The history of Herman Miller design has always had a somewhat utopic and storybook allure for design lovers. For starters, the setting is an unusual one: the company known for shepherding modern furniture into American homes and offices is and has always been headquartered in Zeeland, Michigan, population 5,500. Despite this, the major players read like a rolodex of famed and irreverent mid-century architects and furniture makers—Gilbert Rohde, George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi, the Eames’, Alexander Girard, Robert Propst. Working for Herman Miller under Nelson, designer Irving Harper dreamt up both Marshmallow sofa and the Herman Miller logo. Internal posters designed by Steve Frykholm, who was the company’s design director until last year, are now a part of MoMA’s permanent collection. He made them for the annual company picnic.
It’s a design-led company, through and through. D.J. De Pree, Herman Miller’s founder, was a visionary who brought on the most forward-thinking practitioners as his consultants and design directors, and then gave them the freedom to push forward into unknown territory. But to look at the names in the paragraph above, you’d think that Ray Eames was the only woman who ever had a significant impact on Herman Miller’s design history (standing, as she often is, in a lineup of prestigious males, reduced to a shared surname). She is not.
“I’ve been at Herman Miller close to three years,” says Herman Miller archivist Amy Auscherman, “and one of my personal projects is identifying women who have worked for the company who, aside from Ray Eames, really haven’t gotten much play.” Alongside running the company’s extensive (and famed) company archives, Auscherman also sits on the editorial board for Why, the online design publication published by Herman Miller. Why recently ran a piece on the graphic designer Tomoko Miho, who under Nelson—and later under John Massey, then much later for her own design office—designed a ton of print ephemera, showroom signage, advertisements, and posters for Herman Miller, many of which are stand-outs in the company’s fluctuating graphics history. Adrian Shaughnessy, who wrote the piece, even makes a case to how Miho’s 1960s catalogs were a major influence not just Herman Miller, but furniture catalog design as whole. Miho was a 1993 AIGA Medalist, and is the subject of a book published by the Hall of Femmes project in 2013, but information about her is still relatively scarce.
Around the same time that Miho started designing for Herman Miller, Deborah Sussman also did some work for the company, through the Eames office and later with Girard. Then in the 1970s and ‘80s, Frykholm was joined by Linda Powell and Barbara Loveland to form Herman Miller’s first official graphic design department (they’d like you to know they worked with Frykholm, not under him) and designed some truly memorable internal posters, invitations, publications, marketing materials, and environmental graphics, even if they haven’t yet made it to MoMA.
But one of the most surprising figures Auscherman has unearthed in her research is Peggy Ann Rohde, the wife of industrial designer Gilbert Rohde who came on as Herman Miller’s first design director in the ‘30s. While Gilbert Rohde’s office designed the furniture collections that set the foundation for Herman Miller design, she designed and illustrated marketing materials, as well as some of the first catalogs. So not only does Herman Miller have some supremely notable women lurking in the corners of its rich graphic design history—the company’s graphics history actually began with a woman.
This is not to say that the men credited with defining Herman Miller’s design did not do so—but they did have help. So let’s try something a little different, and explore the history of this design-rich company through the lens of the women who helped form it.
The history of Herman Miller kicks off in the early 1900s, in the small town of Zeeland, where D.J. De Pree asked for a loan from his father-in-law, a businessman named Herman Miller, to buy a company called Star Furniture. From then until the 1930s De Pree’s business was making imitation furniture made to look like antiques—until he hired industrial designer Gilbert Rohde as the company’s first design director. Rohde appealed to De Pree’s religious side in his argument for transitioning the company to modern furniture; he reasoned that it was immoral to make new furniture that’s represented as old. By the time Rohde died in 1944, he had successfully turned the company into a high-quality modern furniture producer.
Even while Gilbert Rohde worked for Herman Miller, he maintained his design office in New York, which was taken over by his wife, Peggy Ann Rohde, after he died suddenly of a heart attack. She completed the projects that were still ongoing, but De Pree ultimately “didn’t want to work with a woman,” Auscherman says. “So she wasn’t kept on.”
Yet while Gilbert Rohde was still alive, she assisted with the administrative work as well as the design work, acting as a liaison between their office and De Pree. In the early ‘40s, she designed the catalog for Rohde’s Executive Office Group, determining the layout and illustrating it herself.
“I started looking her up when I first started at Herman Miller,” Auscherman says, “because we have a catalog that says, right on the front, ‘delineation by Peggy Ann Mack.’ I didn’t know who that was.”
Peggy Ann Mack, it turned out, was a student of Gilbert Rohdes at the Design Laboratory where he taught in New York. After they married, he brought her on to help run the business. Though communications design was more or less her domain, she also had an expertise in industrial design that she never got much credit for. After Rohde died, she wrote a book called Making Built-in Furniture.
Tomoko Miho & Deborah Sussman
In the decades to follow, Tomoko Miho and Deborah Sussman would have a major impact on the graphic design emerging from Herman Miller. The two designers did not work together—Miho started out working for George Nelson in his office in New York, while Sussman was in L.A., working in the Eames office. Auscherman speculates that if they did know each other personally, it would have been in passing, and it wouldn’t have been through their work with Herman Miller. Their work was specific to the furniture collections designed by the offices they worked for, yet looking back, each brought her own distinct style to the Herman Miller graphic output of the time.
Once Gilbert Rohde passed, De Pree went looking for someone to fill his role as design director—and to continue the model of Herman Miller licensing designs from leading design offices, which Gilbert Rohde had put in place. He found that person in Nelson, who had just written his book Tomorrow’s House where he introduced his innovative “storage wall” concept. The architect’s proposal to build furniture right into the house rattled many furniture makers at the time, but it intrigued De Pree. He brought on Nelson to run the design, but like Gilbert Rohde, Nelson kept his office in New York. Nelson employed many women for the time—Auscherman goes so far as to call him a feminist—and that’s where Miho got her start as a graphic designer.
Besides the collections he contributed himself, one of Nelson’s biggest contributions to the company was getting De Pree to bring on friends of his, like the Eames’, Noguchi, and Girard. Each office did all the advertising and showroom design around the products they produced through Herman Miller. There wasn’t an internal design department until Frykholm came on in the 1970s.
Sussman created graphics for Herman Miller through her work with both the Eames’ and Girard. Many of her designs, like the ones for the Eames Tandem Seating mailer, are very clean and Swiss in style, rendered in black and white with a prominent grid. The Eames’ beloved “Beware of Imitations” advertisement, was created by her, and you can see in that some of the playfulness and tendency toward environmental graphics that she became known for. A brightly colored ad for a sale that she did for Girard nods toward her later, famed “supergraphics.”
Miho, on the other hand, was more subdued. Her work combined “European modernist principles with a Japanese mastery of spatial planes” and “manages to deliver the intended message with the utmost clarity,” as Shaughnessy writes in Why. This can be seen in the many promotional materials she designed for Herman Miller during her time at the Nelson office, then later after she moved to the Chicago-based Center for Advanced Research in Design (CARD) office to work for John Massey. (Auscherman notes that the fact that Herman Miller was her client in both offices was likely a coincidence. That she continued to do design work for Herman Miller when she opened her own office is testament to her good relationship to the company.) Miho’s design work outside of Herman Miller is influential as well (her metallic “Great Architecture in Chicago” is in the permanent collection at MoMA and is almost cultishly sought-after), but her work over the course of two decades with the company was significant for shaping its visual design legacy.
Her trademark clarity and precision came into prominent play in designing the 1964 catalog for both beauty and function. The sleek photography, silhouetted chairs, and functional design went on to have a big impact on catalog design.
Barbara Loveland & Linda Powell
In 1970s, Herman Miller hired Frykholm as its first in-house creative director and graphic designer. In 1976 and ‘77, it hired Linda Powell and Barbara Loveland, respectively and with the addition of Rob Hugel in the ‘80s, they formed the core internal graphic design group throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Herman Miller is becoming more consumer-facing again, but after ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s there’s this dark age of Herman Miller not really being a participant in graphic design,” says Auscherman. While in the ‘50s and ‘60s the company was defined by graphics coming from the renowned offices they worked for, the first internal design team focused mostly on internal communications. With more of a business-to-business model, there wasn’t much need for consumer-facing advertising.
But that didn’t mean they skimped on the quality. Frykholm’s picnic posters deserve all of the praise they get. Both Loveland and Powell designed invitations, holiday cards, annual reports, publications, poster series, and mailers that are visually striking, playful, and forward-thinking. Today, they both have work in the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. “The job was kind of, ‘We need a Christmas card, so you do the Christmas card,’” says Auscherman. “But then you look at the Christmas cards and they’re super psychedelic. It’s actually pretty amazing that they had that sort of latitude to design what they wanted.”
Herman Miller’s binders, boxes, and folders used by marketing and sales were designed impeccably by Loveland, who created a system that used the red-on-red dot pattern with the company name running along the right edge. She also designed a very ’80s-looking neon sign that hung outside the cafeteria in a West Michigan Herman Miller facility that housed the showroom, as well as a series of 12 abstract posters that each highlighted a simplified product detail from the furniture system.
Powell designed the covers of Ideas magazine, an internal publication, environmental graphics for the showroom, and a series of posters for the annual Herman Miller employee Christmas party, among other things. Both she and Loveland went on to teach at Ferris State University, in Big Rapids, MI, and in recent years have dedicated much of their time to founding and maintaining the Graphic Design Archives of West Michigan. The online archives host a growing collection of graphic material from businesses in West Michigan, including much of Loveland and Powell’s work for Herman Miller.
It shouldn’t be so surprising that a company as large and design-focused as Herman Miller provided a home and a launching pad for so many women’s design careers. But there’s little evidence of the people behind the big names—the graphic designers working in industrial design, the women who left behind a trail of inspiring graphic works. Taking a fresh approach to a well-told history often unearths these hidden figures. We just need more people like Auscherman willing to do the digging.