America’s Modernist Pioneer: Herman Miller Vintage Classics

Herman Miller / Charles & Ray Eames Fauteuil et son repose-pieds. Herman Miller / Charles & Ray Eames Fauteuil et son repose-pieds. Sold for €6,630 via Cornette de Saint-Cyr-Bruxelles (May 2019).

Herman Miller vintage chairs make for some of the most popular American Midcentury furniture on the second market. Founded in 1905 as the Star Furniture Co, the Michigan company produced historic revival furniture, until the Great Depression propelled them towards worldwide recognition with a bold modernist approach that would transform the company from a regional furniture producer into a modernist pioneer, with the help of Charles and Ray Eames and a roll call of innovative designers.

Herman Miller brought about exciting change in the world of furniture design, as he swept away the stuffiness and assumed formality of imitation renaissance furniture and replaced it with new materials and technologies to create elegant designs that were functional, stylish, and showcased the beauty of the materials. 

Perhaps surprisingly though, Herman Miller wasn’t the designer who brought about this change. He was the financier. Herman Miller, purchased 51% of stock in the Star Furniture Co in 1923 and renamed it the Herman Miller Furniture Company after his son-in-law Dirk Jan De Pree was appointed president in 1919. And so, the change began.

But the company was in trouble when Miller and co came to the helm, and by 1929, as the Depression began to take hold, it only just managed to stay in business between increasingly infrequent orders, and there was opposition to changing the style that had made the company a moderate success. In retrospect it is clear that company was in good hands following the appointment of Gilbert Rohde, whose career as a furniture and industrial designer helped to define early American modernism.

Fresh Approach

Rohde’s new direction was confirmed in May of 1933, when his designs were exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair in as part of the Homes of Tomorrow Exhibition, but not even the boss, De Pree, was certain of the company’s new approach. 

“They were boxes. Utterly plain, no carving, no inlay,” said De Pree at the time. He likened the streamlined, modular pieces to “manual training school designs.” De Pree wrote to Rohde explaining that his furniture designs “needed surface enrichment”. De Pree capitulated and put his faith in Rohde and his ideas. And, thank goodness he did. 

The designs were lauded by the press, with coverage in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. On the international stage, Herman Miller was the only exhibitor from Homes of Tomorrow that was featured in the influential Italian and French architecture and design magazines, Domus and Mobilier et Décoration.

Rohde died at the age of 50, but his influence on Herman Miller was evident through his legacy. And, if Rohde changed the direction and style of Herman Miller then his replacement in 1945, architect George Nelson, would propel the company towards worldwide recognition through a series of collaborations that still hold a place in popular culture today.

Ingenious Designers

“Total design is nothing more or less than a process of relating everything to everything,” said Nelson. This ethos would lead him to recruiting some of the biggest names in world design, including Isamu NoguchiCharles and Ray Eames, Robert Propst, as well as textile designer Alexander Girard.

Perhaps top of the list of Herman Miller’s vintage design masterpieces is the Eames Lounge Chair, which remains instantly recognizable as a modernist classic: an enduringly fresh slice of modern design that remains as current today as it was when it was first introduced in 1956. The Eameses’ design is an updated interpretation of a 19th century club chair, taking its design cues from the bulky leather armchairs with rounded arms, tufted seat backs, and wooden accents.

A sign of the enduring appeal of the Eames lounge chair is that is has also featured in the well-appointed home of self-proclaimed style icon Frasier Crane. While this accolade will be lost on its creators, the appeal of its distinctive shape that blends luxurious office chair and a leather recliner to create a welcoming chair is just what Charles was aiming for, as he said he wanted the lounge chair to have “the warm receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt.”

High Creativity

This mastery of a new wave of American modernism was preceded by the Noguchi Table. Originally designed by Isamu Noguchi in 1939 for the president of the Museum of Modern Art, the design team at Herman Miller were so impressed by the table’s “biomorphism” that they recruited Noguchi to design a similar table to be sold under the Herman Miller brand. Carved from two identical solid walnut pieces, the groovy table became one of the most successful Herman Miller vintage designs. It was discontinued in 1973, but returned in 1984 for the Herman Miller Classics line and remains in production today.

This really was a time of high creativity for Herman Miller and this is perfectly expressed by Irving Harper’s Marshmallow Sofa, which remains a landmark of modern design, and is still turning heads and making people smile today. Combining an artistic approach with new production processes and a whimsical, playful style of design, the Marshmallow Sofa was issued by Herman Miller in 1956, but was dropped only five years later, making the original something of a collector’s item.

The atomic-shaped individual foam discs that make up the latticed sofa perfectly represented the atomic age and its progression towards the multi-coloured and groovy sixties. Herman Miller was seemingly always at the sharp end of these trends, as shown by the collaboration with Robert Propst, which was instrumental in bringing about modular office cubicles. It’s a trend that continues today ,with the highly-successful Aeron chair that has been described by GQ as “the only famous office chair for a reason”.

With a history of design like that there’s a lot to live up to. 

Find Herman Miller vintage furniture on Invaluable now!