Lessons in Good Design From the 1952 Herman Miller Catalogue

Herman miller collection
credit: Herman Miller Catalog 1952

When the news came out in July that Herman Miller was buying Design Within Reach, I wanted to do this post but I am renovating my house, and my Herman Miller 1952 catalogue was in a box somewhere. Brian Walker, Herman Miller's CEO said at the time that "The addition of DWR is a transformational step forward in realizing our strategy for diversified growth and establishing Herman Miller as a premier lifestyle brand". In fact, that's what Herman Miller was in the early fifties, and what a remarkable lifestyle it was that it promoted.

credit: Herman Miller

In the 1930s, designer Gilbert Rohde convinced the founder of Herman Miller, D.J. De Pree, to stop doing period reproductions like everyone else and do something different. Ralph Caplan writes in the introduction to the 1995 reprint of the catalogue:

Families were getting smaller, Rohde argued. Houses were getting smaller too, with lower ceilings. People in cities were living in apartments that could not accommodate traditional furniture, either spatially or aesthetically. Also, values were changing. Respectability and worth were no longer expressed by bulk and weight or by ornate carving. There was a new and simple honesty.

As an example of this new thinking, Rohde designed the gateleg table shown above, a gateleg design that folds up into a very small space. It looks remarkably similar the IKEA one shown in the inset, although the cutouts for the drawer pulls look even more contemporary on the original.

credit: Herman Miller Catalog 1952

After Rohde died, De Pree hired George Nelson, an architect working as a magazine editor with little experience in furniture design, to take over. Nelson developed a modular system of cases and parts that the customer could assemble in different forms to fit any space. HiFi systems and TVs could be built right in. It was "a simple, yet remarkably flexible system for creating custom-designed and built storage walls at production prices." In the introduction to the 1952 catalog he laid out what he thought was the essence of Herman Miller design. I repeat them here because they are as appropriate today as they were in 1952.

credit: Herman Miller Catalog 1952

What you make is important.

Herman Miller, like all other companies, is governed by the rules of the American economy, but I have yet to see quality of construction skimped to meet a popular price bracket, or for any other reason. Also, while the company has materially expanded its production, the limits of this expansion will be set by the size of the market that will accept Herman Miller's kind of furniture- the product will not be changed to expand the business.

The unit shown sits on a George Nelson bench that is still manufactured.

credit: Herman Miller Catalog 1952

Design is an integral part of the business.

In this company's scheme of things, the designer's decisions are as important as those of the sales or the production departments. If the design is changed, it is with the designer's participation and approval. There is no pressure on him to modify the design to meet the market.

George Nelson was not the whole show, or even the media darling; Isamu Noguchi designed for Herman Miller, as did Charles and Ray Eames. According to Carson, "Noguchi asked If a coffee table has a beautiful sculptural base, why not give it a glass top so that you can see the base?" I am not sure he would be amused by this website.

credit: Herman Miller Catalog 1952

The product must be honest.

Herman Miller discontinued production of period reproductions almost twelve years ago [this was written in 1952] when Gilbert Rohde had convinced the management that imitation of traditional designs was insincere aesthetically. (I couldn't believe this when I first heard it, but after my experience of the past few years I know it is true)

There was a lot of thought given to small space living and transformer designs; this coffee table had two hidden racks and could be extended to six feet long, and had removable serving trays hidden in it.

credit: Herman Miller Catalog 1952

You decide what we make.

Herman Miller has never done any consumer research or any pretesting of its product to determine what the market "will accept." If designer and management like a solution to a particular furniture problem, it is put into production. There is no attempt to conform to the so-called norms of "public taste", nor any special faith in the methods used to evaluate the "buying public."

The gateleg table shown here goes through a number of different configurations to expand so that it can seat eight generously.

credit: Herman Miller Catalog 1952

There is a market for good design.

The assumption has been more than confirmed, but it took a great deal of courage to make it and stick to it. The fact is that in furniture as in many other fields, there is a substantial segment of the public that is well in advance of the manufacturers. But few producers dare to believe it.

Here is an example of the mix of shelves, boxes, speaker and even a classic clock.

credit: Herman Miller Catalog 1952

Modern tech, like the radio and record player, were integrated right into the furniture, making great use of the usually dead corner.

credit: Herman Miller Catalog 1952

Most of the George Nelson modular system is no longer made, but the Eames chairs in the catalog are still in production, and I keep hoping that Herman Miller will bring more of the line back, with the current rage for midcentury modern design. With the continuing trend to highrise living in smaller spaces, the conditions are ripe and the demand is there for what George Nelson called the Herman Miller philosophy: Let the furniture speak for itself.