Behind the Scenes at Herman Miller

Craft & Design
Behind the Scenes at Herman Miller

I like Herman Miller furniture. You might remember that from a lecture I attended earlier this year. After getting to know some of the folks at the company this year, you realize (if you hadn’t already) that Herman Miller is a think tank of design lovers and people looking to solve problems. Considering Herman Miller as JUST office furniture means you’re missing the bigger picture. (But when it comes to thinking about Herman Miller as an extra inside the offices of “Mad Men,” I’m ok with that!)
Located on the west side of Michigan, Herman Miller has been a Mitten fixture for decades. The campus sprawls across town, housing factories, offices, design centers, testing facilities, and an archive. I was lucky enough to get a tour of all it last month and learn more about what inspires this company. Take a look.

Wherever you look around Herman Miller, you’ll find a piece of art waiting to inspire someone, whether it’s a vintage Eames chair or collections of folk art, like the pigs pictured above. As I started my tour with Mark Schurman, I saw these fellas right away, just outside the factory door where the Aeron chair is assembled. I’ve seen a lot of factories in Detroit, but this is the first time I’ve seen art collections right outside the assembly floor door. The company is passionate about crafts, and I could see why.
From the factory floor I took a look at the many showrooms that are present throughout the manufacturing facility, one of several in the state. From living rooms to hospital rooms, I saw how the furniture we take for granted every day is really a reflection of a changing culture. We work all over the place these days, from an open-air cubicle to a local coffee shop with a laptop and wireless card. As crafters, think of how you can transform any room in your house to fit your working needs.
From the factory we headed over to the archives, a real dream come true for any design lover. From vintage ads to furniture prototypes, I saw it all. The archives house more than 1 million photographs. It’s really amazing. I couldn’t help but think of how I save all kinds of empherra for the craft projects I get involved in and how I organize those. For the Eames fans in the crowd, this is where it’s at. Original blueprints, untouched pieces of Alexander Girard fabric, Eames films in pristine film canisters… a happy tear rolled down my eye. I’ve been watching a lot of the Eames films this summer, and I was always feel ready to take on a new project after watching them.
From the archives, it was off to the design center. Made to look a barn, it’s fascinating. It’s modern-looking yet practical. There are many smalls rooms, clusters of chairs and other small areas for groups to gather to work on a project. I got to see how Herman Miller’s furniture is tested. Tests can run for weeks to make sure the quality is 110 percent. Think about it – when you work on a new project, how far do you go to make sure it’s top notch? Throughout my tour, it was easy to see that while many of the processes at Herman Miller are automated, overall, it’s still a very hands-on process and mindset. Mark and I had a chance to nerd out about the company, discussing everything from intellectual property (you thought you worried about your crafts? Try being these guys) to what it means to be an icon (thanks, Charles and Ray!) and where we see today’s office going (communal).
The design center is packed with anything and everything that’s colorful, different, ready to help you develop your big idea. I saw a group of designers huddled together working on an assignment – who knows what they were working on!
After just a few hours at Herman Miller, I felt very proud to have such a great source on inspiration in Michigan. I left with a small bottle of honey from bees housed on the campus – yep, to keep the eco system in check, Herman Miller has bees working hard to populate the gorgeous wild flowers seen all around. The folks I met were proud of what they do and excited to be working on the next big thing. To get an idea of that passion, make sure to check out their blogs, Discover and Lifework. Photos from my tour can be found on Flickr.

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