What exactly does a company town look like in the 21st century? Curbed trekked to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to take a look at furniture manufacturing through the eyes of Herman Miller’s 3,700-strong workforce.
First, centuries back, came the forests: Occupying almost all of the land-mass we now know as Michigan by the time it was founded in 1837. Next came the logging, in the great northern expanse of the state—roughly the middle knuckles of a hand, palm exposed, a Michigander’s favorite visual device. Then came the lumber yards, clustered around the fleshy part of the hypothenar that is Grand Rapids. Out of the lumber yards were born the furniture companies, turning raw timber into Victorian-era bedroom suites, along the periphery of the palm.
By the mid-20th century, Grand Rapids, long nicknamed "Furniture City," had already started a radical shift. Factory processes gleaned from wartime standards enabled mass production of household goods. Army engineers returned home to enroll in industrial design degree programs. And business owners like Herman Miller’s D.J. De Pree had, since the early 1930s, turned to a modern aesthetic to grow their furniture companies beyond the limits of western Michigan.
Over the next several decades, other monumental changes took root. Herman Miller, specifically, adopted a "participative management" structure in 1950, debuted an open-plan, modular Action Office in 1968, and introduced its first ergonomic task chair, Ergon, in 1976.
In this brave new world, what with-it modern consumer would be content with grandmother’s Victorian-era bedroom suite, anyway?
You can’t tell the story of the explosive growth of area industry without pointing to the midcentury’s greatest contribution to the fiscal health of Furniture City: the advent of office systems, which spawned what’s called the "contract market." "Contract" covers commercial or civic enterprises that require furniture en masse: rows of airport seating, an entire floor of cubicles, a hotel’s worth of desk chairs.
Rather than one customer buying one set of matching bedroom furniture from a store or catalog, a business orders tens or hundreds of thousands of units—lamps, chairs, tables, filing cabinets, lounge seating—from a licensed dealer. For companies like Herman Miller, American corporate culture’s insatiable need for more and more office furniture in the second half of the 20th century meant consistent double-digit growth.
"The Aeron chair [introduced in 1994] had no foam and no fabric. They said it was too expensive, too ugly, didn’t look finished, and we weren't going to sell it. And I thought, 'This is going to be fun.'" —Gerb Kingma
What’s remarkable to consider is that the Furniture City region still boasts three of the contract furniture industry’s top earners. (Another major player, Knoll, is headquartered in rural Pennsylvania.) Steelcase, which was founded in Grand Rapids in 1912 as Metal Office Furniture Co, posted a $3.1 billion revenue in 2015. Zeeland-based Herman Miller clocked in at $2.14 billion, and Haworth, situated in nearby Holland, $1.82 billion.
That’s over $7 billion generated in a place with a population of just over a million people in the metropolitan area.
I ask almost everyone I meet at Herman Miller headquarters to describe the company in relation to its Furniture City modern-office-systems counterparts, Haworth and Steelcase. Mary Stevens, senior vice president of global marketing, mentions company goals, which for Herman Miller comprise global presence (the brand is currently sold in 109 countries through licensed dealers) and expansion into the retail market (hence the 2014 acquisition of Design Within Reach).
In contrast, Steelcase aims to harness research and technology to be the biggest in their category (and they are), and Haworth has been adding design prestige—with the acquisition of Italy’s Poltrona Frau Group in 2014—to its stable of lower-priced options.
The present challenge is the diversity of the contract market: as Sam Grawe, global brand director at Herman Miller, puts it, "We used to make thousands of one thing. Now we make one of thousands of things."
What is now Herman Miller germinated as the Star Furniture Company, which a fellow named D.J. De Pree joined as a clerk in 1909, right after high school. De Pree became president in 1919, then maneuvered for complete control of the company in 1923, when he convinced his wife’s father to purchase the majority of Star’s shares. (His father-in-law’s name? Herman Miller, of course.)
Corporate archivist Amy Auscherman provided me with some color around Herman Miller’s origin story: "Once the Great Depression hits, no one is doing well in the industry. D.J., who’s very religious, prayed for an answer as to how to save the business. They're six months away from not being able to make payroll, and the answer to his prayers: Gilbert Rohde coming into our Grand Rapids showroom."
Rohde, an industrial designer from New York who ended up serving as the company’s first creative director, appealed to De Pree by pitching him on new modern designs instead of the antique reproduction furniture that he maligned as "not honest."
Herman Miller’s first foray into office furniture—the Executive Office Group from 1942—came about under Rohde’s purview. When Rohde died suddenly in 1944 (legend has it, into his dessert at an Upper East Side restaurant), D.J. De Pree contacted another designer out of New York, one George Nelson, whose storage wall he had seen in LIFE magazine.
Though at that time Nelson was an architect and not a furniture designer, "D.J. thought Nelson was a genius, Nelson thought D.J. was a genius in running his company, and when he took on the design director role he was given carte blanche," Auscherman explains. "De Pree was very religious, Nelson loved to smoke and drink. But they kind of fell in love from a business standpoint."
It was under Nelson’s tenure that Herman Miller’s sporty logo came about, and the midcentury dream team was assembled (Charles and Ray Eames, Irving Harper, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard, Ezra Stoller). Nelson also engineered five points for good design, which Herman Miller still employs, in modified form, today.
While the office systems—introduced in the Executive Office Group, revolutionized by Action Office I and II in the 1960s, and expanded in several product lines for today’s Living Office—are what have carried the bulk of Herman Miller’s business in the last half a century, a sea change is happening in the way people work.
Technology has liberated many of us office drones from a static workstation, and the types of large, cash-flush corporations that can afford Herman Miller furniture are bending to pressure from younger employees for kinder, more flexible work environment. Almost residential, in fact.
Which is perhaps part of the reason Herman Miller began producing, and more importantly, marketing some of its discontinued icons in the 1990s: the Nelson Platform Bench, the Noguchi accent table, the graphic Girard prints, the Eames walnut stools, lounger, Hang-It-All. Now you can furnish your hard-working employees’ flex space with a melange of old classics and new designer commissions, collaborative office systems and seating that wouldn’t feel out of place in your living room at home.
Meanwhile, the Eames molded plastic shell chairs, which have undergone material change (original fiberglass, polypropylene, wood, wire, and a new "eco" fiberglass) and enduring popularity since their production debut in 1950, saw their best sales to date in fiscal year 2016.
Of course, it’s not the branded icons that keep a corporation afloat in real money. It’s being able to produce them—and an ever-diverse product line—with ultimate efficiency. In 1997, Herman Miller adopted the much-vaunted Toyota Production System, a "lean" method that lowers the cost inefficiencies of long lead times and producing on spec. (The enforcer of this method, Hajime Ohba from the Toyota Supplier Support Center, is a mythical figure on the Zeeland campus, referred to in the most reverent of tones.)
"Eames proved that you could make the most iconic chair with the simplest technology and design." —Mike Kuperus, plant manager
Factories using TPS produce goods according to real orders, taking an inventory of parts every 2.5 hours. That one thing (a) reduces the amount of floor space required for storing components and (b) minimizes the lead time when bundling orders of the same product type. It’s also worth noting that (c) Herman Miller’s own facilities are used for assembly, not fabrication.
These three factors drive down real estate costs since less square footage is needed in the assembly process. As a side effect, the company’s full-time employment rate can retain some stability during market downturns.
Mary Stevens—a "water carrier" in company parlance, with 31 years of experience at Herman Miller across 13 different departments—is exceptionally qualified to outline the company’s current strategy and how it’s adapted over time. Stevens notes that in adopting the Toyota process, Herman Miller’s assembly production became efficient enough to "keep manufacturing in western Michigan." The company still sources components—injection-molded plastic, bent plywood, upholstered cushions—from area producers dotted from Grand Rapids to Holland.
I visited two of those locations, Davidson Plyform and Genesis Seating, to see what, say, the world’s most coveted side chair looks like before it ends up pristine, staged, and pinned to a Pinterest board. Mike Kuperus, plant manager at the factory, walked me through the trajectory of the Eames molded plywood Lounge Chair Wood (LCW):
"If you look at the LCW, you get the veneer, you get the backer applied to it on the flat press. The veneer is very thin, otherwise it would crack. Then it goes into the production area, and every other sheet gets glue applied to the top and bottom. That goes together in a sandwich, which gets pressed into a rough form, the actual shape of the product. Next it goes into machining, where you take the final form of the product. Then, back to sanding, because when you machine the plywood, it tears: The grain goes in opposite directions and you have to do a very aggressive sanding process on a belt. Then there’s an initial hand-sand, which is just cleaning up the back-sanding. Then fine-sanding under search lights, which is very exacting. It goes into finish next, and if it's a seat or a back piece it has to be glued first. The shock mounts are applied with glue, the glue is chipped off. Onto finishing. Once finished, it goes into a cell [to be assembled]. For more complex products, you have materials coming in from all different angles. For the Eames lounge chair, all the things I've said for the wood happen, including the gluing, but you have another element, which is a leather hide. It comes in, it gets graded, it gets cut, it gets kitted [matched to other leather pieces from different hides]. Then, it gets sewn, and may have to get skived, or thinned out, or get attached to welt cord. If it’s fiber, there are zippers or snaps. If you really break it down, the steps are almost innumerable, because there are so many little things that happen."And all of that—even with the help of machines that make the process faster, more consistent, and safer—requires a staggering amount of human skill. Have you ever seen someone whip together six arm cushion covers in a radial curve from four pieces of leather each… all in an hour and ten minutes? It’s labor-intensive, and impressive as hell. It can also take four decades to reach such a pace, with such precision.
I ask Kuperus if he feels anxiety about the older generations of skilled tradespeople retiring. "Huge," he says. "You can't expect to hire people off the street who are ready to go—training is also a process. Especially for a sewer or an upholsterer, it's literally years before they're really good at what they do."
Without a trade school feeder, Herman Miller employees with a gift for teaching often go through product development training so they can mentor others. Kuperus mentions one employee, now a trainer, "who will freak you out because he looks like he's 12, but he's one of our best upholsterers." It’s all a part of what some employees call tribal knowledge, and most of Herman Miller ascribes to the aforementioned water carriers: "The reality is you cannot put into a manual what they need to know."