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The women designers who made Herman Miller furniture shine

Sizzling graphics, bright colors, and bold juxtapositions

Tomoko Miho for Herman Miller.
Images courtesy Herman Miller

There’s a famous Herman Miller ad, designed by George Tscherny in 1954, that shows the furniture brand’s marquee designers as “Traveling Men.” George Nelson, leaning against a trunk, is heading to Germany at the behest of the government. Charles Eames, looking at a map, is journeying to Japan. And Alexander Girard, pith helmet at the ready, is off to India to collect material for a Museum of Modern Art exhibit.

Those men—plus later colleagues and collaborators like Robert Propst (inventor of the cubicle), Irving Harper (the Sunburst clock), and Steve Frykholm (those mouthwatering picnic posters—spurred our long love affair with the midcentury version of the brand.

But new material from the Herman Miller archives complicates and expands the narrative of three (or six) male superstars. An article published earlier this week on the AIGA’s Eye on Design site, “The Lesser-told Stories of the Women Who Shaped Herman Miller,” surfaces less familiar names Peggy Ann Rohde, Tomoko Miho, Barbara Loveland, and Linda Powell, along with Deborah Sussman, better known for her sizzling graphics for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Meg Miller’s article includes lots of great examples of their work; a few additional goodies are shown here.

Their graphic design work framed the furniture, accessories, and fabrics made by those traveling men. People who never stroked a Girard swatch or swiveled in an Eames fiberglass chair got the message through the advertisements and catalogs designed by these women—some long after the 1960s. Why is this coming out now? Because of archivists-slash-feminists like Herman Miller’s Amy Auscherman, who started noticing unfamiliar names in the company’s copious archives.

“Peggy Ann Rohde, then Peggy Ann Mack, was named on the cover of a Gilbert Rohde marketing piece from 1942 and that prompted me to learn more about her work as an industrial and graphic designer,” says Auscherman. Gilbert Rohde was Herman Miller’s first modern furniture designer, hired in the 1930s to move the company away from traditional styles. His wife created the marketing materials and catalogs, then illustrated with her line drawings of shockingly unadorned highboys, tables, and chairs.

Posters by Linda Powell for Herman Miller.
Courtesy Herman Miller

A future project will delve into the work of Freda Diamond, an industrial designer for Herman Miller in the 1930s, who created a line of Shaker-style furniture to bridge contemporary and historical tastes.

All of the work of Tomoko Miho, who worked for Herman Miller both as an employee of Nelson’s and, later, when she opened her own office, has an architectural sharpness and clarity. While some graphic designers were identified in the company’s database, Miho was not, and Auscherman set out to track down which pieces she did so her contribution wouldn’t be lost to time.

It’s great to see Miho’s sensibility in the company of Alexander Girard’s buoyant textiles in the 1964 Herman Miller catalog. “It’s hard to find a present-day furniture catalog that doesn’t owe something to Miho and Nelson,” wrote Adrian Shaughnessy in a biographical essay on Miho last fall. “They combined matter-of-fact clarity—essential when making an informed decision to purchase—with an emphasis on the sculptural qualities that make the purchasing decision emotional as well as pragmatic.” You can think of her catalogs as another version of the George Nelson Associates-designed Comprehensive Shelving System for Herman Miller: an elegant repository for all the folk art and folderol your heart desires.

“Karen Stein, director of the George Nelson Foundation, had a great observation about the [three-ring] catalog in that it functioned like an early phone app—it contained all of the information you needed to make a sale and could be updated,” says Auscherman.

It is odd to think of Miho and Sussman, with such different styles, employed by the same company. But, somehow, it worked. During that era, according to Auscherman, designers were given carte blanche, and the Nelson, Eames, and Girard offices handled the graphic design for their own lines. Sussman, then an employee at the Eames Office, handled both Eames and Girard with her signature combination of bright color, bold juxtapositions, and old-fashioned type.

In Celebration of Collaboration by Barbara Loveland for Herman Miller.

Finally, there are Barbara Loveland and Linda Powell, whose 1970s and 1980s work for the company is a little-seen postmodern addition to the company’s decades of design leadership. “In helping pull together a holiday social media post, I came across a series of posters done for the 1978 Herman Miller Christmas Party by Linda Powell,” Auscherman says. “I reached out to Steve Frykholm, thinking they were his designs. He corrected me and ended up introducing me to Powell and Barbara Loveland.”

In recent years both women have devoted their time to the creation of the Graphic Design Archives of West Michigan, whose online collection includes much of their Herman Miller work which, frankly, looks more up-to-date than that of the 1960s to the 2018 eye. The piled textiles in Powell’s 1976 fabric program poster seem like a loud echo of Miho’s catalog page with Girard’s delights, while Loveland’s invitation celebrating collaboration is as jazzy as an ESPRIT catalog. Another Powell poster encourages the desk-bound (in Herman Miller chairs, of course) to get some exercise. These were the dark ages of design?