Sunshine Modernists: Herman Miller, Los Angeles, and Rapha

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To be realistic one must always admit the influence of those who have gone before.

—Charles Eames

A common interest

Patterns and threads weave through life in a city like Los Angeles. Some are unseen, the connections we form as we go about our lives, while some are laid out in clear, geometric display. Rapha’s collaboration with Herman Miller serves as the latter.

The genesis of the relationship lies in the textile designs of Alexander Girard, who worked with Herman Miller from 1952 to 1975. His patterns are studied yet whimsical, disciplined and geometric, but maintain a playful edge. “Art is only art if it is synonymous with living,” the designer said. It was over the Girard textiles that Rapha and Herman Miller became partners and eventually produced the custom Herman Miller/Eames pieces that now furnish the Rapha Los Angeles Clubhouse.

The Rapha design team traveled to visit a Girard display and opened a dialogue with Herman Miller, a titan among mid-century design firms. Ben Watson, Herman Miller’s chief creative officer, is a cyclist and the firm has supported clubs and rides for years. Ultimately, the two brands partnered on Design Rides, which highlight uncommon architecture in cities from Seattle to New York to Los Angeles.

A design house and a cycle clothing brand may not immediately appear likely suitors, but when you consider the approach to construction — of a jersey, of a chair, of a building — the parallels become apparent.

“It’s the integrity of how you make things. It’s evident in the product itself but also in how you represent that thing to the customer,” said Tim Wykeham, a design manager at Herman Miller who contributed to the design of the Los Angeles space. “It became very clear that what we wanted to represent is the notion that there is someone making these designs. They’re labors of love. It’s a cliché, it’s corny, but that resonates. There’s a real purpose. There’s a real design intent.”

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Herman Miller, for Rapha Los Angeles

Los Angeles shines as a beacon of mid-century design, so the LA Clubhouse’s leaning on post-war trappings and specifically the Eameses — their fabled Case Study House no. 8 is nearby — is both a relevant and aesthetic choice. For the Clubhouse, Herman Miller tapped its Eames archives and added several Rapha-specific touches.

“We worked together to take existing, archival Eames designs, tweaked and modified to make a great fit for Rapha and for the store,” Watson said. “We specially selected colors and materials — the greys and the pinks of the fiberglass chairs or the wire chair barstools, for example. We used special versions of the Eames storage units for display elements. We even used some archival, re-issued Girard textiles for the molded plywood chairs and the Eames sofa.”

It amounts to an honest nod to post-war design, the California aesthetic, and the cyclist. Materials have been selected to withstand the bustle of the café and then grit from cyclists just in from a group ride, all while holding lines congruous with Herman Miller.

“We love a design that veils complexity with simplicity and utility. The Eameses quintessentially capture the California design principals: products that age well, are minimal and are (or ‘were’ in their case) a catalyst for a new way of thinking,” said Rapha head of design, Alex Valdman. “They captured the world’s imagination by building a home out of surplus military objects. This informed their furniture design and even the California car culture. This was an opportunity to represent the heroes of California to all of our international club members visiting. What better way to do this than by partnering with the Eames estate?”

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Sunshine Modernists

There was, and still is, an enthusiasm for mid-century aesthetic in Southern California that is unlike anywhere else in the world. It represents the stretching of the American imagination and the warmth of potential. Los Angeles serves as a polestar in the country’s design landscape due to its sheer variety of style and concentration of notable structures.

“LA has every kind of architecture language imaginable. On the same street, you have a Frank Lloyd Wright, a Spanish villa, a Victorian, a mid-century modern and a Sears Craftsman home,” Valdman said. “It’s special because it’s truly a land of no design rules, local production, and creative minds. Progress and creativity thrive in LA for those reasons. And it tends to produce things that age well.”

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But there’s something else. Something in the California sunshine that’s resulted in a different light upon the modular, airy designs pushed forward by a generation of designers embracing the openness of the post-war moment: architectural optimism.

“Eventually everything connects—people, ideas, objects … the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se … I don’t believe in this ‘gifted few’ concept, just in people doing things they are really interested in doing,” Charles Eames said. “They have a way of getting good at whatever it is.”

Charles and Ray Eames did their most meaningful work in California, their collective legacy present in showrooms, in the curves of plywood, in the spaces between people and built objects. Charles spoke of anticipating the needs of guests as if he were a host. More than 50 years on, their designs are still meeting the requirements of guests they never knew.

“The mid-century moment was American modernism, which is different when filtered through the California sunshine. That post-war design was really infused with an optimism about an ability to make a new world,” Herman Miller’s Ben Watson said. “And I think you still feel that in the work today. We use that idea of optimism that comes through in the work of Eames and their contemporaries as a north star for what we aspire to do every day.”

As Charles Eames said, everything connects. Sometimes those connections are apparent, And sometimes, we only find them later.

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Rapha Los Angeles opened its doors in downtown Santa Monica in late August. The space is finished with Herman Miller furniture, most of which is for sale in the Clubhouse.