In the annals of American furniture design, few brands are as storied as Herman Miller, which was responsible for producing numerous iconic pieces by midcentury giants like George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi and Charles and Ray Eames—and which continues to break new ground in furniture, lighting and sustainable manufacturing practices. For more than two decades, Gary Smith has been one of the key personnel responsible for keeping the Zeeland, Michigan-based company at the forefront of the industry. As Vice President of Product Design and Exploration, he frequently interacts with new and established industrial designers and is constantly seeking design that aligns with the ethos of Herman Miller. Smith previously worked for toy giant Hasbro, designing products (including Mr. Potato Head) for infants and preschoolers.
How do you find out about new designers?
It's a rich mix—there's not a linear process. We pay attention to what's going on, we look at awards, we invite designers to send us links to their web presence. We try to be out there in the world, at conferences and shows, and meet people in person. We're at ICFF, NeoCon, Orgatec; we go to the Salone in Milan. Everything from design conferences to the consumer electronics show in Vegas—we're going to all of these. Invariably, because you're Herman Miller, if you're walking around and you've got that little red dot on, design finds you.
There's also word of mouth, social networking, digital media. We sponsor university projects, so I get to know young designers that way. A lot of times we get recommendations from clients. We also have a lot of designers in the company. Folks like Ben Watson and Chris Hacker, for example, who are more involved in brand and facilities design. They have their entire careers-worth of relationships.
We also find out about new designers when they send us unsolicited submissions: "Hey Herman Miller, you should make my coffee table." We're actually not interested in those. What I am interested in is a conversation about how their work illustrates their thinking. In other words, I'm interested in them, not their thing. We work exclusively from an outbound design brief. That means Herman Miller thinks deeply about where it's relevant in the world and the problems that exist, and we take our point of view and we write it in a brief. Then I give that brief to the designer who possesses the gifts I think most match the problem I'm trying to address.
What kinds of design are you looking for at the moment?
To answer this requires understanding what you mean by design. What I mean by design is human-centered problem solving. I'm not looking for styles. What I am looking for is a designer who has shown discipline to devote themselves to an idea, which demonstrates conviction, perseverance and a thought process.
So, first, I'm looking for design that is thoughtful, that embraces an intellectual thought process, and is foundationally premised in human-centered problem solving. Second, design that illustrates that the designer understands and has a sense of restraint; that style is subservient to the problem. I'm not saying everything needs to be austere, and I'm not making a comment about style. I'm simply saying that when style becomes the point, I don't find that to be very legitimate design.
Finally, I'm looking for designs that show a command of material choices and an understanding of operational processes. What is it made of? "I don't know but it's sure beautiful"—that's not a good answer. If that chair is made of plastic, I'd like the designer to understand the material and the process. If it's injection molded: flow, sink, gating, ejection, and draft. If that same chair is made of concrete then I want to know that that chair is not intended to be mobile. That's the kind of design I'm looking for.
The Cranbrook students were challenged to design furniture that embodied a "new vision of physical rest in a professional setting."
What's the best way for a designer to approach you?
Herman Miller is delighted to see your work as it illustrates your thought process and capabilities—but we don't review work with the expectation that we're considering it for commercial manufacture. That's the wrong premise for an introduction. It starts with the relationship, and clarity about the intellect and thought process of the designer, their command of the profession. Once you've passed that, then the possibilities are there.
The most simple thing is for a designer to send me an e-mail. Herman Miller isn't really that big. So designers can quite literally e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or if they're in Europe or Asia, they should e-mail Stephen Perkins: email@example.com. Stephen covers international territory and I cover the United States. If a designer's work bears the marks we've talked about, then they're welcome to send us a note.
And what should he or she not do?
I think more about what I would love to see. Herman Miller has a set of tenets, the things that become guideposts for how we evaluate design. To turn the question from do not do to please do: Please think about human-centered problem solving. Please have your work bear the mark of craft and quality. Please think about stirring the human spirit, making whatever it is impossible to dismiss. Please don't use style as a basis for a design's legitimacy. I'm not saying things shouldn't be beautiful—I love beauty and I love style—but style for style's sake isn't enough. Please think about these things in your work and I'd be delighted to talk to you.
Can you tell us about a recent successful collaboration with a young or emerging designer?
We recently worked with students at Cranbrook Academy of Art. We gave them a problem called Rest and Concentration in the Workplace. We gave it to a series of students, invested a full academic year with them, brought their work to ICFF—and then Cranbrook won the 2012 Editors Award for best university submission.
With students, we treat them like professionals, so we're going to give them honest and transparent critique. We're going to be pushing them hard. It's competitive. At the end of the first semester, there's usually a small contingent that we select for a deeper dive. And then in the second semester we get into materials, modeling, engineering, and messaging expertise. All of those things that help polish an idea. When they're done, they're going to have an actual, functional, full-scale, beautiful furniture piece for the ICFF. They have to polish themselves too. Hone their own message, and carry themselves with the air of a young professional. There are all these aspects, including the human interaction. The students were really amazing. They thought deeply about the problem, and Herman Miller helped them express their ideas in a commercial, quality way. In the process we revealed some remarkable young talent. That's a thrill for me, and it's a way for me to give back to the design profession.
I also want to be able to speak to that person who's graduated. They're trying to start their own firm, they're trying to figure out, "How do I get my break?" To that reader, I'd say: You have the opportunity to say something, so say something important. If you devote yourself to an idea, if your work bears the mark of human-centered problem solving and is crafted intellectually and physically, by all means we should be talking.
Bryn Smith is a writer, graphic designer, and critic based in Brooklyn. She is currently at work on a collection of interviews with legendary designers, and a book about the design studio Open. She teaches in the graduate graphic design program at RISD.