Red barns, tractors, grain silos, fields, an interstate highway with trucks zooming by hauling turkeys, soybeans and office furniture. That’s the view from the desk of Steve Frykholm, vice president and creative director at Herman Miller in Zeeland, Michigan. His workspace in a building called The Marketplace is not typical for a design office, either. It’s an organic-looking Herman Miller Resolve office system, with a friendly, curved desktop and accessories like literature racks and phone shelves that hang from poles that delineate the space and hide the electrical conduit. If Frykholm has time to sit down-in between consulting, designing, mentoring and presenting-he does so in an Aeron chair, revolutionary when introduced in 1994, and now shipped around the world at the rate of about two per minute from the GreenHouse, the newest of Herman Miller’s environmentally-progressive office and manufacturing facilities.
On the day of my visit, when the hardwood trees in this region ideally suited for furniture-making flaunted their most vivid hues of red, orange and yellow, Frykholm generously took a break from the projects he’d been working on to show me around. On his desk were not-so-neat piles of Real Voices DVDs, in which Herman Miller’s furniture designers-a worldwide network of top talent-talk about what it’s like to work for the company: “As if you're designing for somebody you love” and “Like playing for the Yankees.” Stacks of research for a new Web site, submitted by Los Angeles interactive firm Hello, were ready to review. Needing immediate attention were proofs of “Connections 2008,” a report by CEO Brian Walker, designed by Todd Richards of San Francisco, who also designed SEE, a Herman Miller magazine that visually explored topics like “purpose” and “balance.” Next to the proofs were printed samples of a wire-o-bound mini booklet, Bill Stumpf’s Design Checklist, which, like most Herman Miller publications, restates its commitment to design excellence, this time in the quirky words of the co-designer of the Aeron chair.
“I get to mix it up,” Frykholm says, grinning through his shaggy beard. “I get interesting projects. And there’s an abundance of interesting people to do them with: smart researchers and engineers, smart writers, smart designers, smart company leaders who inspire us to do great work.” Just as the company taps the world’s top industrial design talent to develop its products, Frykholm, a Cranbrook MFA and AIGA Fellow noted for his own contributions to the field, beginning with the iconic picnic posters that graced the CA Design Annual almost every year since the early ’70s-has chosen to collaborate with many of graphic design's most respected practitioners. “John Massey of Container Corporation was my mentor early on,” he says, “and his firm designed superb brochures, posters and ads for us. Tomoko Miho designed some of our most beautiful catalogs. Sara Giovanitti and I worked together on projects including the much-imitated 1985 annual report that demonstrates the equality and diversity of our employees with one-inch-high, full-length portraits. I’ve learned from all the designers I’ve worked with, from Tibor Kalman to David Lai, and now a whole new generation. This has been a great place to work-and live.
West Michigan is not a part of the country that publicizes itself. When Frykholm met his wife, interior architectural designer Nancy Phillips, at the office in 1971, she’d planned to stay at Herman Miller for a year or two. “I thought it would be good to have experience on the manufacturing side,” she says. The couple have lived in the area for 39 years. Besides the opportunities to do groundbreaking design, they liked this clean, thriving area with its moderate cost of living and year-round recreational opportunities. When they talk about their home, the words, “horses, barn, wildflowers, acreage, tractor” are heard most often. And they’ve been fortunate to work in inspirational Herman Miller buildings filled with classic furniture, verdant plants, folk art, books and samples of textiles and materials displayed like exhibits in a design museum.
In the company’s seven complexes dotted over 40 square miles of the nation's heartland, more than 5,000 visionaries are solving problems that future customers don’t even know they’ll be facing. Herman Miller got where it is-$2 billion in annual sales and winner of countless awards including Fortune magazine’s “Most Admired” company in its industry for the 20th year and one of Fast Company’s “Fast 50” most innovative companies in the world-because it was able to anticipate every major socio-economic change in the business cycle that put more risk-averse companies out of business.
For example, in the 1960s there weren’t enough rentable square feet to accommodate growing American businesses. Herman Miller was there with Bob Probst’s Action Office, a reconfigurable panel and component system that could be installed with an allen wrench and screwdriver without putting up walls. Action Office turned what was then a manufacturer of modern furniture pieces—Nelson marshmallow sofas, Eames chairs—into a global, public company that now has manufacturing facilities in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and sales offices, dealers and licensees in more than 40 countries. In the 1970s, an epidemic of back and shoulder pain caused a record number of lost work-days. Herman Miller commissioned Bill Stumpf, a University of Wisconsin researcher who’d been studying movement and postures of office workers, to identify design criteria for chairs. The result was the Ergon chair, the first ergonomic seating. It was followed in 1990s by the Aeron chair, co-designed by Stumpf and Don Chadwick, deemed “Design of the Decade” by BusinessWeek and the Industrial Designers Society of America. The personal computer brought with it a need for individualized spaces that offered privacy as well as encouraged people to connect. In 2001, Herman Miller introduced Ayse Birsel’s Resolve system, with its curved privacy screens. And when the dot-com bubble burst, Herman Miller home office products were available at retailers including Design Within Reach, Room and Board and now Costco, which is selling an Equa ergonomic chair for $300. Sustainable and green are the watchwords today, and Herman Miller entered the 21st century with Convia, a programmable electrical infrastructure that eliminates much of the hardwiring of traditional electrical systems. In a Convia environment, shades lower automatically to reduce glare when the sun is high, and the lights switch off and the heat turns down when the last person leaves for the day. Anticipating future demo-graphic trends, new paradigms for senior living and health-care facilities are in the works.
It might be more accurate to call Herman Miller a life coach for businesses than a contract furniture company. Customers can get assistance with workplace strategies and take workshops on employee productivity. Every year, representatives from more than 600 organizations that are building or leasing space come to West Michigan, are put up in the Marigold Lodge lakeside guesthouse, and get their heads turned around. After they tour the GreenHouse or the Design Yard executive office and R&D complex with emissaries like customer experience liaison Gerb Kingma, some visitors revise the entire program for their facilities. “Space is a message,” Kingma explains. “We take customers into spaces that are more residential, physically softer, have natural light. They experience great places to work, to go to school, to get a knee operation.” After spending a little time in a coffee bar furnished with Eames Soft Pad chairs-a 50-year-old design that still looks chic and functions perfectly-they, like me, are likely to grasp the wisdom of the Herman Miller approach: Build with inexpensive materials like cinderblock walls and concrete floors and use Herman Miller components to have a positive impact on how people work, move, take breaks and interact with each other. If customers follow the architectural and interior design paradigms demonstrated, they'll not only create environmentally responsible, flexible workspaces, they’ll be part of design history.
Herman Miller has been part of design history since the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, where the public first saw “modern” furniture. Founded in 1923 as one of several local manufacturers of European period reproductions, the company was near bankruptcy in the Great Depression-until New York industrial designer Gilbert Rohde showed company president D.J. De Pree (whose father-in-law, Herman Miller, financed the company) drawings of functional, Art Deco and Bauhaus-influenced furniture without carvings or moldings. “The two men began a collaboration that created what we think of today as Midcentury Modern,” writes John R. Berry in his 2004 book, Herman Miller: The Purpose of Design.
After Rohde died in 1944, De Pree looked for a new designer. He read a Life magazine article about New York architect George Nelson’s storage wall “for new lifestyles demanding new space utilization,” and recruited Nelson as director of design. Nelson is credited with designing the entire company. He produced scores of designs for sofas, benches, desks and cabinets while continuing to run his Manhattan office. And he insisted that all elements representing the company- letterhead, catalogs, showrooms-were as well designed as its products. The parabola-M logo designed in 1946 by Irving Harper of Nelson’s office is still used on every piece of communications today. “Nelson provided the logic of a corporate identity program before the term existed,” writes Berry. He also recommended taking advantage of “the full breadth of design talents,” and recruited Charles and Ray Eames, whose molded plywood chairs are still produced (and were named “Design of the Century” in 2000 by Time magazine). The Eames aesthetic continues to be a major influence. Nelson also brought in Isamu Noguchi, whose glass coffee table became a classic in 1947; and Alexander Girard, whose textile designs are considered as modern and fresh today as they were in the 1960s and 1970s.
All along, graphic design was the vehicle for telling the world about everything the company was doing. When Frykholm arrived, he was heir to the “brain trust” legacy of Nelson, Eames and Girard. “Everyone here learned from them,” he says. “They enabled me to do the caliber of work I like to do. They primed the pump of expectations for what good design could accomplish.” Frykholm has built his own legacy. Collaborating with inside and outside designers, he’s been responsible for a hugely influential body of work, which is tied together by much more than the logo, the red-orange signature color and now the Meta type family. It’s distinguished by a commitment to the value of design that’s expressed in an authoritative yet warm and friendly voice. Clark Malcolm, a writer and editor at Herman Miller since 1983, calls the overall look “casually coherent.” Malcolm explains: “The company's idea of design—that it solves a human problem—influences everything here, from products to human resources to operations. Our idea of design implies an understanding of the purpose of each piece, the way people encounter and use it and the nature of its message. This unifying idea results in wonder-fully diverse expressions joined by shared humanity, spirit and purpose. Many people have contributed to Herman Miller's communication, but Steve’s faithfulness to Herman Miller's idea of design and his own creative competence have been responsible for a remarkable body of work.” Sara Giovanitti, who was brought in to art direct print projects that called for her editorial background and eye, describes working with Malcolm and Frykholm as exercises in ideal collaboration. “They knew exactly whom to choose for each project, and it was like working with people you’d dreamed about but never believed really existed.”
Frykholm is clearly uncomfortable with superlatives and accolades, but when pressed, he admits, “I’d like to leave behind a body of work that is innovative, imaginative and an inspiration to the people who come after me.” Popular around the facilities, he’s given the kind of respect that makes “in-house designer” sound like a title to aspire to. “I've learned a tremendous amount about presenting,” he says. “Sketches and prototypes are useful to initiate conversations, but the most important lesson I’ve learned is that you, the graphic designer, are the expert. You’re the person internal clients look to, to guide and lead them. You have to be animated, enthusiastic and confident in explaining why you really like what you’re presenting.”
That approach has led to unconventional solutions. Few pieces are 8½ x 11; many are tiny, huge, long, skinny. Most invite you to spend time with them exploring the contents. Convia, for example, was introduced with a 96-page softcover book titled Always Building. Printed on Kraft paper and illustrated with a mix of line drawings, photography and charts, the book, designed by People Design in Grand Rapids, outlines the waste inherent in fixed walls, rigid materials and hard wiring. Feeling more like a literary journal than a product brochure, it asks and answers such questions as “Could buildings be reprogrammed rather than renovated, devalued, demolished?” The copy reads: “People who inhabit a space are its co-designers. As experiences are more varied and rich, people using the space will be more engaged on multiple dimensions.”
Multiple dimensions might be a good term to sum up everything about the company. It’s nowhere more apparent than in Seeing Herman Miller on Brand, a grommet-bound deck of examples of Herman Miller graphic design over the years. Each piece is captioned with a list of descriptive words, which include: “energetic, dynamic, memorable, passionate, inclusive, people-centered, playful, unexpected.” Not an easy set of characteristics to live up to, but this company and its designers have been doing it for more than 80 years, for the last 40 of them, with Steve Frykholm at the helm. “I have one of the best jobs in all graphic design,” he says. ca
<i>“In addition to the legacy of George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames and Alexander Girard, I’ve learned from and been energized by all the designers I’ve worked with over the years,” says Steve Frykholm. Outside graphic designers, consultants and firms who’ve contributed to Herman Miller’s vast body of work (only a fraction is shown in this article) include: Mark Anderson; Bob Appleton; Michael Barile of BBK Studio; Michael Bierut, Woody Pirtle and Paula Scher of Pentagram; Fairly Painless Advertising; Bill Cahan; Ralph Caplan; John Casado; Ivan Chermayeff; Seymour Chwast of Push Pin Studios; Michael Donovan and Nancye Green; Karin Fong and Grant Lau of Imaginary Forces; Craig Frazier; Sara Giovanitti; Grant Design Collaborative; Tibor Kalman of M&Co; Kevin Budelmann and Yang Kim of People Design; David Lai and Hiro Niwa of Hello Design; John Massey of Center for Advanced Research in Design; Bruce Mau; mono; Carol Naughton; Clement Mok; Michael McGinn; Mitchell Mauk; Nancy Rice; Todd Richards; Thesis; Rick Valicenti of Thirst; and Stone Yamashita Partners. Frykholm also appreciates all the designers, design assistants and interns who’ve worked in-house at HM, including designers: Michael Barile; Kevin Budelmann; Andrew Dull; Brian Edlefson; Amber Fritcher; Rob Hugel; Barbara Loveland; Philip Mitchel; Linda Powell; Kathy Stanton; Mark Sturzenegger; Yang Kim; and writer, editor, collaborator and friend Clark Malcom.</i>