clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Herman Miller archivist Amy Auscherman on the midcentury craze and what Mad Men got wrong

We talk to a design nerd after our own hearts

Eames fiberglass shell chairs, seen in a midcentury advertisement
Photo courtesy Herman Miller

Attention: If you are notorious perfectionist and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, stop reading this right now, because what follows is probably going to upset you. Herman Miller archivist Amy Auscherman has some bad news: the show didn’t get its famed midcentury styling right 100 percent of the time, despite consulting Herman Miller at some stages in the set-design-and-dressing process.

“There is an organization named BIFMA that sort of sets the regulations for the office furniture industry,” Amy tells us, “so the chairs that we’re sitting on have five legs on their casters...in an effort to make them more stable. Before, in the ‘70s, chairs were on four legs, and so it was a lot easier to sort of fall over. In one of the episodes, [Mad Men] had Eames Time-Life chairs on five-star bases.”

That’s right, Matthew, hang your head in shame.

Auscherman, who joined the hosts of our podcast, the Curbed Appeal, this week, also talked to us about Herman Miller’s long, illustrious history, and the renowned designers whose work the Michigan-based company has produced (like George Nelson, Alexander Girard, and, of course, Ray and Charles Eames).

Listen to the episode below or read it in full right here:

Subscribe on iTunes | Listen on SoundCloud | Check out other episodes

Asad Syrkett:

We like to start with a question that we've gotten some push back on recently, but that's fine.

Jeremiah Budin:

Yeah, we're committed to it.

Jeremiah Budin:

Our podcast question is, when you're at a cocktail party, how do you explain to people what you do?

Amy Auscherman:

I knew this was coming so I thought about it. Very generally for people that aren't usually doing research of really understand library archives I say, "I work in the marketing department of a furniture company," because really that's true, but I manage the historic resources for a hundred plus year old furniture company. That ranges from photography, design drawings, advertisements, any sort of publications that are generated when you're trying to sell furniture to people. Herman Miller was started in 1905 so there's a lot of material there through and find the goodies. That's what I do.

Asad Syrkett:

How did you become an archivist? What was your trajectory to this role and to this career?

Amy Auscherman:

I studied art history at Indiana University and in my undergrad I worked at The Lilly Library, which is the rare books and manuscripts library on campus. I wasn't necessarily a design person going into school but I knew that I wanted to work in some sort of special library. Towards the end of my graduate program at IU in library science I got an internship at The Indianapolis Museum Of Art working in their librarian archives. While I was there the IMA won an NIH grant to digitize the archival collection that came with the Miller house and garden.

Backtracking, the Miller house is in Columbus, Indiana, and it was designed by Eero Saarinen with Alexander Girard, who did a lot of the interiors, Kevin Roche did the landscape architecture. It's this amazing trifecta of all the greats. The Millers, who built the home, basically had a property management group for their house. Everything from the design, building and maintenance of the home from mid-1950s to when they gave it over to the IMA in the mid-2000s. Again design, so all of the early drawings, a lot of the early correspondence from, "Hey I bought the land Eero, do you want to come build here any time soon?" To the very end, to things like end of life modifications to the home, putting a bar in the bathroom.

All of that was documented and then given over to the Art Museum when they got the house and then we won a grant to digitize it. I worked on that project and that was my design education.

Asad Syrkett:

I bet, what an intensive experience. You've got this living piece of history that you can walk into and that you have to deal with, all these documents about its life.

Amy Auscherman:

Yeah. It was very thorough. From changing a screw inside of the cabinet in the kitchen to, "Hey Girard picked out this new tchotchke to go on the storage wall." It's really complete. I worked on that project for two and half years and then was recruited by Herman Miller after that project, because I was the perfect weirdo that knew really of Girard's work very well and that era in an of itself, which is what I think people who think of Herman Miller, they either put them in the Aeron cubicle basket or, "Oh, the Eames, Nelson, Girard greatest hits." People have very, I think, distinct interactions with the brand or the company. My work at the IMA really informed obviously the early part.

Asad Syrkett:

You've talked about this a little bit but listeners who are not familiar with Herman Miller can you give a brief history of Herman Miller? No pressure.

Jeremiah Budin:

Pull something from the archives.

Amy Auscherman:

Right.

Asad Syrkett:

Oh, groan.

Amy Auscherman:

I guess I'll start with West Michigan in general. Grand Rapids is known as furniture city, or was known as furniture city. It started with the lumber barons coming in, deforesting West Michigan. Out of that along with a lot of Dutch immigrants coming to West Michigan who had the hand skills to build furniture, the furniture industry naturally bubbled up. Herman Miller the company actually started as Star Furniture Company in 1905. We made antique reproduction furniture.

D.J. De Pree, who was the first CEO of Herman Miller around the time of the great depression, when the company wasn't doing well, hired Gilbert Rohde, an industrial designer out of New York, who was really the first design director of Herman Miller, and got the company started in making modern furniture by convincing D.J. that it was better for the sort of lifestyle that was emerging in that time. If you think about antique reproduction furniture, big ornate, not easy to move if you don't have a staff of nine people to dust your furniture for you. It really didn't make sense for city living. People were moving into cities, everything becoming more urban so you needed furniture to fit within these new living spaces.

Asad Syrkett:

For sure, unless you live in a recreation of the Downtown Abbey house you probably don't have the staff required to upkeep your antique furniture.

Amy Auscherman:

Correct. Rohde and his design got Herman Miller started on the path of manufacturing modern furniture. Rohde died in the mid-40s and then George Nelson came on as design director after that and really, he and his office, created the furniture line, Herman Miller Collection, that a lot of people who are interested in that part of the history really know. Nelson brought on Charles Eames and Noguchi, later Alexander Girard. Nelson was really this catalyst to really bring all of these big name designers to Herman Miller, who was in West Michigan of all places. Then, 1968 comes around. Herman Miller introduced Action Office II, which I think some would say is the invention of the cubicle.

Asad Syrkett:

A big moment in workspace design.

Amy Auscherman:

A big moment. It was a panel system that was easy to move and evolve with the architecture going up at the time. It was post-war, people were going into offices, you needed to fit either as many people as possible into a floor plate or a workspace. That really took off as an office furniture solution and changed Herman Miller as a business in terms of how much money we were making and turned Herman Miller into the contract furniture business. That's the bread and butter today. Obviously later on Bill Stumpf, Don Chadwick come in, start studying ergonomics. We introduce Aeron, 1994. That's the ubiquitous office chair.

Asad Syrkett:

See, you said, "Pull some stuff from the archives." Look, it's all here.

Jeremiah Budin:

I do not make jokes, that was a serious thing and it happened.

Amy Auscherman:

Yeah.

Asad Syrkett:

I'm curious, do you as someone who works with historical documents and as such a keen eye for these things, do you spot mistakes on television shows?

Amy Auscherman:

Yes.

Asad Syrkett:

Tell us more.

Amy Auscherman:

The television show Mad Men which you're familiar with.

Asad Syrkett:

I've never heard of it.

Amy Auscherman:

This was a bit before my time but they consulted the Herman Miller archives in set design. They were wanting to make sure that if there were representing a specific era that the furniture that they had would have been accurate at that time. It's usually pretty accurate but one thing that I noticed which is super nerd, there is an organization called BIFMA which sets the regulations for the office furniture industry. The chairs that we're sitting on have five legs on their casters and that is in an effort to make them more stable. Before, in the 70s, chairs were on four legs so it was a lot easier to fall over.

Asad Syrkett:

What?

Jeremiah Budin:

That's people were just falling over constantly in Mad Men.

Amy Auscherman:

Exactly. In one of the episodes they had I think it was Eames Time Life chairs on five star bases that I knew would not have been ...

Asad Syrkett:

You were like, "Calling your bullshit on this."

Amy Auscherman:

I'm like, "I'm one of maybe three people in the whole world that knows that that's not right."

Asad Syrkett:

If you told Matthew Weiner about that he would be so upset.

Amy Auscherman:

He'd probably be really pissed because they tried.

Jeremiah Budin:

Yeah that's I feel the gold standard of shows trying to be historically accurate in terms of set design. There's all those stories about him going through each set with a fine toothed comb and moving every little bit of ... They couldn't get it perfect.

Amy Auscherman:

Yeah. Sorry Matthew Weiner.

Asad Syrkett:

Nobody can.

Jeremiah Budin:

I don't even want to hear about those others.

Asad Syrkett:

Unless you hire Amy as a contract accuracy employee.

Amy Auscherman:

Why not? Sometimes, but then it's a lot of honestly seeing non-authentic product on television shows that are clearly knockoffs of classic design. Eames Aluminum Group chairs are ... To use the word again they're very ubiquitous, you can see it somewhere and not necessarily know what you're seeing. The form itself I think is something that's riffed upon and used for look.

Asad Syrkett:

Those knockoffs, they sprout up all the time. Obviously on a television show there's a different goal there, but if you are home owner or a renter or someone who wants a nice home, it can be enticing to go run out and buy the thing that isn't going to be as good in term of the life of the product because it won't last as long, it won't wear as well. There also has been such an embrace of mid-century modern, that aesthetic. Mad Men definitely has something to do with that.

Amy Auscherman:

I would agree. I think that forms like an Eames Shell chair or an Eames Aluminum Group chair or even an Aeron, it's the form itself that's very familiar in I would say visual culture. People don't necessarily even know that they're buying a knockoff. If they're buying a knockoff they know, recognize and like the form and they're just ... That sort of work that Herman Miller is doing on the brand side I report up through our brand team to really do education more so within the marketing to have people know that Charles and Ray Eames designed the Shell chair and really getting the name recognition. Even still people know the phrase an Eames chair or the Aeron, but they don't necessarily know Herman Miller, the name.

It's within the marketing organization, getting that brand awareness, that also then lends itself to our product is made in Michigan, or a lot of it is made in Michigan. It's made in the States, it's made by people that are paid well, products that have gone through a vigorous R&D process, especially in the case of Eames products it's a constant iteration on design. A lot of work goes into the product, both with people's physical hands, the brain power. I would say it's a more ethically made product, versus going and buying something that looks like an Eames chair that could have been made by children elsewhere.

Asad Syrkett:

Right, we don't want that.

Amy Auscherman:

We don't want that.

Asad Syrkett:

On the Herman Miller Tumblr we've done some digging. Someone asked you what your favorite find is in the Herman Miller house and garden collection. You mentioned things that were not realized. I was like, "Hold up, what are we talking about here?" What are some of those things that didn't reach completion but that could have been awesome?

Amy Auscherman:

That Tumblr was done for the Miller house and garden archive. I'll say because it is confusing, the Miller house by Saarinen is not connected directly to Herman Miller.

Asad Syrkett:

Maybe it was a reblog to the Herman Miller Tumblr.

Amy Auscherman:

It was ... Yes.

Asad Syrkett:

That is where we ended up seeing it.

Amy Auscherman:

Right. Unrealized things in the Herman Miller archives, there are a lot of great George Nelson lighting designs that never came to fruition. A lot of Nelson office furniture designs as well that we have drawings for but Nelson and his team, Irving Harper, Ernest Farmer, John Pile, et cetera, were pretty much given carte blanche at Herman Miller. If somebody had an idea for a chair and they brought it to DJ De Pree and said, "This seems cool," he'd say, "Okay put in the line and we'll see how it does." They really were given complete freedom to try out anything so we do have a lot of drawings of things.

Asad Syrkett:

I bet.

Amy Auscherman:

Like a five-seater marshmallow sofa, stuff like that.

Asad Syrkett:

The bubble lamp is such an icon. What were some of the other lighting designs like? Were they riffs on that or were they totally different?

Amy Auscherman:

Some were riffs on the bubble shape itself. We have a drawing specifically of alternative bubble shapes, I'm making air quotes right now, and then different bases to put them on. You can imagine a teak base on a bubble lamp would be really nice. Things like that then can potentially inform product development for us. Herman Miller recently brought back the Nelson Thin Edge bed. A lot of that product development work was informed through drawings in the archive, marketing material, photography. All of that stuff is still very useful when we're reconsidering classic pieces from the past to then reintroduce into the market today.

Jeremiah Budin:

If you could take home any piece of furniture from work, from work and have it, what would it be?

Amy Auscherman:

I'm a really big Alexander Girard fan and we have an Alexander Girard group. Girard did a furniture group first for Braniff Airlines, for their lounges in airports, and then that later became commercialized for Herman Miller. It was only in the line for about a year and a half because if you Google it it's very funky looking. We have a love seat in the archives that I would love to take home.

Jeremiah Budin:

I thought you were going to say an airport lounge.

Amy Auscherman:

Maybe, perhaps.

Jeremiah Budin:

I'm sure they're nice.

Asad Syrkett:

Good seating, good seating too. It's hard to come by, so if you work at a company where you're looking at beautiful seating all the time you must have a lot of things that you covet.

Amy Auscherman:

It's true. My butt is always very comfortable.

Asad Syrkett:

I'm deeply jealous. That statement makes me so jealous.

Jeremiah Budin:

Yeah. Our chairs are fine.

Asad Syrkett:

Yeah, they're fine but deeply comfortable? Come on.

Jeremiah Budin:

I would never use the word deeply.

Amy Auscherman:

I would also say too, the archive is really a graphic design honey hole to use a Pickers' expression.

Asad Syrkett:

I've never heard that phrase before.

Amy Auscherman:

You need to watch more of The Pickers on the History Channel.

Asad Syrkett:

What is The Pickers? I'm sorry we have to take a detour.

Amy Auscherman:

American Pickers.

Asad Syrkett:

What is that?

Amy Auscherman:

American Pickers.

Asad Syrkett:

Is it like Antiques Roadshow but different?

Amy Auscherman:

It's like bro dudes driving around.

Jeremiah Budin:

It's those two guys in a truck, right?

Amy Auscherman:

Yeah.

Asad Syrkett:

Now I understand why I don't watch it, it has bro dudes.

Amy Auscherman:

Yeah, they're like, "Oh, a Shell gas station sign from 1940."

Jeremiah Budin:

Yeah. It's mostly them buying gas station and old Coke signs from these hoarders with these garages full of stuff, and then brag about how much they ripped them off.

Asad Syrkett:

Wait, Jeremiah you watch this show too?

Jeremiah Budin:

I watched a few- I had an old roommate who used to watch it a bunch.

Asad Syrkett:

I feel like everyone I know is watching this show and is holding out on my.

Jeremiah Budin:

That and Bar Rescue.

Asad Syrkett:

You're into it Amy?

Amy Auscherman:

It can be pretty entertaining. Yeah, so a honey hole of graphic design history lives in the Herman Miller archives. I see so much printed matter that I'm like, "That would be great to put on my wall," or, "Have on my coffee table."

Asad Syrkett:

I want to point out the thieving motion you just made with your left hand.

Amy Auscherman:

Yes.

Asad Syrkett:

Yeah, I bet. There must be so much that hasn't really seen the light of day, at least beyond people who work in the archiving work at Herman Miller.

Amy Auscherman:

I would say Nelson, Eames and Girard especially, not only did they handle their furniture design but they also handled the marketing of their pieces as well. If Eames had a new chair coming out, or we were putting out a new catalog, they would tend to handle the graphic design for their part of the catalog, same with the Nelson office, but then you have these people cross pollinating. Debrah Sussman worked in the Eames office, also did some work for Girard. You see these connections that were happening behind the scenes and these people that were all working together. While the graphic design was carried out by different offices that very much talks to each other and is a cohesive representation of Herman Miller at that time.

Yeah, kinda seeing the who's who of that time, all working with Herman Miller in some way. We just published a story today on Why?, which is Herman Miller's editorial platform, on photography by Balthazar Korab that was done for Herman Miller. Really the fun part of my job is mining the archives for content and other research value, but the collection of Korab photos, no one really knew about until I got in there. I was just digging around and knew of Korab and same with, we have a group of photography by Ezra Stoller who did the photography for our first catalog. Lots of Hedrich Blessing, if you're into nerdy architectural photography, everybody shot for Herman Miller, finding those sorts of wormholes is the best.

Jeremiah Budin:

Speaking of resurgences, the name Balthazar, I feel is really ripe for ... Because you see a lot of little kids running around named Balthazar.

Asad Syrkett:

I feel like I know a couple in Brooklyn, I feel like they're all around.

Amy Auscherman:

I would attribute that maybe to the restaurant, rather than ...

Asad Syrkett:

Than Korab? People naming their kids after the restaurant?

Amy Auscherman:

Yeah.

Asad Syrkett:

Hopefully there are some Korab fans out there.

Amy Auscherman:

Yes.

Jeremiah Budin:

We are going to transition, I think we might have already done it, but we're going to transition to our thunder round.

Amy Auscherman:

Okay?

Jeremiah Budin:

Which is a slower lightning round.

Amy Auscherman:

Okay.

Jeremiah Budin:

I think we might only have time for one question though. I'm going to go with, what is your favorite and least favorite piece of furniture that you own in your apartment, or house? Don't want to assume.

Amy Auscherman:

My favorite pieces are, I have Ray Wilkes modular sofas. Ray Wilkes was a British designer that did soft seating for Herman Miller in the 70s. It's kind of Herman Miller gone PoMo, that is a definite deep cut but I found a love seat and a chair when I first moved to Michigan.

Jeremiah Budin:

Did you pick them?

Amy Auscherman:

I did, I picked them. That's my favorite piece. My least favorite? The bed in my guest room, it needs to be replaced.

Asad Syrkett:

Where is it ... You don't have to name names if you don't want to, but where is it from?

Amy Auscherman:

It was brought into my house by my boyfriend.

Asad Syrkett:

You say, "Brought into my house."

Amy Auscherman:

Our house. It's terrible. No, it's just a box spring and a mattress that have seen better days.

Asad Syrkett:

All right, that's fair.

Amy Auscherman:

It's not very exciting as an answer.

Asad Syrkett:

But I feel like as a least favorite thing it's probably not going to be super.

Amy Auscherman:

I know. I will say, and this is kind of that answer of like, "What's your biggest flaw?" Like, "I work too hard." I would say I tend to only bring things in that I love. I've sort of, along with my IKEA record shelving, it's just the little ... I say I have a chair museum at my house because I'm bringing things in all willy nilly. Yeah, it's a bit of a menagerie.

Asad Syrkett:

Sounds great to me.

Jeremiah Budin:

One more question, how do you get fifty five thousand Instagram followers?

Asad Syrkett:

We need all the details.

Jeremiah Budin:

We need to know. This is just for us.

Amy Auscherman:

I honestly don't know. I attribute it to I'm very lucky in that my jobs in the past five to seven years have been in places like rare book libraries or art museums. I feel like I cheat, I'm around beautiful things all the time. All I'm doing is sharing it. As a librarian archivist information professional.

Asad Syrkett:

Boutique person.

Jeremiah Budin:

Right.

Amy Auscherman:

I feel like I'm doing a good deed. I'm just lucky that I'm surrounded by beautiful things and it's easy to snap.

Jeremiah Budin:

All credit goes to things.

Amy Auscherman:

Things.

Asad Syrkett:

If you don't follow Amy on Instagram you really should. Your handle is?

Amy Auscherman:

Acid_free.

Asad Syrkett:

It's basically the best Instagram handle. I love it, because it's nerdy but nerdy cool. You have to be in on the inside to know what it's a reference too.

Amy Auscherman:

You have to know what acid free folders are the best for photography or any other sort of document.

Asad Syrkett:

Word.

Amy Auscherman:

Yeah. You do have to-

Asad Syrkett:

I'm into it.

Amy Auscherman:

Thank you.

Asad Syrkett:

Where else can people find you out on the internet? You've mentioned the Herman Miller blog and we've mentioned your fabulous Instagram.

Amy Auscherman:

I'm probably most active on Instagram but I would say keep up on hermanmiller.com/why.

Asad Syrkett:

That's W-H-Y not just like the little y?

Amy Auscherman:

Yeah, W-H-Y, where we talk about why Herman Miller does things or designs things or et cetera. I work with our editorial team pretty closely to curate what we are talking about on Why? Because it's stuff like Korab's photography, but then it's also research from our R&D department about open offices. It's a catch all for everything Herman Miller.

Asad Syrkett:

Cool. Thank you so much for coming by.

Jeremiah Budin:

Thank you.

Amy Auscherman:

Thanks for having me.

Asad Syrkett:

It was nice to chat. You just listened to the fifth episode of the second season of The Curbed Appeal. We hope you enjoyed what you heard.

Jeremiah Budin:

Please subscribe in iTunes, the podcast section of the Spotify app, rate us five stars in iTunes and Tweet at us, add us, @TheCurbedAppeal.

Asad Syrkett:

If you want to read more about Herman Miller you can check out our piece, Company Town, about Herman Miller and its manufacturing process at curbed.com.

Subscribe on iTunes | Listen on SoundCloud | Check out other episodes