15 Herman Miller Projects That Have Changed Our Way of Living

15 Herman Miller Projects That Have Changed Our Way of Living

By Kate Reggev
In the pages of Phaidon’s “Herman Miller: A Way of Living,” we find the evolution of the legendary furniture company—and its forward-thinking designs that have helped shape how we live and work.

Most design fans are familiar with Herman Miller’s extensive catalogue of furnishings by world-renowned designers. Originally founded in 1905 as Star Furniture Co. and rebranded as the Herman Miller Furniture Company in 1923, the company launched its first modern furniture line in 1933—with a set of bedroom furniture and seven "radically modern" clocks designed by Gilbert Rohde for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.

Phaidon’s "Herman Miller: A Way of Living"—at over 600 pages including references, an index, and a timeline—is filled with color illustrations ranging from inspiration images to Herman Miller advertisements.

Phaidon’s new book, Herman Miller: A Way of Living, is a must for design lovers, midcentury aficionados, and of course, Herman Miller fans. The book covers the history of the brand through 10 of their most significant collections and pieces, but also includes some of their lesser-known items that are equally thoughtful.

Spreads are colorful and engaging, with the majority of the content being visual images from the Herman Miller archives, from magazines and other publications, and various other publications.

Each chapter highlights how the ever-evolving culture of America, particularly in the midcentury era, affected the company, and how Herman Miller impacted culture in the United States through their furniture, textiles, housewares, design solutions and ideas, and associated artists, architects, innovators, and designers. 

Because the book is organized chronologically, it's possible to trace concepts, color stories, materials and processes, and design culture at large over the course of the 10 chapters.

Here, we've taken a look at some of these lesser-known but just-as-deserving pieces and spaces from their early days in the 1930s through more recent installations and items from the past few years—all of which are sure to inspire.

No. 3319 Group in the Design for Living House at the Chicago World's Fair, 1933

One of the furniture lines for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair was designed by Gilbert Rohde, the company's first in-house modernist designer (previously, the company produced more traditional furniture lines). The series was based on his "grouping principle" that made storage and dresser units all the same shape and height so that they could be concentrated uniformly on a single wall. At the time, traditional dressers provided different shapes and sizes for men and women, so this was a marked contrast and ended up catapulting the company onto the world stage. (No. 3319 Group bedroom chests displayed in the Design for Living House, 1933, Century of Progress exposition, Chicago World’s Fair.)

Paldao Group Tables, 1941

Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, Gilbert Rohde continued to design elegant, of-the-moment pieces that seemed to anticipate consumer's needs. In both his own office in New York City and in the pieces he designed from 1939 to 1941, Rohde began to exhibit an interest in curvilinear, biomorphic form—possibly inspired by the work of Alvar and Aino Aalto in the late 1930s. These undulating pieces by Rohde were show in an installation for the Contemporary American Industrial Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and were seen as one of the first biomorphic furniture designs that were manufactured in the United States. (No. 4187 and No. 4186 Paldao Group tables designed by Gilbert Rohde, 1941.)

Basic Storage Components, 1949

The regularity of Rohde’s pieces for the 1933 Chicago World’s fair would be a harbinger of the simple, linear modular designs that would continue to be produced by Herman Miller in the coming years. In 1944, Herman Miller replaced Rohde with designer George Nelson, who developed the Storage Wall and its subsequent iterations. The line was a step in a new direction, with standardized, prefabricated units that caused "an instant sensation" because of their simplicity mixed with unique, functional touches like a light-up mirror at a vanity, phonographs that were hidden away in cabinets that matched other credenzas and items in the same line, and trays that were integrated into coffee tables. These types of details became standard not only for Herman Miller, but for the industry at large, as their collections grew in popularity through the 1940s. In the Basic Storage Components line from 1949, for example, the phonograph was easily hidden away or opened up for use with a pull-down face panel.(George Nelson-designed room display featuring Herman Miller furnishings and Basic Storage Components, 1949.)

Action Office, Debuted 1964  

The Action Office line was one of the company's pioneering series of office furniture that sought to provide office workers with flexibility and the ability to move. A variety of postures was considered: stand-up desks, perching seats, and smaller sit-down units were all developed for the average worker who spends one-third of their day in an office, seated before a desk. As forward-looking and well-considered as the concepts and designs were, the line unfortunately met only modest success and hinted at the growing tensions within the company, particularly between George Nelson's office and cross-disciplinary designer Robert Propst. (George Nelson portrait for Alcoa Design Award feature in Fortune, 1965)

The Rosewood Group Miniature Chests

By the 1950s, George Nelson had begun to develop two highly versatile lines of furniture: the self-explanatory Steel Frame group and the more luxe Rosewood Group, which provided modular storage complemented by elegant silhouettes and porcelain hardware. The miniature chests and cases that were developed kept the refined materials and forms of the Rosewood Group, but replicated it at a smaller scale for smaller household items like sewing accessories, games, and jewelry. (George Nelson for Herman Miller: No. 5200-series miniature chests, advertisement designed by Will Burtin, Arts & Architecture magazine, November 1959.)

The Thin Edge Line, 1958

In 1958, the Rosewood Group was renamed Thin Edge not because of its revamped profiles and forms, but because of the expanded range of options and the inclusion of hardwood veneers on the furniture. Pieces like the Pretzel Chair provided an airy, sculptural counterpart to more rigid, regular lines of the group's chests and desks. The Pretzel Chair, made out of laminated and bent plywood and first produced in 1952, was very influential in the development of the more-popular Cherner armchair, also made out of bent laminated plywood. (No. 5733 Thin Edge chest desk with No. 5890 Pretzel chair designed by George Nelson, 1958.)

The Marshmallow Sofa

While not the most successful sofa in terms of quantity sold, the Marshmallow Sofa almost immediately became an icon of modern furniture design when it debuted in 1956. The  piece was originally conceived by Irving Harper, a staff designed at George Nelson, who wanted to use new technology that would injection-mold the cushions that essentially formed soft discs attached to a metal frame—a far cry from the chunky, bulky traditional sofas. However, the manufacturing process was unable to produce satisfactory results, and so the team resorted to discs that were plywood-backed and hand-upholstered, resulting in a very expensive—but eye-catching—piece . (The Marshmallow Sofa: promotional photograph featuring George Nelson and Associates receptionist Hilda Longinotti, 1956.)

Textiles & Objects Storefront

By the early 1960s, Herman Miller had expanded beyond home and office furniture into related areas including textile and object design. At the heart of the textile business for Herman Miller was Alexander Girard, who had been appointed in 1951 as the director for the newly formed Herman Miller Textile Division. In 1961, Herman Miller opened its first retail store, located at 8 East 53rd Street in New York City; the store, instead of showcasing the company's furniture lines, was dedicated to the textiles and decorative items that were brought together under the auspicious eye of Girard. The displays were masterfully created by Girard, who combined a riot of color and pattern—neon prints, bright stripes, boldly spotted accessories—into one space; the store acted as a marketing ploy that counteracted the cold, corporate nature of much of its furniture lines. (Textile & Objects storefront featuring silk-screened banner designed by Alexander Girard and dolls designed by Marilyn Neuhart, 1961.) 

Yet even before Herman Miller began emphasizing their textiles, the company was working with graphic design and incorporated bold, abstract shapes into their newly refreshed showrooms across the country. The abstract forms see on the column in this Herman Miller showroom in Chicago in 1949 represented the four furniture designers (Isamu Noguchi, George Nelson, Charles Eames, and Paul Laszlo), with the curved, abstract "M" at the bottom emerging as the Herman Miller logo in the 1940s. (Herman Miller Chicago showroom designed by George Nelson & Co., 1949.)

Showrooms continued to be an important way for Herman Miller to spread knowledge about their brand across the country, and Girard had an integral role in most of the showroom designs. In San Francisco, the challenge was to renovate a decaying Victorian-era theater and turn it into a new showroom in the Barbary District. Playing with the existing building's historic details, Girard contrasted the gold-leaf applique on the building's structural details with the clean lines and bright colors of the furniture. A decorative, custom storage wall with pink, purple, mustard yellow, and bright green panels was placed in the middle of the showroom, dividing the space. (Barbary Coast Showroom; bespoke decorative storage wall designed by Alexander Girard within San Francisco showroom, 1958.)

Comprehensive Panel System

In 1967, Hugh De Pree, the CEO of Herman Miller starting in 1962, attended a conference in Chicago on the growing popularity in Europe of open plan offices. As an attempt to fill the large, open floorplates that were becoming increasingly common in American workplaces, a system of panel-hung components—shelves, files, and desks—was developed in which the panels themselves formed short, solid walls that kept workspaces open but semi-private. The system was both economic in terms of space-saving, and also provided vertical space for hanging documents or storage. What's more, the system was modular, mobile, and relatively inexpensive—and ultimately changed the entire industry of office furniture in the United States. (Comprehensive Panel System designed by George Nelson, 1967.)

Aluminum Chair Group

As the open-plan office took hold in American workplaces in the later 1960s and 1970s, Herman Miller continued to refine and expand their office furniture for this new way of working. Furniture lines for open offices were made more enjoyable and work-efficient by the creation of office accessories like sound-dampening panels covered in Alexander Girard textiles, color-coordinating office chairs, filing cabinets, and shelving, and ergonomic office chairs, like the Aluminum Group chair designed by Charles and Ray Eames. (Secretarial office featuring Aluminum Group chair designed by Charles and Ray Eames, 1972.)

Isamu Noguchi's Playscape in Piedmont Park, Atlanta

Completed in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1976, Piedmont Park's Playscape was designed by Japanese-American designer and artist Isamu Noguchi. The park, Noguchi's only completed playground, showcases his interest in abstract forms and sculptural elements in its angular, zig-zagging pieces. Swings hang from offset bars, and triangular shapes are particularly noticeable. In 2012, Herman Miller established an employee-led foundation and giving program that funded the restoration of Noguchi's Playscape in 2014. (Noguchi Playscape designed by Isamu Noguchi in 1976 for Piedmont Park, Atlanta, Georgia, restored with a grant from Herman Miller Cares, 2014.)

Living Office Line, 2014

More recently, Herman Miller has continued to remain one of the biggest names in office furniture, and they introduced the Living Office line in 2013 at the NeoCon trade show. Living Office is an all-encompassing concept that current tools, technology, and management methods need to be "naturally human" if creativity and ideas are to thrive. In order to facilitate this type of living—both at home and in the office—Herman Miller sought to leave behind the status quo in workplace design and move towards a new model that was based on collaboration, mobility, technology, and innovation. Places to sit together, that emphasized flexibility, were a key part in the series. (Living Office presentation at Herman Miller Showroom, Chicago, during NeoCon trade fair, 2014.)

Living Office, 2015

Continuing into 2015, Herman Miller continued to show elements from their Living Office lines at the NeoCon trade fair, including this undulating series of sectional pieces that embodied flexibility and mobility in the form, color, and function of the seating. Guests could sit, perch, or lie down on the sectional, which could take on thousands of different shapes. Both graphic and playful, the piece got at the heart of Herman Miller's vision of Living Office. (Living Office presentation at Herman Miller Showroom, Chicago, during NeoCon trade fair, 2015.)

Herman Miller: A Way of Living
A chronicle of the rich history of this innovative furniture company, from its founding in the early twentieth century to today.

Get the Dwell Newsletter

Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.