At Herman Miller’s Design Yard, A Way of Living Is Also A Way of Working

Four offices in nine years. My grand tour of my workplace has taken me to two floors, providing various views from different directions.

Now I sit at the end of a hall. After having been deluged with conversation on the highly traveled path to copiers, printers, kitchen and elevator, my quiet, peaceful refuge is perfect. My mind stays on my work, and when I would benefit from a distraction, I go to where the action is, rather than it coming to me.

“Beware!,” said Robert Propst, the former director of research for Herman Miller, the award-winning Michigan furniture company. Since not much traffic goes by my door, I’m ripe for becoming “an automatic involvement loser,” Propst wrote in his 1968 book, A Facility Based on Change.

And then there’s the matter of where I should sit in my office. Do I sit facing the door, where, as Propst says, I’m trapped in a game of continuous salutations, recognizing my coworkers every time they go by, distracted and irritated by exposure overload? Or do I sit with my back to the door, which allows for more concentration, but less comfort?

This conundrum led Propst in 1968 to develop Action Office, a modular design solution featuring interchangeable paneled enclosures, with options to provide office workers with both privacy and access to interacting with others. It revolutionized office design, making the open-plan system the industry standard.

Then comes the matter of being one of a nation of sedentary office-dwellers. Since we spend one-third of our lives at work, our office should be an efficient place to accomplish a variety of tasks, providing an attractive, physically comfortable and motivating environment that leads to organizational success.

Propst had an answer for that too. Researching orthopedic and cardiovascular medicine, biomechanics, physical therapy and ergonomic support for healthy movement, he determined that portable, adaptive office furniture would relieve the difficulties of sedentary office work. His colleagues in the design department found inspiration in unlikely places, from the engineering of the Golden Gate Bridge to the construction of a tennis racquet. Herman Miller’s classic Michigan-made office chairs, together with its newer pieces like the Renew Sit-to-Stand Desk and Formwork, a modular stackable desktop storage system, offer innovative solutions that enhance our productivity, comfort, health, safety and enjoyment while at work.

A fan of Herman Miller and its attractive, functional, human-centered and problem-solving designs for modern living, I jumped at the chance to tour the Design Yard, Herman Miller’s Holland, Michigan complex that has housed its design, development, manufacturing engineering and testing facilities since the 1990s.

Herman Miller employees call the Design Yard the “Farm.” Prefabricated metal barn-like structures, silos and stone buildings are situated in a rural environment, grouped together like a farm’s outbuildings. The barns house design studios, and the silos are conference rooms, with entryways like front porches. This provides employees with enough separation to work without distractions, yet with enough proximity to each other to foster idea-sparking creativity.

My tour started with a refresher on Herman Miller’s history. The company began in 1905, when The Star Furniture Company of Zeeland, Michigan began producing traditional historic reproduction furniture from the wood so abundant in West Michigan. When its president, a former company clerk named Dirk Jan De Pree, and his father-in-law, Herman Miller, purchased a majority of the company’s stock in 1923, its name was changed to Herman Miller.

During the Great Depression, acclaimed furniture designer Gilbert Rohde introduced De Pree to his simple, functional and innovative modern style. De Pree was so taken with De Pree’s designs that he made a radical change in the company’s direction. Within a decade, Herman Miller had entered the modern furniture market, recruiting talented modern designers George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard, and Charles and Ray Eames to produce well-designed sectional sofas and tables with tubular metal legs and Bakelite tops, as well as space-saving office furniture that combined to make hundreds of different groupings.

Since then, Herman Miller has manufactured and sold famous furniture like the Eameses’ molded plywood chair; the cozy baseball-mitt feel of the lounge and ottoman they created in 1956 as a birthday present for their friend, film director Billy Wilder; the padded leather swivel Executive Chair and walnut stool/table Henry Luce commissioned them to design for the lobby of the Time-Life Building at Rockefeller Center in New York City; and the familiar Naugahyde-and-aluminum tandem seating in airport terminals. Noguchi’s classic coffee table, together with Nelson’s Marshmallow Sofa and Platform Bench, a versatile piece that functions equally well as a table or seat, are other examples of Herman Miller’s milestone furniture designs.

Furnished with examples of Herman Miller’s iconic pieces, The Design Yard is a workplace designed to feel like a daytime living room. It invites casual interaction among its employees, who are encouraged to offer suggestions for the company’s improvement – even suggesting their favorite books to place on bookshelves in common areas.

The Plaza and its coffee bar are the heart of the Design Yard. As more employees congregated there, researchers were planted there to observe whether the conversations taking place were social or work-related. They found that 80 percent of conversations flipped to business; to encourage that collaboration, harder stools were placed around the coffee bar and more comfortable seating was added around the perimeter of the space.A library just off the Plaza accommodates the need for privacy and focus, while simultaneously showcasing wallpaper and posters created by Herman Miller designers.Semi-enclosed “Haven” settings offer people places for private telephone calls or to concentrate on their work without distractions. Bar-height counters in high-traffic pathways provide a place for employees to work between appointments, while long, bar-height benches next to group workspaces allow for quick meetings and brainstorming sessions to take place. “Jump spaces” with height-adjustable surfaces allow employees to work in a variety of standing or seated positions in their individual workspace.

Inventive thinking is encouraged in residential-style meeting spaces. Working in them is just like being in a living room at home.

Company executives also benefit from this neighborhood-style workplace, where close proximity benefits collaboration and decision-making. Individual workstations and group areas are furnished with casual, comfortable residential-style furniture that can be easily reconfigured.

Archival Herman Miller ephemera is used throughout the Design Yard. These include the bold, colorful designs for Environmental Enrichment Panels, decorative silkscreens Alexander Girard designed in the 1970s for Action Office environments.Posters promoting Herman Miller’s annual employee picnic have such an iconic design that they are in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.My tour also included a visit to Herman Miller’s corporate archives.The archives maintains a collection of business records, advertisements, posters, photography, design drawings, as well as vintage furniture and textiles. They are used for research, product design, education about business decisions, onboarding, marketing and storytelling about the company’s history.

The company’s catalogs are some of the most important items in the archives. Considered collector’s items, they were the first in the industry to feature a horizontal layout, with professional photographs and a design statement to accompany product dimensions and information about each piece. Their importance is attributed to George Nelson, who introduced the concept of a corporate identity program featuring an instantly recognizable logo. Herman Miller’s stylized bold-red “M” logo was introduced in 1946 and remains in use today.Herman Miller owns, cares for and curates a house designed by architect Charles Eames for company executive Max De Pree in 1954. The Zeeland, Michigan home was considered a model of trend-setting at the time and is educationally and historically significant today. It was the last part of my Herman Miller experience.Despite Michigan’s cold winters, glass features large in the two-storey, open-plan timber-frame house, from the outer wall of the upper storey to the curved roof of the conservatory that looks out into woodland. Eames also designed the decor for the interior of the house, to which a library, a guest room and an entryway were added before the house was sold in 1975.For more on Herman Miller, read How to See: A Guide to Reading Our Manmade Environment, and Living Spaces, both by George Nelson; Business as Unusual: the People and Principles at Herman Miller, by Hugh De Pree; Facility Based on Change, by Robert Propst; Charles & Ray Eames: Pioneers of Mid-Century Modernism, by Gloria Koenig; Classic Herman Miller, by Leslie Piña; and Herman Miller: The Purpose of Design, by John R. Berry. Herman Miller: A Way of Living, edited by Amy Auscherman, Sam Grawe and Leon Ransmeier, tells the story of the company’s history within the context of popular and design culture. “A Way of Living,” a related exhibition on view this summer at Herman Miller’s flagship New York City showroom and store at 251 Park Avenue South, displays furniture, textiles, catalogs, ephemera and other artifacts from the company’s history.

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