Of all the companies that I am a fan of, and look to for insight and inspiration, Herman Miller takes the cake. As an aspiring artist/entrepreneur, I see this company as a rare example of an organization that strikes the balance between manufacturing some of the most respectable designs in the world while having a no nonsense approach toward it's business practices.
Herman Miller was established in 1923 in Zeeland, Michigan, when founder D.J. De Pree purchased his employer, the Star Furniture Company (founded in 1905). Amid the Great Depression seven years later, De Pree was looking for a way to save the company when he met Gilbert Rohde, a designer from New York. Rohde convinced De Pree to move away from traditional furniture and to commit the company’s focus to “modern” furniture.
From then on, Herman Miller developed lasting ties with many of the world’s great industrial designers including George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard, Robert Propst, and many more. As a designer myself, it has been these giants who's shoulders I have perched on the most.
Not only did Herman Miller lead the modernest movement in America, but they have always been great at being thought leaders, being the first to make their catalog, The Herman Miller Collection by George Nelson, more of a collectable by putting a three dollar price tag on it. Since then they have published many catalogs and books that blur the line between promotional material, and educational literature, such as The Action Office by Robert Propst & George Nelson, Business as Unusual: The People and Principles at Herman Miller by Hugh D Pree, and Leadership Is an Art by Max De Pree.
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My personal favorite has been their publicity material in the last few years they call Living Office. In fact, I have encouraged my own daughter - a budding designer - to memorize their insightful break down of ten office activities (chat, converse, co-create, divide and conquer, huddle, warm up and cool down, create, show and tell, process and respond, and contemplate), and their ten office settings (haven, hive, jump space, club house, cove, meeting space, landing, work shop, plaza forum).
And if my interest in their designers, and thought leaders weren't enough, I found confirmation in my last five year obsession, and dare I say new religion, when I discovered they too have joined on the Lean Manufacturing band wagon.
Mastering 5-axis CNC routers, Herman Miller manufactures six chair arms at once. Conventional woodworking equipment physically could not make that arm.
So guess who's show room I went to at this years Neocon, armed with my new Woodworking Network Magazine Press Pass? You guessed it.
I was incredibly lucky to be introduced to Jamie Schwartz, director of New Product Development Specialty, and Dan Miller, director of product development & innovation for Geiger, a subsidiary of Herman Miller. Both Jamie and Dan are graduates of Rochester School of Technology, woodworkers, and equally passionate about the artistic and entrepreneurial legacy of Herman Miller.
Jamie explained how they focus on craftsmanship while meeting the demands of mass production, and “try to do as much as they can to make things look like they are hand made.” Jamie and Dan took turns pointing out all the craftsmanship and innovation built into two of the chairs on display there at their show room, Crosshatch, and Full Twist.
They did what I love to do when showing off my work, turning each chair upside down to show off the quality that's hidden underneath, and then sharing all the different production operations that goes into each chair. By mastering the awesome capabilities of their five-axis CNC routers, they can manufacture six chair arms at a time for their Full Twist chair.
Now I'm a believer: the furniture industry needs more respect for craftsmanship in which the technology is like an extension of the human hand
Jamie explained that “conventional woodworking equipment physically could not make that arm. This radius is changing, getting smaller, and twisting by using lathe-based machines that can turn the piece 360 degrees, while the router heads can also articulate around the stock.”
“As the machines are doing their magic, they should be playing classical music in keeping with the beauty of the operation,” Jamie Schwartz says. “The accuracy is impeccable, the sanders have very little clean up after the initial milling.” He went on to explain that they try and use all mortise and tenon joints where they are able, only in certain cases, where there is short grain, do they substitute dowels.
Jamie's excitement was palpable as he shared his passion for woodworking, and his love of their technology, calling their machinery “an industrialized version of the human hand.”
I have to say they were able to make a believer out of me, and I'm a hard sell. I have always believed more in low tech solutions, and have a personal distaste for automation.
For me, the furniture industry needs more of this, a respect for craftsmanship in which the technology is like an extension of the human hand, and the humans behind the technology are fueled by passion and love for the products they build. I'm excited to take up their offer to visit them again at their manufacturing facility in North Carolina, and see the magic for myself.
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