June 1, 2008
Out of the Shadows
With more people working from home, Herman Miller commissions a new line of domestic office furniture to accompany its famous Eames and Nelson pieces. But are icons born or made?
Cognita, a new storage bench designed by Blu Dot and made by Herman Miller, has a cushioned top for sitting on, a drawer, a supply tray, and enough space for filing a few years’ tax returns—or some clean linens. Is it a filing cabinet or a blanket chest? The ambiguity runs across the whole “Lifework Portfolio” of products, recently unveiled by Herman Miller for the Home. Table or desk? Cable storage or jewelry box? Long known for high-end seating and desk systems for the contract-furniture business, the company has now decided to turn its attention to the work habits of the middle-class home.
Among the demographic of iPhone, Wi-Fi, and laptop owners, working at home has become commonplace. Herman Miller’s researchers have compiled a barrage of statistics: the Dieringer Art Research Group estimated in 2006 that 28.7 million people worked from home at least one day a month, and IDC research reports that there are more than 30 million home-based businesses in the United States. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 68 percent of Americans now have a desktop computer at home and about half have a broadband connection. Working from home is not new, but it is a relatively new marketing opportunity. The first-generation “teleworker” of the early 1990s was, according to Paula Kendra, product manager for the Lifework project, typically a data-entry worker sent home to work with a remote terminal and home-office furniture purchased by a corporation. By contrast, the “lifeworker” is a manager fitting out a home workplace at his or her own expense. “As people move up in management and executive positions at companies, they’re starting to have more autonomy in terms of where and when they work,” she says.
In addition, the typical basement or spare-room office has been redistributed throughout the house. Technology has become ubiquitous enough that every householder might be doing some kind of “work” at home (homework, bills, booking flights, grocery shopping), in the kitchen, bedroom, or living room. About 18 months ago, Herman Miller approached four design firms in Europe and the United States with a brief to develop products for this new connected household: Korb + Korb (Baden, Switzerland), Industrial Facility (London), Blu Dot (Minneapolis), and Kaiju Studios (Rhode Island). “We needed to create solutions that could live front and center in the home,” Kendra says. “They needed to blend in with other furniture in the home and be something people are proud of, pieces that they want to look at on a daily basis and that function for all members of the household.” By this spring, the results of those commissions were already in production.
Those with a memory of the last recession might be forgiven for a sense of déjà vu. In 2000 the company launched Herman Miller Red, a subsidiary geared toward the dot-com start-up, with an array of ingenious modular desks, tables, and privacy screens in swooping forms and bright colors by six different up-and-coming designers, including Ayse Birsel, ECCO Design’s Eric Chan, Blu Dot, Fuse, Charlie Schreiner, and 5D. Small businesses could order furniture directly from a Herman Miller Red Web site. However, a year later, the economy, not to mention the contract-furniture industry, was in free-fall, and Herman Miller closed the business.
Don Goeman, Herman Miller’s vice president of research, design, and development, claims that this time around things are different. Red was caught up in the giddy exuberance of the dot-com era, with a matching “in your face” aesthetic, he says. Lifework aims for a kind of “simple honesty and elegance of materials” that sits well with the Eames, Nelson, and Noguchi classics in the Herman Miller line. “I think we’re at a much stronger place as a business, whereas previously when we went into a recession we ended up pulling the plugs on some new ideas to maintain the core. And our core is pretty strong and capable.”
Indeed, a significant factor in the decision to produce Lifework was the strong retail sales of Herman Miller’s triumvirate of office chairs—Celle, Mirra, and Aeron. People were buying office seating for the home but were going elsewhere (Ikea, anyone?) for the desk. To cover the gap, Herman Miller revived two classic desks from its archives, the brightly colored cube-and-wire-based Eames desk and storage units of 1950, and the 1958 Nelson Swag Leg desk. These become the cornerstones of the Lifework portfolio.
The company also learned from the Red experience how to expedite its famously lengthy and comprehensive research-and-development process. Products for the home need to be designed and produced quickly since, as Goeman puts it, “retail likes to be continuously stimulated with new ideas and concepts.” Designing self-standing desks and cabinets for the home is also a relatively unencumbered task compared with designing systems and seating for institutions, which needs to account for countless permutations. “It’s almost like fun again,” Goeman quips.
The combination of simplified brief and breakneck pace prompted some quick thinking. Blu Dot began by assigning all its employees the job of photographing their own home-office situations as they found them—no cleaning or styling permitted. “Even with a firm full of anal-retentive designers, our home offices were an organizational disaster,” Blu Dot cofounder John Christakos says. “The other thing we came away with was that a lot of home-office pieces had too much office DNA and not enough residential DNA.”
As both manufacturer and designer, Blu Dot was in a position to prototype its design proposals fully for Herman Miller, and it presented a desk and the storage bench, both aimed at “co-opting a residential typology,” as Christakos describes it. The bench struck more of a chord than the desk with Herman Miller. It was, Kendra says, “a no-brainer. Everyone was excited about that product.”
Over in London, Sam Hecht, at Industrial Facility refused to believe Herman Miller’s premise that people will buy a table specifically for work (“They use any table,” he says), so he designed a multifunctional piece that smartly employs a movable second tabletop. Nested under the primary tabletop on top of die-cast aluminum legs, the secondary surface provides a space to accommodate keyboards, power strips, and chewing gum—or slides out altogether. Since it is ten inches longer than the actual tabletop, the secondary one can also be positioned on the left or right to support a printer, fax, or scanner—or centered to take smaller peripherals. Hecht’s inspiration for the larger secondary surface was a literal sardonic design response to market research. “When Herman Miller briefed us, they said their marketing people had discovered—and I can’t remember the exact numbers—that New York liked fifty-inch tabletops and California liked sixty, and they’d be interested to know how we’d deal with that,” Hecht says. “We dealt with it by making the secondary surface sixty inches and the primary one fifty inches.”
At Korb + Korb, work had been under way for a year before the Lifework brief on a modular “plug-and-play” desk and cabinet system for Herman Miller in the United Kingdom. The desks and cabinets arrive flat-packed and can be snapped together without tools. The system is sold to the European contract market as a package of up to six workstations, satellite tables, and attachable extras (shelving, CPU holder, etc.) that can be clipped together in various permutations. For Lifework, the design has been simplified to a stand-alone height-adjustable desk and cabinets. According to Korb + Korb designer Peter Taussig, the goal was “simplicity and ease,” for both end user and facilities manager. Auditory feedback was designed to facilitate the assembly process, Taussig says, “so that people know the parts are fitting together properly. When the leg goes in, there’s a ratchet sound, a crrrrack! When the table snaps into place, there’s a click.”
Finally, at Kaiju Studios, inspiration came di-rectly from trying to strike a balance between the equally voracious forces of home and work. “Working from home used to be just paying bills, but now we’re bringing the workplace home, and with that comes computers, printers, iPods, iPhones, and all sorts of peripherals with their wires, plugs, and cables,” says Ayako Takase, who first worked with Herman Miller at Ayse Birsel’s office. “We didn’t want to lose sight of the home under all this technology.” The most expensive and luxurious of the new work, the desk has a white-satin-finish surface that curves up to meet a walnut storage shelf for portable electronics and opens in three sections to reveal a sizable storage bucket for cables, power strips, or jewelry boxes. “We didn’t want to dictate the use,” Takase adds. “There’s a lot of complex work going on at home. We were trying to separate it between analog or technology work, or depending on how you divide things, you could have a primary and secondary surface. You could put printers and peripherals on top, or maybe you could put your cat there.”
Of all of the new products, Kaiju’s seems to make the most explicit reference to its forebears, the Nelson and Eames desks. Takase cites the “perfect lines” of the Eameses’ work, and her desk’s sculpted legs recall those of the Nelson Swag Leg desk, named after the process used to taper tubes so they are narrower at one end. Hecht, whose table features slightly angled tapered legs, found inspiration in Nelson’s and the Eameses’ work but also a striking contrast. “My admiration for the period is generally informed by how much they were able to achieve with so little. The problem for Herman Miller now is that concept doesn’t really exist. So much is possible, so where do you draw the line?”
The designers’—and Herman Miller’s—response to this question is that you voluntarily create constraints, which is arguably a significant driver of furniture design today. After years of clever semantic games of making materials and products reference other materials, products, and ideas, we have come back around to publicly embracing the old Modernist axioms of truth to materials, efficiency, “honesty,” and “simplicity.” That this simplicity conceals some rather clever storage functionality that eclipses the capabilities of the Eames and Nelson offerings is what distinguishes this neo-Modernism from the midcentury strain.
How these elegant and clever new products will fare in the current economic downturn remains to be seen. In a sense, Herman Miller was asking its designers to make icons, or at least objects that would compare favorably with the icons of Eames and Nelson. But the irony is that the making of icons often has little to do with economic success. The Eames storage units were, according to the design and cultural historian Pat Kirkham, plagued with technical problems and poor sales, and withdrawn from production in 1955. Iconography is a cultural industry with a long-term outlook. Or as the late Bill Stumpf, codesigner of the iconic Aeron chair, once put it, “You can’t design an icon; it becomes one.”