wilson – a talent to watch – and work from the London-based Michael Anastassiades, best known for his luxurious lighting.
And now Herman Miller has collaborated with Rapha. Watson and Alex Valdman, Rapha’s head of design, visited the Eames retrospective held last autumn at London’s Barbican arts centre; the result is a series of Rapha cycling caps based on vintage Herman Miller prints and developed for the 2016 Tour of California.
The project is a natural fit for Herman Miller, who have long supported a local bike club in Michigan, supplying them with Rapha kit for charitable races among other things.
On the wider front, will Watson be proved right; will designs created with new collaborators prove as enduring as Herman Miller’s icons?
“One never knows until 25 years from now,” he says. “But if you are solving a problem really well and stripping away what you don’t need, the ‘trend’ part falls away.”
A longer version of this article appears in issue 003 of Mondial, coming soon.