The History and Ergonomics of Herman Miller

The History and Ergonomics of Herman Miller

For over a century, the modern and innovative designs of Herman Miller’s furniture company continue to lead the world by storm. Since the company’s inception in 1905, Herman Miller has continued to elevate the standard of modern furniture—just as the namesake Herman Miller did over a hundred years ago—as the company’s quality, durability, and style have been unmatched. With numerous staple pieces and a commitment to evolvement, Herman Miller continues to lead the world of modern home and office furniture. Follow along with Joshua Kodner Galleries.

A Story of Family and Place

The area of Western Michigan may be small, but its legacy is colossal. Since the nineteenth century, Grand Rapids created a name for itself as a manufacturing conglomerate in furniture. It was in the greater Grand Rapids area in Zeeland where a young man named Dirk Jan “D.J.” De Pree joined the Michigan Star Furniture Company in 1909 as a clerk. The company was small and young — it was founded only four years earlier in 1905 — and De Pree was eager to make something of himself.

His continued dedication to bettering himself, as well as his persistent eagerness to learn, allowed him to grow in ranks at Michigan Star. By 1919, De Pree was the president of Michigan Star but still aspired to grow further. He convinced his father-in-law Herman Miller, a prominent businessman, to convince a small group of investors to buy Michigan Star; by 1923, the company was theirs. To show his appreciation to his father-in-law and his integrity, De Pree decided to rename the company in his honor—and the Herman Miller Furniture Company was born.

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Dedication to Innovation

The early years of Herman Miller Co. were tough as the company sought to find its footing and distinguishing characteristics. With the onset of the Great Depression in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Herman Miller was at risk of going extinct. Unperturbed, De Pree sought answers to revive his business, which eventually came to him in unlikely ways. In 1927, a longtime employee of De Pree’s suddenly passed away. At his funeral, the man’s widow read her late husband’s poetry, which moved De Pree considerably—the experience taught him to be more receptive of talents and to be more considerate.

This new frame of thinking proved instrumental during a chance meeting between De Pree and New York designer Gilbert Rohde in 1930. Inspired by the modern European design movement, Rohde spent years designing furniture that emphasized simplicity and functionality, and high quality. De Pree was convinced by Rohde’s confidence and pitch and agreed to sell his designs. By 1942, Rohde was designing home and office furniture that soared into popularity. Rohde’s modern furniture set was a hit—although he died unexpectedly in 1944, his commitment to the modern furniture movement was all the gas Herman Miller needed to thrive.

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A Defining Legacy

After Rohde’s death, De Pree continued to honor Rohde’s vision of modern furniture design by hiring influential architect George Nelson. For the next forty years, Nelson impacted the world of modern furniture design through his ideas and collaborations with other designers, such as Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard, and Robert Propst. These collaborations brought many ideas and designs to the mainstream, such as furniture catalogs, molded plastic chairs, the modular wall storage system, and even stackable chairs.

Herman Miller (through Robert Propst) is also responsible for the design of the office cubicle, whose gamble on contact furniture ended up becoming one of the most replicated and popular types of office. The company’s designs have been exhibited at numerous museums around the world, such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Henry Ford Museum, the Smithsonian, and the London Design Museum.

While the design and futuristic qualities of Herman Miller have been celebrated, the company’s emphasis on ergonomics remains an important aspect of company. As De Pree moved his focus on individuality and empathy, his company followed suit by using the same ideals towards their furniture. Not only were their designs creative, but they were built to promote and help humans. Practicality, as well as comfort, led the way of design. This was influential for industrial design and furniture production at the time and has now become one of the leading perspectives when it comes to building furniture.

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Owning a Piece of Herman Miller

Herman Miller is a contemporary leader of modern furniture for a reason—with its emphasis on practicality, almost every piece of Herman Miller furniture is built to last. This longevity design has allowed for vintage Herman Miller pieces to be highly sought after, as they continue to hold up and look great. If you’re considering purchasing a piece of Herman Miller’s history—such as the Aeron chair or the famous marshmallow sofa—it’s best to contact a reputable and trusted auction house, such as Joshua Kodner. For years, Joshua Kodner has utilized four generations of familial experience and a specialized team to buy and sell furniture, art, jewelry, and real estate. With an accomplished team and expertise, you can be assured of the quality, authenticity, and value of all of our items. To browse our collections, or for any questions, please contact us today. For the latest news, check out the blog.

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