The story of the furniture business that D.J. De Pree and his sons Hugh and Max helmed through the mid-1980s, and that continues to this day, is as improbable as it is inspiring. Much of the fact that there is still a story to tell can be traced back to D.J. and the unusual spirit that guided his approach to business. Unlikely though it may seem, it was his devout Christianity and rapacious appetite for the teachings of the Bible that led him to implement wholly progressive positions that would take Herman Miller in unexpected, but ultimately fruitful, new directions.
In 1927, when the company’s millwright died suddenly, D.J. went to pay his respects to the grieving widow. She showed him the exquisite handicrafts her husband had made for his home and the poetry he had written. After the funeral, while walking the short distance between the church and his home, De Pree acknowledged that his view of this man had been framed entirely through his position in the factory. He quickly came to understand that each of us are, in our own way, “extraordinary,” and adopted a different view of work and workers. D.J.’s epiphany led him to implement shorter hours, to move away from the piecework system that served neither the company nor all employees, and eventually to a form of participative management called the Scanlon Plan. “A business is rightly judged by its product and service,” he later wrote, “but it must also face scrutiny and judgment as to its humanity.” To this day, the company practices what Max referred to as “servant leadership”—the belief that leaders achieve their best when they discover what their followers need and help them reach their greatest potential.
During the Great Depression in 1930, it was clear to J.J. that the business was headed toward bankruptcy within a year. One afternoon, at the summer furniture market in Grand Rapid’s Keeler Building, a man by the name of Gilbert Rohde came into the showroom trying to drum up interest in his modern designs. “I didn’t grasp what he was driving at,” D.J. recalled, “but I was like a drowning man grasping at straws and wondering if the Lord was in his visit.” The company couldn’t afford to pay the designer’s fee, but instead Rohde proposed a three percent royalty arrangement based on future sales. After months at the drawing board, Rohde offered Herman Miller two bedroom groups that to De Pree looked like utterly plain boxes. Rohde insisted they be produced exactly as they were drawn, and eventually, it dawned on D.J. “that this man knew things that I didn’t know… I began to see that function and simplicity were truth in design.” The association with Rohde set Herman Miller headlong on the path toward problem-solving modern design. Perhaps even more importantly, it established a crucial role for outside designers at the heart of the company—a position that Rohde’s successor, George Nelson, expanded upon definitively and used to catapult Herman Miller onto the global stage. Of Nelson, Hugh De Pree once wrote, “Perhaps never has a designer so changed the philosophy, attitudes, and direction of a company… He became involved in the whole business… And in [a] very short time, he designed a ‘design driven’ organization.”
Herman Miller has grown exponentially and undertaken radical shifts and turns in its direction—from the needs of people in residences to institutions to workplaces to medical facilities and back again—but the spirit of Belson’s design-driven organization is very much in place today. In his introduction to the 1948 catalog, the designer codified the company’s approach, not only making it clear to customers that something different was afoot, but also providing a philosophy that informed the contributions of his contemporaries, such as Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard, and Isamu Noguchi, and has continued to resonate with future generations of Herman Miller designers and employees. The belief that well-designed products help solve problems and improve living conditions remains at the core of the company’s mission.
Fundamentally, a company that puts design at the center of its business is placing a bet on the future. For Herman Miller, that bet hasn’t always been a winner, but as Max De Pree once wrote, “In the end, it is important to remember that we cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.” While D.J. may have believed “that each of these points of change, directions, and decisions, were very clearly Prrovidentially directed,” over time the company built networks and capabilities—like the Technical Center and Research Division—to help guide its course and shoulder the risks. Even so, the world does not know it is ready for something like the Aeron Chair until there’s an Aeron Chair. The values D.J. an his sons passed along have helped to foment an atmosphere in which that kind of real innovation is still possible. In the end, those values return to a simple concept, one that D.J. learned early in his career from Gilbert Rohde: “The other thing that Gilbert Rohde said to me one day, he said, ‘You think the interesting thing in the house in period design—the interesting thing is the people who live there.’ This was almost an earth-shaking statement to me. I’d never thought about that. And later on he supplemented it. He said, ‘You’re not just making furniture anymore; you’re making a way of living.’”
Located on a flat wooded expanse tilting toward the shores of Lake Michigan, Zeeland was founded in the mid-nineteenth century by an organized church composed of God-fearing Dutch émigrés. The town developed from the same hardscrabble roots as many in the New World, but the no-nonsense, homogenous Zeelanders worked hard to maintain their Dutch customs and cultural traditions. Michigan’s bounty of old-growth forest was among their prime resources, and over time, they became proficient craftsmen and clockmakers. Loggers from around the state floated their trees along the coast of Lake Michigan up the Grand River as far as they could; burgeoning Grand Rapids, Zeeland’s largest neighboring city, became one of the nation’s leading producers of furniture.