Writing has a long and rich history at Herman Miller. As an invaluable action and output, it’s helped us articulate influential points of view on design and earn our reputation as an innovative, forward-thinking institution. The following is an introduction to the personalities and works of key writers from our past, including a designer, a researcher, a cultural critic, and two CEOs.
George Nelson’s influence on American modernism owes as much to his writing as to his Swag Leg Desk or his Coconut Chair. In fact, it was his writing that first brought him to the attention of D.J. De Pree, who, in 1947, hired him as the company’s second design director.
“Home is where you hang your architect.”
“What is remarkable about this enterprise is its philosophy—an attitude so deeply felt that to the best of my knowledge it has never been formulated.”
—from the intro to the 1948 Herman Miller Collection Catalog
“It is to be expected in such a social environment that D.J.’s concern with a moral base should come to be perceived as a charming, nostalgic relic of a bygone time. And yet it is central. Losing this core of meaning in work erodes the possibility of innovation.”
—from “A History Lesson” (essay), 1984
George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher
A complete retrospective of Nelson's work
Herman Miller leadership met Robert Propst at the Aspen Design Conference in 1958, a time when the company was mulling the need for a research department. Meeting Propst—an artist, teacher, and inventor—was the catalyst to spark action, and we hired him to direct our new Research Division. He guided our investigations into design problems until his retirement in 1980.
“The way we live in the home determines the man. It can shelter the barbarian; it can be the good soil that grows the civilized man.”
—from The Purpose of the Home
“There is little doubt that a new sense of mobility coupled with an increasingly mobile communication technology will further revolutionize the concept of the office. The office as a singular ‘my’ place that ‘I’ go to sit in every day may be drastically pluralized—many places with better work transaction potential than any single place.”
—from Ideas magazine, 1978
“The real office consumer is the mind. The subject starts there. More than anything else, we are dealing with a mind-oriented living space.”
—from The Office: A Facility Based on Change,1968
Caplan’s role at Herman Miller was that of an outsider: a critic whose opinions were always appreciated, even when leadership disagreed with them. Of his book, The Design of Herman Miller, he said, “It turned out to be probably the only corporate book ever written that got a bad review in the company newspaper.” Though he never had an official position within the company, he kept an office in our New York showroom and worked for Herman Miller as a consultant for 25 years.
“A climate loaded with designs clamoring for your attention is a climate in which you end up paying attention to nothing.”
—from “Notes on Attention,” 1978
“Setting the record straight is less important than getting the direction straight. It is important for new people to know what makes Herman Miller unique now, because that is what will keep it unique, however much the line or the competition changes. The uniqueness lies to a great extent in the company’s relationship with designers and in its consequent approach to quality.”
—from “Doing Quality”, 1978
“There is a Herman Miller myth to the effect that the company was shaped by design. The myth is no myth, but it would be more accurate to say that the company was shaped by designers.”
—from The Design of Herman Miller, 1976
Notes on Omission
Ralph Caplan's thoughts on the way omission can both improve upon and detract from design.
Notes on Tension
Ralph Caplan explores how tension and balance factor into the way designers operate.
Notes on Attention
Ralph Caplan's musings about how attention focuses effort during the design process.
Notes on Connection
Ralph Caplan discusses how connection in design relates to how an object fits within its greater context.
Hugh and Max De Pree
Herman Miller founder D.J. De Pree had two sons, both of whom went on to lead the company after their father stepped down as president and CEO in 1962. Hugh De Pree took over from 1962 to 1980. In 1986, he published Business as Unusual: The People and Principles at Herman Miller. Max De Pree served as president and CEO from 1980 until 1987. The following year, Max published Leadership Is an Art. Both books provide insight into the company’s unlikely success.
“Every family, every college, every corporation, every institution needs tribal storytellers. The penalty for failing to listen is to lose one’s history, one’s historical context, one’s binding values... without the continuity brought by custom, any group of people will begin to forget who they are.”
—from Leadership Is an Art, 1988
“The difference at Herman Miller is the energy beamed from the thousands of unique contributions by people who understand, accept, and commit themselves to the idea that they can in fact make a difference.”
—from Business as Unusual: The People and Principles at Herman Miller, 1986
Business As Unusual: The People and Principles at Herman Miller
Hugh De Pree's book about the building of Herman Miller
My Life with the Herman Miller Designers
The 1965 speech by Hugh De Pree at Rochester Institute of Technology
With the exceptions of Gilbert Rohde, who introduced modern design to Herman Miller, and George Nelson, who served as our design director from 1947 until 1972, no designer did more to shape Herman Miller’s view of design than the Aeron Chair co-designer, Bill Stumpf.
“What is felt with the fingers says much about the comfort of the entire chair.”
—Comfort Criteria, 1976
“The institutional value demands ‘cleaning up’ according to corporate rules of tidiness, whereas the less compromising residential value allows one to kick off one’s shoes, dress informally, scatter papers on the floor, eat a sandwich, pet the dog, whatever...’”
—from “Home Sweet Office,” Ideas, 1978