Business As Unusual

Posted February 17, 2014

The President of Herman Miller from 1962 to 1980 reflects on his experiences.

Herman Miller

Excerpts: “George Nelson recalled how he happened to be hired: ‘I felt obliged to this utterly sincere and good man that I really didn’t know much about furniture. D. J. (DePree, father of Hugh and Max DePree, and longtime CEO of Herman Miller) listened very solemnly, and when I told him to go look for a designer who had been in a furniture factory, he said, ‘O.K.’ And he went.”

EAMES_BUSINESSASUNUSUAL_post-494x800I forgot all about them. They were gone for like four to six months, and suddenly they came back. ‘It’s very nice to see you,’ I said, ‘but what are you back for?’  D. J. said, ‘Well, we did see a lot of designers who knew a lot about furniture and everything. You have no idea how many telegrams we got before poor Gilbert Rohde was cold in his grave, from people who were going to lead us to the Promised Land.’ Then D. J. told me they had gone and visited every one of them. He said, ‘We talked to them and looked at their stuff. They were all just terrible. All their furniture was awful.’

“This was a very honest man. He had a nose for fakery. He understood dishonesty. It wasn’t so much aesthetics, but if a thing struck him as not an honest statement of whatever it was supposed to be, all the bells started ringing and the red lights went on. This is what protected him.

“Then D. J. said, ‘So we’re back because we figured that all these experts being as bad as they are, we couldn’t do worse than get somebody who didn’t know anything. So how about it?’ So we made a deal.

“George brought in Charles Eames.

“Great success came to (Charles Eames) because he had great personal discipline, was obsessed with quality and excellence, made outrageous demands of those who worked for him, had few clients and concentrated on fewer projects. The distinguished M.I.T. scientist, Philip Morrison, who sometimes offered learned advice on his film projects, saw him in a singular light: ‘People like to see unity in the world. And there is deep unity in the world. The work of Eames stands as an enormous unity of its own.'”