Herman Miller, Inc. History

Address:
8500 Byron Road
Zeeland, Michigan 49464
U.S.A.

Telephone: (616) 772-3300
Fax: (616) 654-3418

Public Company
Incorporated: 1959
Employees: 6,001
Sales: $805 million
Stock Exchanges: NASDAQ
SICs: 2521 Wood Office Furniture; 2522 Office Furniture Except Wood; 2541 Wood Partitions & Fixtures; 2542 Partitions & Fixtures Except Wood

Company History:

Herman Miller, Inc., is one of the leading manufacturers of office furniture and furniture systems, second only to Steelcase in sales. Ranked since 1986 among the top ten in Fortune magazine's annual list of the 500 most admired companies, Herman Miller is esteemed as an innovator in furniture design, as well as for its unique commitment to employee relations and the environment. The company maintains operations in 35 countries.

Herman Miller was founded by D. J. De Pree, who bought the Michigan Star Furniture Company in 1923 with his father-in-law, Herman Miller, and a small group of local businessmen. The company was located in Zeeland, a town in western Michigan near the city of Grand Rapids. Settled primarily by Dutch immigrants, many of whom handed down a legacy of skill in crafting fine furniture, Grand Rapids and its surrounding areas had by the turn of the century become a hub for American furniture production. Nevertheless, the industry suffered from a lack of innovations, and despite the abilities of its employees, Michigan Star Furniture Company, like most furniture companies in the area, had developed as a manufacturer of high-end traditional style home furnishings, which were modifications of European designs.

De Pree renamed the company after his father-in-law, a major shareholder well known in the community, and set about trying to turn the struggling company around. However, both profits and employee morale during this time were low, and this trend continued through the Great Depression. In 1931 Herman Miller was primarily producing traditional furniture for the home, such as bedroom suites, which it marketed to such retailers as Sears Roebuck. De Pree's company was near bankruptcy.

That year De Pree was approached by the industrial designer Gilbert Rohde, who reportedly entered the Herman Miller showroom unannounced with a plan for a new look in furniture design. De Pree listened to Rohde's ideas and, attracted to the designer's straightforward approach, employed Rohde to design a new line of furniture for Herman Miller.

Rohde speculated that the decreasing size of modern homes would inspire a demand for a smaller, simpler, and lighter furniture style that De Pree referred to as more "more honest" than that of traditional pieces. Rohde's first designs, completed in 1933, were exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair, where they met with approval from retail buyers and enthusiasm from the general public. In less than five years, most furniture makers had adopted more functional styles similar to those of Rohde.

During this time De Pree, a profoundly religious man, had begun to regard furniture design as a moral issue, and he admired the simplicity, high quality, and utilitarianism of the modern designs. This sense of moral responsibility also pervaded De Pree's management style. In an often-repeated anecdote regarding the origins of the company's commitment to its employees, De Pree visited the home of a millwright who had died on the job at Herman Miller in 1927. At the request of the widow, De Pree remained to hear some poetry that she read aloud. Profoundly moved by the poems, he inquired as to the author's identity and was told that the millwright had written them. De Pree became intrigued by the question of whether he had employed a millwright who happened to write poetry, or a poet who worked as a millwright, and after that he sought to realize and encourage the hidden strengths and talents of all of his employees.

After Rohde's first efforts for Herman Miller met with success, he turned his attention to designing office furniture. Seeking to design an office more functional than decorative, he produced several different desktops, pedestals, and drawers, all of which could be interchanged to form a desk that would suit the user's individual needs. The Executive Office Group, the designs for which Rohde completed in 1939, was introduced in 1942. It included a creative L-shaped desk. Rohde also produced a design for a sectional sofa, manufactured by Herman Miller, that would exert a substantial influence on sofa designs in the years to come. With its revolutionary product line, Herman Miller's sales continued to climb and the company experienced considerable growth in the 1940s.

Rohde died in 1944, and one year later George Nelson, a young architect and the editor of the periodical Architectural Forum, was contracted as design director. By this time the company had abandoned all of its traditional furniture lines in order to focus solely on the contemporary. Nelson produced several creative and profitable office furniture designs as well as the classic Storagewall shelving and storage system, the "slat bench," the "pretzel armchair," and other residential pieces while also helping the company develop graphic design and advertising departments. Among his most important accomplishments at Herman Miller, however, was bringing the company together with such important design artists as Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard, and Charles and Ray Eames, which broadened the company's reputation for quality and innovation.

Charles Eames is widely regarded as a genius in contemporary furniture design. Working in collaboration with his wife, Ray, Eames experimented with new materials, such as molded plywood, fiberglass, aluminum, and wire, producing several distinctive pieces, primarily chairs, for Herman Miller. In 1946 he produced an influential design for a molded plywood side chair, and in 1956 he produced perhaps his most famous piece, known as the 670 swivel lounge chair. Consisting of a molded plywood back shell and seat shell with rosewood veneer padded with down, covered in leather, and supported by a five-prong stand, the 670 chair is known for its support and comfort as well as its light weight and casual form. The chair, one of Herman Miller's most successful products, was widely copied by other furniture companies.

By 1950 Herman Miller's sales had increased to $1.7 million. That year the company initiated the Scanlon management plan. Named after its inventor, a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the plan was based on the idea that employees could serve as a valuable source of ideas for operations and cost effectiveness and should therefore be called on to participate in management decisions. The plan called for team organization and provided employees with various incentives, including financial rewards for productivity gains. Revolutionary at the time, the plan proved successful for Herman Miller and has since been adopted by several other major companies.

During the 1960s D. J. De Pree's son Hugh took over operations, and Herman Miller began changing the configuration of the American office floorplan. The Action Office System, introduced in 1964, included freestanding desks, files, etc., that could be configured a variety of ways to form work arenas, specific to individual work needs. Then in 1968 Action Office products replaced the traditional construct of individual offices or large rooms with partitions and panels supporting desk components that could be easily moved or added on to, allowing for efficient use of floor space. The concept was created by a newly formed research team, headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and headed by inventor and sculptor Robert Propst. The team spent four years researching the needs of office workers, finding that the open plan system broke up the monotony of previous plans and provided an illusion of privacy for each employee while also allowing proximity for easy communication with coworkers. Furthermore, the Herman Miller Action Office system had the advantage of being cheaper to manufacture than the heavy wood furniture previously favored. It was the first open plan panel system in the world and subsequently fostered a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Herman Miller became a public corporation in 1970, and its stock rose steadily. In 1976 the company made a hit with its Ergon chair, designed by Bill Stumpf and based on the science of ergonomics, in which the worker's physical relationship to his or her environment and duties is given special consideration. The chair, featuring a five-pronged aluminum pedestal on casters and comfortably padded with an adjustable back support and seat, became widely used in American offices.

Although sales of the Action Office components continued to increase during this time, research during the 1970s indicated some drawbacks to the product. Some customers complained that the cubicles lacked privacy while simultaneously engendering a feeling of isolation among employees, who could hear but not see one another. In 1975 Herman Miller contracted Stumpf and designer Don Chadwick to come up with a solution. Chadwick and Stumpf worked for nearly three years on the project, traveling to Europe to study contemporary office buildings in an effort to capture a more humane spirit in their new office designs. In December 1978 they presented their design, entitled Buroplan, to Herman Miller. However, the plan's combination of futuristic windows, archways, balustrades, and windows with traditional freestanding desks was considered too eclectic, and the company rejected it, subsequently offering the two a chance to design a new office chair which was based on the design elements of the project.

Due to special challenges in finding the right materials, the chair took Chadwick and Stumpf five years to design, but the result met with enormous approval. Manufactured in 1984, the Equa chair was designed to provide "seating equity," or equal comfort for both the employee who spends a long period of time in the chair and the employee who sits only between frequent periods of motion. Offering support and comfort, without complicated mechanical adjustment knobs and levers, the Equa chair was offered in two models, a standard model selling for $320 and a high backed, leather model that retailed for $1,100. Time magazine later named the Equa chair one of three best products of the decade. The following year elements of Chadwick and Stumpf's Buroplan resurfaced in Ethospace interiors, an alternative to the Action Office system designed by Stumpf and Jack Kelley, which offered the worker a greater sense of control and more natural light.

Company sales saw unprecedented growth during the 1970s and early 1980s, increasing from $49 million in 1975 to $492 million in 1985. During this time Hugh De Pree stepped down and was replaced by his brother Max. Max De Pree developed a plan in which employees were allowed to become shareholders in the company, a practice that contributed to the company's inclusion in 1984 in The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America, by Robert Levering and Milton Moskowitz. However, earnings and stock prices fell late in 1985, and industry analysts speculated that the decline in orders from the computer and electronics industries and the large number of companies copying and marketing Herman Miller designs were to blame. Some maintained that Herman Miller had focused too long on improving its internal operations and had ignored the increase in competition. Others, including Herman Miller representatives, attributed the decline in earnings to the disappointing sales of the Ethospace system. Nevertheless, the company surprised investors, overcoming the slump by implementing an aggressive program to sway large corporate customers away from their competitors. They reported sales of $714 million in 1988, up 20 percent from the previous year.

The following year Max De Pree published a book on the Herman Miller management style, entitled Leadership Is an Art. Writing that "everyone has the right and duty to influence decision-making and to understand the results," De Pree emphasized the need to treat all employees as important contributors. He also stressed that in order to promote competence in a staff, a leader needs to form a "covenant" with the employees, attending carefully to their need for "spirit, excellence, beauty, and joy." Finally, De Pree maintained, the signs of a failing company included a "dark tension" among employees, an increase in the distribution of memos and manuals, and a lack of interest in company anecdotes and extracurricular functions. De Pree's book was well received, providing managers in other companies with insights to Herman Miller's success.

By 1990 Herman Miller's sales had reached $865 million, and the company began to expand its scope, acquiring other companies as subsidiaries and addressing new issues in the industry. The preceding year Meridian, a manufacturer of metal file cabinets, storage cases, and desks, was acquired. Other acquisitions included Miltech and Integrated Metal Technology, which fabricated sheet metal parts. Milcare, spun off from Herman Miller in 1985, sought to fill the needs of the healthcare profession, adapting the Action Office equipment for use in nursing stations, medical libraries, and hospital rooms. Also during this time Herman Miller sought to become a leader in conservation. Extensive recycling programs were implemented and the use of endangered tropical hardwoods, including the rosewood in the Eames 670 swivel lounge, was discontinued in favor of walnut, cherry, and other more plentiful hardwoods. The company has won several awards for its efforts to protect the natural environment.

Herman Miller furniture, particularly from the 1940s and 1950s, has become valuable among collectors. Several pieces are on exhibition in such major museums as the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution, and a large collection of Herman Miller furniture is featured at the Edsel Ford Design History Center in Dearborn, Michigan. Herman Miller's reputation for quality and integrity is widely recognized, and the company remains confident of continued success well into the 21st century.

Principal Subsidiaries: Meridian, Inc.; Phoenix Designs, Inc.; Integrated Metal Technology Inc.; Milcare Inc.; Powder Coat Technology, Inc.; Herman Miller Japan, Ltd.; Herman Miller Canada, Inc.; Herman Miller Ltd., England; Herman Miller Et Cie, France; Herman Miller (Australia) Pty, Ltd.; Herman Miller Deutschland, Inc. (Germany).

Further Reading:

  • Ager, Susan, "Philosopher of Capitalism," Nation's Business, March 1986, pp. 77-78.
  • Berman, Ann E., "Herman Miller--Influential Designs of the 1940s and 1950s," Architectural Digest, September 1991, pp. 34-40.
  • Berry, John, Herman Miller Is Built on Its People, Research, and Designs, Zeeland, Michigan: Herman Miller, Inc., 1992.
  • Brammer, Rhonda, "Not Miller Time? A Furniture Company Loses Some of Its Gloss," Barron's, October 7, 1985, p. 18.
  • De Pree, Max, Leadership Is an Art, Doubleday, 1989.
  • Geber, Beverly, "Herman Miller: Where Profits and Participation Meet," Training: The Magazine of Human Resources Development, November 1987, pp. 62-66.
  • Greenwald, John, "Advice to Bosses: Try a Little Kindness," Time, September 11, 1989, p. 56.
    Herman Miller, Inc. Annual Reports, Zeeland, Michigan: Herman Miller, Inc., 1986-1990.
  • Labich, Kenneth, "Hot Company, Warm Culture," Fortune, February 27, 1989, pp. 74-78.
  • McClory, Robert J., "The Creative Process at Herman Miller," Across the Board, May 1985, pp. 8-22.
  • Morrison, Ann M., "Action Is What Makes Herman Miller Climb," Fortune, June 15, 1981, pp. 161-77.
  • Nelson-Horchler, Joani, "The Magic of Herman Miller," Industry Week, February 18, 1991, pp. 11-17.
  • Skolnik, Rayna, "Battling for the Power of the Seats," Sales & Marketing Management, April 1987, pp. 46-48.
  • "Three Furniture Giants Acquire Competitors," Michigan Business, March 1990, pp. 12-13.
  • Wechsler, Dana, "A Comeback in Cubicles," Forbes, March 21, 1988, pp. 54, 56.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 8. St. James Press, 1994.

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