This excerpt has been adapted from Herman Miller: A Way of Living, edited by Amy Auscherman, Sam Grawe, and Leon Ransmeier.
In 1923, when Dirk Jan (D.J.) De Pree assumed control of the Michigan Star Furniture Company—and renamed it Herman Miller after his father-in-law and financial benefactor—he could hardly have foreseen the dire straits his company would be in seven short years later. The Great Depression struck at the heart of Grand Rapids’ once booming furniture business, and the Zeeland, Michigan–based producer of bedroom suites in period styles wasn’t exempt from the devastation. In 1929 Herman Miller barely managed to stay in business between increasingly infrequent orders, and De Pree as often as not went without paying himself to keep the company afloat. Facing imminent bankruptcy, the God-fearing son of Dutch Calvinists prayed to save his business and the jobs of the people he employed.
As De Pree grasped at straws, he began to identify the underlying causes for his company’s grim financial circumstances, which he eventually codified as the “twelve evils” of the furniture industry. He saw that the schedule of four markets a year, where buyers from department stores visited Grand Rapids’ showrooms to replenish their inventories, led to short-lived designs and inefficient manufacturing processes. These same department stores stripped the manufacturer’s label from the product and controlled access to the customer. With everyone drawing from the same pool of designs in period styles—Chippendale, Queen Anne, and Hepplewhite—prices became the only differentiators. Ultimately, all of this resulted in volatile conditions with low wages and morale for workers. Unfortunately for De Pree, problems were in greater supply than solutions.
But then, during the 1930 summer furniture market, a “providential” event set Herman Miller on a different course. Toward the end of a warm July day, a stranger appeared in the company’s Grand Rapids showroom—not a prospective customer, but rather a designer looking to drum up interest in his furniture while on his way back to New York from Chicago. The man introduced himself as Gilbert Rohde, a self-taught industrial designer and, despite the present economic conditions, a rising star in the nascent field. He had designed furniture for private and commercial clients, written for major trade publications, and exhibited his designs in galleries, museums, and department stores. His clients already included Heywood-Wakefield and Troy Sunshade.
For De Pree, what Rohde had to show was far less important than what he had to say. During their short meeting, the designer proselytized Modernist principles gleaned from studying in France and being one of the earliest American pilgrims to Germany’s Bauhaus. Rohde explained that America’s domestic landscape was undergoing drastic changes, and the massive bedroom suites Herman Miller was manufacturing were suited to Victorian mansions from another era, not the city apartments and smaller suburban homes people increasingly occupied. The ostensible selling-point of historical reproductions didn’t actually support contemporary lifestyles either—few had the household help or time to polish and dust ornately carved furniture. “The most interesting thing in the home is the people who live there and I’m designing for them,” Rohde claimed.
Rohde was an effective salesman, thanks to his background in advertising, and he deftly read the small-town businessman. Stoking the latter’s deeply held sense of morality, he urged De Pree to recognize that his business was fundamentally dishonest—surely one of the worst things the pious man could hear. Rohde explained that the traditional designs Herman Miller was manufacturing anew were poorly executed copies—pointless reproductions of designs intended for another time and place, essentially out of step with the character and people of the modern world. Certain manufacturing processes were equally deceptive: faux-antique finishes applied to suggest patina, and surface detail and decorative elements used to obscure poor craftsmanship.
The sales pitch, compounded by a $30,000 loss to the bottom line for fiscal 1931, gave De Pree ample food for thought. While Rohde’s proposal to create modern furnishings was radical, there was—quite literally—nothing to lose in pursuing a different path than the one he was on. There was, however, another hurdle. De Pree couldn’t afford the $1,000 Rohde was asking for in exchange for his furniture design plans (more than three times what other freelance designers were charging to copy traditional furniture patterns out of books). Rohde instead proposed that he collect a 3 percent royalty on any furniture sold after it shipped. “How could we lose on that?” De Pree later remarked. Born out of the hardship of the Great Depression, the royalty model devised by Rohde is one that persists in the furniture industry today.
Herman Miller’s transition to becoming America’s foremost producer of modern furniture wasn’t accomplished without some resistance. While De Pree may have been swayed philosophically by Rohde’s point of view, upon receiving the first design drawings, he wasn’t convinced that the bedroom groups would be worth producing without alteration. “They were boxes. Utterly plain, no carving, no inlay.” He likened the streamlined, modular pieces to “manual training school designs.” De Pree wrote Rohde explaining that his furniture designs “needed surface enrichment and a number of other things to give it ‘eye value’.” In reply, Rohde reiterated his ethos and stated that Herman Miller could produce the furniture the way he designed it or not at all. Ultimately, exhibiting characteristic humility—or perhaps dumb-luck naivete—De Pree capitulated and put his faith completely in Rohde and his ideas.
The No. 2185 bedroom group debuted at the July 1932 summer market in Grand Rapids. Although Rohde’s seven new pieces bore no resemblance to the traditional suites Herman Miller was otherwise manufacturing, they offered a relatively conservative take on Modernism that aimed to be palatable to a completely unfamiliar audience. With clean lines and lack of surface adornment, the designs also forced Herman Miller to improve its manufacturing capabilities. Despite the furniture’s outwardly utilitarian appearance, Rohde’s penchant for exotic woods—a juxtaposition of dark Brazilian walnut and lighter English sycamore veneers—imparted a sense of luxury in keeping with the rest of Herman Miller’s line. The inclusion of a vanity—a nontraditional component that would appear in nearly every Design for Living House, 1933 21 bedroom group Rohde designed for the company—was a direct response to first-wave feminism and evidenced Rohde’s savvy in synthesizing broad social forces into new design solutions. Although Herman Miller was still in the red, the new furniture showed promise and contributed to a slight uptick in sales.
Less than a year after inking a deal to design a second bedroom set for Herman Miller (the No. 3305 group), Rohde approached De Pree with a unique opportunity. For the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair (A Century of Progress exposition), the designer intended to collaborate with architect John C. B. Moore to design a model house for the Homes of Tomorrow Exhibition. With a motto of “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts” and an overall theme of innovation, the fair was, in Rohde’s view, an ideal showcase for his forward-thinking approach to living space and offered a multitude of advantages over more traditional marketing avenues.
In a prospectus drawn up to secure De Pree’s participation, Rohde outlined the benefits of being part of the fair—a model he was familiar with from his study of modern furniture markets in Europe. He explained, “The publicity value of the exhibition is fourfold: direct presentation to the public; magazine publicity value; the use of exhibition house as subject matter of paid advertising; direct sales value and dealer tie-ups.” Though these points squarely addressed De Pree’s “twelve evils,” Herman Miller’s financial state at the time didn’t allow for the $4,885 expense. “I am quite convinced that the Century of Progress is on a sound basis and that if they complete all that they are planning to, it will be a wonderful exhibit… . However the total cost as given by you, plus the cost of building these rooms and marketing them, is too much,” wrote De Pree in January 1933. Upon receiving this, Rohde urgently sent a telegram with word that Heywood-Wakefield had agreed to furnish the ground floor—an open-plan living-dining-library room—and Herman Miller, at a reduced fee, could furnish the two upstairs bedrooms of the International Style home. Weighing his options, De Pree once again banked on Rohde’s vision and agreed to foot the bill. Herman Miller would produce not only bedroom furniture, but also seven radically modern clocks designed by Rohde in a variety of exotic woods, with accents of glass and chrome.
Every detail of the house’s interior was overseen by Rohde, from the aforementioned furniture and clocks to the wallpaper, light fixtures, rugs, and decorative objects. He furnished the master bedroom with Herman Miller’s No. 3317 group, which was made from dark castano wood and accented with sequoia burl veneers. The neoclassical shapes of the bedroom suite subtly referenced traditional forms, while simultaneously signaling the Machine Age with brushed chrome accents and hardware. One of the group’s most unusual pieces, a semicircular vanity, offered an experiment in space-saving design.
The second bedroom was furnished with the new No. 3314 group in ash wood. With the design, Rohde further extended the boundaries of his approach. Traditionally, men used upright chests to store their clothes, while women used lower, wider dresser units. In contrast, Rohde’s units were uniform in shape and height, allowing for storage to be concentrated on one wall of a room. The storage units initiated the “grouping principle” that would become a hallmark of Rohde’s approach at Herman Miller—and one of the designer’s major contributions to modern furniture design.
While the eleven other Homes of Tomorrow bore names that referenced their corporate sponsors—the Masonite House, the American Forest Products & Lumber Industries House, the W. and J. Sloane House—Rohde and Moore’s project was independently financed and referred to as House No. 4 up until a few weeks before the fair opened. It was then that Gladys Vorsanger, Rohde’s second wife and the influential editor of Women’s Wear Daily, suggested the name Design for Living after Noël Coward’s popular Broadway play. With a plot revolving around the risqué subject of a ménage à trois, the production’s set design included a lavish apartment furnished with Rohde pieces. Vorsanger knew that borrowing the name would likely raise eyebrows and in itself generate press attention.
When the Chicago World’s Fair opened on May 27, 1933, Herman Miller faced an uncertain future, and the bold experiment in producing Rohde’s modern furniture had yet to pay dividends. However, it soon became clear that Herman Miller’s participation there would not only sustain the business, but also catapult the West Michigan manufacturer onto the world stage. Close to twenty-two million people traveled to Chicago to attend the Century of Progress, with most paying an extra ten cents to tour the Homes of Tomorrow Exhibition. De Pree observed the visitors firsthand and absorbed their reactions. “The Depression days were still deep upon us, but I managed to spend a great deal of time in these houses to hear the comments of the people, which were very revealing. People were interested in this even though the store buyers were veering away from it. People of all types and status came into these houses and they understood there was something developing in this field that was very much worthwhile.” For the first time, De Pree was confident that his decision to partner with Rohde would prove successful and that there was a future in manufacturing of modern furniture. “It was wonderful to see the reaction. I became convinced this was not a fad. It was going to be acceptable.”
As it turned out, Rohde surpassed the goals of his initial prospectus. Thanks in large part to his relentless self-promotion, media savvy, and multitude of press releases featuring architectural photography commissioned from Hedrich Blessing, the Design for Living house received publicity in magazines and newspapers not only in America, but around the globe. The designs were praised by trade and interior publications, and garnered coverage in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. Internationally, it was the only one of the Homes of Tomorrow to be picked up by the influential Italian architecture and design magazine Domus, and it was also published in Mobilier et Décoration, a journal of contemporary French design. De Pree heeded Rohde’s suggestion to integrate fair publicity into the company’s marketing material—anticipating the central role the designer would soon play in developing a cohesive marketing strategy for the business. When Design for Living House, 1933 23 the fair opened, Rohde proposed re-creating rooms from the Design for Living house for department stores and went so far as to provide them with furniture layouts, wall color specs, and marketing copy—a model that Herman Miller would successfully implement some years later in stores like Wanamaker’s and within its own showrooms. For years to come, the labels on all of Rohde’s subsequent designs (even those not shown at the fair) read, “Century of Progress Furniture, designed by Gilbert Rohde.” Although it would still be some years before Herman Miller completely abandoned reproduction furniture and dove headlong into modern, with Design for Living, the proverbial stage had been set.
For the next decade, Rohde and De Pree pioneered a way of working that would come to define the principles by which the company operates to this day. Rohde’s 1930 appearance in the Grand Rapids showroom was “providential” not because the designer offered De Pree direct solutions to his problems, but because he opened his eyes to a different way of seeing. As a designer, Rohde’s success lay in his ability to perceive those underlying forces pushing and pulling on society and translate them—through new ideas, new materials, and new forms—into solutions that anticipated people’s needs. “You’re not just making furniture anymore,” Rohde told De Pree early on in their partnership. “You’re making a way of living—a lifestyle.” By virtue of Rohde’s ability to deliver on his prophecies, over time De Pree established a deep trust in his vision and permitted a wide range of activity—including industrial design, engineering, material innovation, manufacturing processes, marketing, advertising, showroom design, media relations, sales training, and even corporate strategy—to fall within the role of “designer.” Rohde, unfortunately, suffered from poor timing in life and in death: no sooner had the Great Depression faded than World War II began, and in 1944 the designer suffered an unexpected heart attack before it drew to a close. While Rohde’s broader contributions to the design field were largely forgotten to history, his impact on Herman Miller was monumental. Even George Nelson recognized that “we really stood on Rohde’s shoulders … and … moved from there.”
Reproduced by permission of Phaidon, May 2019. All rights reserved.
Get the book on May 29 on Phaidon.com, and use the code HMN25 for 25 percent off. You can also pick up a copy at Herman Miller’s NYC flagship store, which is currently holding an exhibition also entitled A Way of Living.