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How Can We Work Better?

For Industrial Facility’s Kim Colin, good business starts with good design.

Written by: Kim Colin
Artwork by: Mikkel Mortensen

At a fundamental level, good business depends on a company’s ability to recognize good ideas, implement them, and grow their knowledge base. But where are ideas found, and how can a company capitalize on them effectively? It’s often imagined that good ideas are “somewhere out there,” not nearby. And there is certainly value in looking outside the company—to R & D, trade shows, news, competitors, or even crowdsourcing networks. But more often than not, good ideas come from within.

Collaboration, the creative act of sharing knowledge and developing new ideas among individuals working together, is now understood to be the key component of getting to these good ideas. It is the accelerator that increases business process time and effectivity. At its most productive, it is a working method that gains strength in collective momentum through individual contribution. But collaborating is not linear, where one idea leads directly to another, improving as it goes along and gaining consensus. Instead, the process is unpredictable and spontaneous, random, and a little chaotic.

Imagine a swimming pool, where multiple ideas are floating and bobbing around, sometimes meeting each other, then pushing off, crossing the paths of other ideas, and carrying on. Let’s take this pool to represent the unbounded open office plan. If an organization then adds swimming lanes to the pool, the new boundaries would appear to lend some efficiency. We could consider these lanes like a typical configuration of workstations. What had seemed like a chaotic world would now be superimposed with what looks like discipline. But this efficiency might be short-lived because the ideas in the pool are only as good as the lane they are in. They are bounded by a linear concept, rather than moving freely in the open pool.

Single L-Desk with a Partial Display.

For me, this analogy highlights one of the key dilemmas organizations face in locating and promoting internal knowledge networks and supporting idea generation: The environments—the actual places where work happens—are unfavorable to these critical activities. The office paradigm honed by corporate real estate and the industries that serve it is one in which every drop of value is extracted from every available square inch of space. And the environment itself, for reasons of ease for the facility—not for the people working in it—has become standardized and homogeneous. These kinds of offices may be quantitatively efficient on one level, but they are not qualitatively effective at another. Increasingly, organizations are becoming aware of these true costs.

Another analogy might be found in education. Traditionally, classrooms have been subdivided into a grid. Each student had a small desk, aligned in a neat row with other students’ desks, which were all separated by a buffer space. This allowed the teacher, the central keeper of the knowledge, to pace the rows, making sure of authority and noting achievement on an individual basis. Any action requiring discipline was instantly visible. Individuals were arranged so that ideas could only be directed toward the teacher, rendering all but one student at a time relatively passive in the process. Teaching in this manner reflects a prescriptive rather than a creative process and depends heavily on the strength of the teacher and the atmosphere she creates.

A Hive setting outfitted with a Double L-Desk and two Double D-Desks.

oductive knowledge sharing takes place. This shift is significant because children who are comfortable working together can solve problems together and learn from each other at an accelerated rate—faster and more consistently than learning just from the teacher. Classrooms that have adopted such structures have seen improvements in engagement and confidence, with an overall effect of increased well-being. These progressive schools foster social, collaborative skills because they know that individual minds prosper when there’s a common purpose, and that purpose comes naturally in an environment that encourages participation through clustering.

In this classroom analogy, one might also detect a fundamental shift in our attitudes about work. It is clear in comparing the two examples that they each have a different emphasis. In the former, it is to be educated—the didactic process. In the latter, it is to become educated—the communal outcome. There is significance in this. Organizations must ask themselves, is the point of work simply to do work? For the dedicated, creative knowledge builders and leaders that organizations want and need, just doing work is no longer enough. For responsible and motivated people today, work is merely the side effect of having real purpose.

So, if good ideas are what organizations want, and collaboration elicits good ideas, it becomes clear that when the typical office floorplate is separated into workstations, private offices, and meeting spaces, people find it very difficult to create and act upon good thinking. Even for people who ostensibly work side by side, it can be difficult to share and engage. If we accept this truth, then we might begin to more honestly shape an atmosphere that encourages interaction between people. It might resemble constructive chaos.

“But collaborating is not linear, where one idea leads directly to another, improving as it goes along and gaining consensus. Instead, the process is unpredictable and spontaneous, random, and a little chaotic.”

– Kim Colin
A Single L-Desk, Upper Shelving, Full Display, Single Column Round Table, and Freestanding Screen round out this Cove setting.

That is partly why our office is more like a workshop, where the tools of a kitchen sit side by side with a band saw and a meeting table. While it might appear slightly scattered to an outsider—and very open—its aesthetic is a unique combination of utility and lightness (the white walls and deliberately white floors satisfy the Californian in me during London’s dark winter months). Of course, we are just a small group in our studio, and we have the freedom to experiment on ourselves without the kind of impact or investment that large organizations face. But even so, there is clearly value in the fact that our office reflects the character and culture of who we are and what we do. We’ve created the place where we want to work, and now that place shapes how we work together and what we produce.

So, how can a company create an environment that encourages the kind of constructive chaos that breeds good ideas, while addressing the prosaic needs of effectively and efficiently managing its facilities? We feel the answer lies in design. In our own office, furniture delineates the space. It encourages a certain set of behaviors and contributes to the feeling that we have when we are there together. In essence, what we’ve created within the walls of our own studio is analogous to the cluster within the creative classroom—a model that we believe allows organizations to address the question above. Configuring the office as a series of clusters, or neighborhoods, allows individuals to more readily interact, contribute, and belong. At the same time, it gives the organization a scheme that is legible and manageable from a macro perspective. The design issue we ultimately faced with Locale was to create a new typology of systems furniture that would enable the creation of neighborhoods within an open plan office.

A detail of a Clubhouse setting comprised of a Double L-Desk and Full Display (partially visible), as well as Upper Shelving in the background.

To accomplish this, Locale settings are comprised of different functional modules arranged along a kind of architectonic foundation called the Workbase that visually and structurally harmonizes the environment. We surmised that the Workbase, which wouldn’t need to move, could provide the additional benefit of housing things like cables, motors, and storage. Clad in vertical planks that reference the residential modernism of Scandinavia, the long and low Workbase provides a core for each Locale neighborhood. The Workbase’s unifying design (the planks have the additional benefit of obscuring where one unit ends and the next begins) allows for a composition of varied Locale units to be arranged in any number of configurations and yet always appear as a seamless whole. Taking the neighborhood analogy further, Locale is not unlike a common high street—or shopping district—where you might have a butcher next to a post office next to a tailor. The elements are each unique in their purpose, but they are held together, and given a kind of unity, by the street itself and the social interactions that are possible on it, across it, and around it.

With this foundation in place, we look to the parts that can move and adjust, which are rounded and welcoming, with relevant character and material. Locale includes a number of elements that acknowledge different work styles and preferences, and allow for personal adjustment and variation: Height-adjustable desks, partitions and screens, marker-boards, and caster-mounted tables all rearrange easily to allow people to work in the moment—with the tools and support they need readily at hand. Collaborative environments should allow for different types of working behaviors and postures: Sitting, standing, and perching are now all relevant ways of working—not just for ergonomics but also for gestural reasons that reflect both what tools and technology we are using to get our jobs done and how we are using them. Ultimately each Locale neighborhood can be designed and outfitted in service of the people who will use it.

The concept of the modern office came to prominence in an era when good business meant developing new capabilities, creating infrastructure, finding efficiencies, harnessing technology, and developing sound processes. These things are certainly still important, but we should question if the principles of office design from that era allow us to work to our maximum capabilities today. It’s increasingly clear that an organization’s greatest assets are its people and the creative knowledge forged by those people through relationships, participation, and ambition. Locale creates a work environment optimized for exactly this. It was designed to make it easier for people to work effectively—both as individuals and as groups. If people are more effective, if they’re functioning at a truly higher level because the environment in which they work helps them to access and propagate ideas, then they are more valuable than ever.

A Landing setting that utilizes Locale’s Workbase as seating paired with Upper Shelving. In the background, an AGL Table flanked by Eames Aluminum Group Management Chairs make for an ideal Meeting Space setting.

The Eames House Turns 70

How an experiment in modernist architecture—and modern experiments in preservation—are ensuring the Eames House’s legacy

Written by: Mindy Koschmann

Strolling up the drive to Charles and Ray Eameses’ now-iconic 1949 residence in Pacific Palisades, California, is like stepping into another world—a tree-lined, flower-filled sanctuary that’s far removed from the city streets below. If it’s a cool morning, mist will roll in from the Pacific and hover above the ocean-side bluff where the house resides. With that mist comes the tang of sea salt, mingling with the scent of eucalyptus and wafting through the copse of over 200 trees that populate the surrounding meadow.

Photo by Julius Shulman. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).

A Modernist Masterpiece

The home itself is like something out of a dream—or, rather, Charles and Ray’s playful yet pragmatic minds. The pair devised the house as part of Arts & Architecture magazine’s Case Study House Program, which challenged architects to design homes that reflected life in the modern world using techniques and materials developed during World War II. In a design brief published in the December 1945 issue, Charles wrote that the home, “in its free relation to the ground, the trees, the sea—with constant proximity to the whole vast order of nature—acts as reorientor and ‘shock-absorber’ and should provide the needed relaxations from the daily complications arising within problems.”

Photo to the left and above by Julius Shulman. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).

The result, Case Study House No. 8, is a modernist masterpiece. The residence and studio, dual steel boxes nestled into the bluff, are exclusively comprised of off-the-shelf materials: black-painted steel beams and glass panels interspersed with rectangles of white, gold, orange-red, and blue. Placed behind a row of eucalyptus trees, the home’s precise, geometric shapes and engineered materials integrate effortlessly with the natural world. The structures live lightly on the land, taking advantage of the trees’ shade and beauty without encroaching on them.

Photo by Julius Shulman. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).

Preserving the Home

The magic of the Eames House and landscape has fared well since Ray passed away in 1988. After her death, Charles and Ray’s daughter, Lucia Eames, maintained the home with support from founding sponsors including the Eames Office, Herman Miller, and Vitra. Today, the Eames Foundation is responsible for its care and operations. Over the years, the Foundation has worked with several organizations as part of its 250 Year Project—the Foundation’s plan for ensuring that future generations visiting the house may enjoy the same authentic experience as people do today.

“To succeed with the 250 Year Project, we need to approach the conservation of the Eames House with a plan that balances the differing needs of the structures, objects, and landscape, while still showing how Charles and Ray lived and worked there,” says Lucia Dewey Atwood, granddaughter of Charles and Ray and Director of the Eames Foundation 250 Year Project. “We need to anticipate repairs. Think about the possible solutions for replacing the roof. If you are looking at things from a 250-year perspective, it’s quite likely you’ll make different decisions than you would looking at them in a 20-year context.”

In 2011, the Eames Foundation loaned the contents of the living room to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for a temporary exhibit. This gave the Eames Foundation the opportunity to work with Escher GuneWardena Architecture (EGA) and the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) to conduct research and implement the best methods for addressing urgent deterioration issues.

Photo by Arlen Heginbotham. © J. Paul Getty Trust.
© Eames Office, LLC.

Says architect Ravi GuneWardena, who has preserved and renovated homes by other mid-century architects like Richard Neutra, A. Quincy Jones, and John Lautner: “Each of these houses have very specific characteristics that have to be studied and dealt with uniquely. What is essential, however, is developing a system for researching all materials available for each house, deciphering the architectural intent of the original authors, and documenting every step in the conservation process so that someone can follow your methodology in the future.”

That’s exactly the approach EGA, GCI, and the Eames Foundation have taken since the beginning of the conservation project, when they replaced damaged floor tiles, made repairs to the home’s steel structure, and worked with engineering firm Wiss, Janney, and Elstner Associates to replace the roof.

Photo by Pippa Drummond. © Herman Miller, Inc.

From Tree to Table

The preservation work extends to the landscape too. To maintain its health, every few years the Foundation prunes and occasionally fells several eucalyptus trees. To replace them, the Eames Foundation encourages volunteer seedlings to grow and plans to plant more trees in the future.

Photo to the left and above by Pippa Drummond. © Herman Miller, Inc.

As stewards of the Eameses’ legacy of sustainable design, Herman Miller and Vitra—the only official makers of original Eames furniture—are taking the felled eucalyptus trees just as seriously as Charles and Ray did while designing the house in the late 1940s (so much so that they finished their living room wall in eucalyptus wood). Working closely with the Eames Foundation, Herman Miller and Vitra have created solid eucalyptus tops for a limited run of Eames Eucalyptus LTR Tables, available September 6 in North America and late October in Japan through Herman Miller, and in Europe and the Middle East, through Vitra, starting September 6.

Illustration by Elisabeth Moch based on Eames Foundation tree census, 2014, by Carlberg Associates, Santa Monica, CA, and drawn from the Conservation Management Plan, a partnership between the Getty Conservation Institute and the Eames Foundation. Numbers identify the location of the trees recently harvested and used for Eames Eucalyptus LTR Table tops.

What’s Next

The tree removal and subsequent creation of the Eucalyptus LTR Tables are just a small part of a broader Conservation Management Plan (CMP). “It seems particularly appropriate that the CMP was published this year: the home’s 70th anniversary,” says Dewey Atwood. “A tool for realizing the promise of the 250 Year Project, the CMP provides critical guidance as we prepare a master plan for the continuous conservation of the entire site.”

“The CMP starts with the history of the house and its design, its physical features, and how the house embodies Charles and Ray’s creative spirit,” says Chandler McCoy, GCI project manager for the conservation project. “From there, it identifies what is significant about the Eames House—the architecture, the collection inside the house, and the surrounding landscape, including the eucalyptus trees—and present policies that will protect its significance. All three elements have to be managed appropriately.”

Photo by Charles Eames. © Eames Office, LLC.

The importance of this work extends beyond the preservation of the Eames House. Learnings from the project are setting new standards for conserving mid-century homes, so the design impact of these historic gems will not fade with time.

What’s sure not to fade is Charles and Ray’s playful, colorful approach to both design and living, which is so apparent in the Eames Home and its landscape. With vanguard research and insight from GCI, and ongoing support from partners including Herman Miller and Vitra, this legacy is sure to thrive—and to be enjoyed by many—for years to come. If you’d like to support the Eames Foundation and its ongoing work to preserve the Eames House, please visit

Make Room for Meaning

Think money is the best way to motivate employees? Think again. Investing in a space that connects people to purpose is a bigger payoff for them and the bottom line.

Written by: Christine MacLean
Artwork by: Daniel Carl

If you were to describe what Mars Drinks, a company based in West Chester, PA, does, you might say it supplies single-serving coffee, tea, and hot chocolate delivery systems to other workplaces. But the people who work there say the company’s purpose goes well beyond that.

“Our purpose is to create great tasting moments at work,” says Tracey Wood, Global VP, People and Organization for Mars Drinks. “If you and I were to meet for a talk and we decided to have a coffee, it signals something more than just drinking a cup of coffee.  It signals that we are going to have a conversation. We are going to connect.”

More than just a nice-sounding sentiment, a sense of purpose has an impact on the bottom line. People who find meaning in their work are more satisfied, productive, engaged, and connected to the customer, and less likely to leave the company.1 Research sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of the U.S. and carried out by economists found that intrinsic motivators, i.e., a sense of purpose and meaning, actually lead to better business results for knowledge work than incentives like bonuses.

Which is why Mars Drinks works hard to ensure that all its employees share its purpose. “Our associates know that they ultimately impact someone else’s work experience. That’s why we are here,” Wood explains.

It’s easy to espouse a purpose; companies do it all the time. But when a company’s purpose is only communicated and not experienced, no one is fooled for long and customers and employees drift away.

Low visual barriers provide the opportunity to connect and work easily with other team members as well as leadership, leading to a stronger sense of alignment with the company’s mission. (Photos by Halkin | Mason Photography)

Companies can help people experience purpose in a variety of ways, including volunteering and education. In 2015, Ben & Jerry’s franchise owners volunteered at New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity as part of their planning meeting as one way of fulfilling their purpose to “use [the] company in innovative ways to make the world a better place.”  And Patagonia, which uses the business to address the environmental crisis, launched a coast-to-coast Worn Wear Mobile Tour, repairing broken zippers and mending rips and giving fix-it-yourself tutorials. The purpose was to encourage customers to reduce consumption by making their clothing last.

Companies can also convey purpose within their own four walls, typically by putting a mission statement on the wall, displaying items that connect employees directly to customers, or displaying work in process so people see how what they do contributes to the end result.

Perhaps the most overlooked way of communicating purpose, however, is through the layout and design of the office. “Space is a powerful way to help fulfill a sense of purpose,” says Tracy Brower, Herman Miller’s director of Human Dynamics + Work. “When space offers the opportunity to connect with and work easily with other team members, alignment and purpose are more likely to thrive,” because it provides additional opportunities to see how their work fits.

When space doesn’t support purpose, business results can suffer. “If there are too many visual barriers in the space, or if there is a lack of space to connect formally and informally, it can interfere with alignment and purpose, and you won’t see the same results in performance, productivity, shareholder value, or customer satisfaction,” Brower says.

Herman Miller’s Living Office approach to office design starts by addressing basic human needs (purpose, belonging, achievement, autonomy, status, and security), and by understanding the purpose of each space. Because it is based around people and purpose, Living Office is uniquely suited to helping people connect to what matters every day.

Tables made of wood from the same region as the farms Mars Drinks sources its teas from to remind associates that farmers are an important part of the company’s purpose. (Photos by Halkin | Mason Photography)

In spite of best intentions, office design projects are often driven by square foot per person, budget constraints, and status considerations. Starting with fundamental human needs, however, opens up the possibilities for bringing purpose to life in many ways throughout the space. What a Living Office looks like depends on the company’s purpose and culture.

For Mars Drinks’ Living Office, the most obvious starting point was to create for associates the same experience the company creates for customers. Drink stations are placed strategically throughout the space (not just in a coffee kitchen), so associates see their purpose—“we create great tasting moments at work”—in action every day, all around them. They see how the connections formed over a cup of coffee really are good for business (a fact that’s backed up by MIT research, which found that “teams that go on coffee breaks together are more productive and have stronger social bonds,” according to Fast Company. 2 They see how, when a company provides amenities like drink stations, it makes employees feel valued.

Having benefitted from the experience themselves, employees want to create it for others. It makes them into true believers, thereby aligning individual purpose with organizational purpose. “We want our associates to be excited to come to work every day knowing that they ultimately impact someone else’s work experience,” says Wood.

In addition, throughout the headquarters, photos of the farms that supply the tea (Mars Drinks buys only from sustainable farms) and tables made of wood from the same region as the farms serve as reminders that the farmers, too, are important to their mission. And a unique learning room that overlooks a space where products are being made in real time conveys the idea that achieving purpose requires constant learning from customers, suppliers, and each other.

“When space offers the opportunity to connect with and work easily with other team members, alignment and purpose are more likely to thrive.”

—Tracy Brower, Herman Miller’s director of Human Dynamics + Work
Mars Drinks’ new Living Office in West Chester, PA, supports the company’s purpose and makes work more naturally human, in part by providing access to daylight in public spaces. (Photos by Halkin | Mason Photography)

Differentiators are hard to come by these days, and culture is one of the few remaining. While competitors may be able to copy products or poach employees, corporate culture is not easily replicated, and that makes it a competitive advantage.3 “An effective culture…shapes how employees think and act; it outlasts an individual leader; it increases productivity and performance,” 4 says Dave Ulrich, a partner at RBL Group and a professor at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. With its emphasis on purpose, Living Office strengthens and reflects a company’s culture.

Living Office is the three-dimensional expression of Mars Drinks’ culture, which rests on its five principles (quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency, and freedom). Walls are used sparingly and most of them are transparent, allowing people a clear line of sight to each other and to the outdoors through much of the space. Comfortable lounge seating lends itself to connecting and collaborating; when people need to focus, they can move to smaller, private areas.

This transparency and open layout with lots of choices make it easy for people to collaborate, share best practices, and tell the stories that are a big part of the company’s corporate culture. The environment drives collaboration, participation, the sharing of knowledge, and productivity, ensuring that culture is “caught, not just taught.”

“We want our associates to look, watch, and talk,” says Mars Drinks President Xavier Unkovic—to walk over and talk to a colleague instead of sending an email, for example. That’s good for camaraderie and increases associates’ sense that everyone is in it together. Social science calls this the “mere exposure effect.” Basically, the more we see people, the more inclined we are to like them, even if we don’t interact with them.

But exposure to others does more than make people like each other. According to a study conducted by Herman Miller, people working in spaces that made it easy to regularly see and be around leaders felt more aligned with the organization’s mission.5 In that kind of environment, leaders are able to help employees see how their day-to-day objectives are connected with those of the organization.

“People get a sense of purpose when leaders are visible and accessible and when the leaders reinforce the importance of the individuals’ work and connection to that of the team and the organization,” says Brower, who oversaw the study.

Living Office offers workers a variety of settings, allowing them to choose the one that works best for them. (Photos by Halkin | Mason Photography)

“Our associates know that they ultimately impact someone else’s work experience. That’s why we are here.”

—Tracey Wood, Global VP, People and Organization for Mars Drinks


Regardless of how clear the organization is about its purpose or even how strongly employees identify with it, sometimes a sense of purpose can be thwarted by the smallest things, e.g., not having enough horizontal space to spread out materials, trying to collaborate with team members while sitting next to a loud-talker, or even just needing to change things up in the middle of the afternoon.

Because work needs vary according to individual and group preferences, the task, or even the time of day, Living Office includes a variety of settings and allows associates to be intentional about the space and the work—to choose to work wherever and however they feel they can be most effective.

In a Living Office, each space has a purpose, and each space is optimized for that purpose, enabling people to do their part in accomplishing the company’s purpose. For associates who need to work with others, then alone, in quick succession, like on a project team, Mars Drinks provides them with a Hive to work in. When it’s time to write an annual plan, an associate can work undisturbed in a sheltered space called a Haven. With its central location, heavy foot traffic, and casual seating Mars Drinks’ Plaza is the heart of its Living Office—the place to check the pulse of the company and to catch a colleague.

At the same time that Mars Drinks was interested in purposeful settings, it was equally interested in purposeful movement between those settings. Instead of putting the people who regularly work together next to each other, the company separated them as a way of encouraging them to meet and talk to people with whom they don’t normally interact.

Associates say they appreciate the increased opportunities for connection that the new space affords, as well as the positive “buzz” of activity in the space, which keeps them motivated and engaged.

Engagement is exactly what Mars Drinks hoped its Living Office would help deliver. “The way we’re going to achieve our business goals is through talented, capable people who are passionate about the difference we can make in the workplace,” says Wood. Mars Drinks’ average length of stay is 10 years—not bad, considering that at 53 percent of companies, it’s under eight years.6

Says Brower, “This is an ultimate benefit of clear purpose—a culture and a workplace that attract employees and keep them engaged, focused, and contributing to the greater meaning of the organization through work that matters.” 

1. David Ulrich and Wendy Ulrich. The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2010. 
2. Drake Baer, “Jerry Seinfeld on the Perfection of the Coffee Meeting,”, April 30, 2013,
3. Tracy Brower. Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations, Bibliomotion, 2014, p. 169.
4. Dave Ulrich, personal email, January 21, 2015.
5. Herman Miller, “Living Office Culture,” May 2014, company confidential.
6. Jay Bilski, “How long do employees stay at one company?” CFO Daily News, January 26, 2011,

Social Furniture

For Austria’s entry in the Venice Architecture Biennale, Vienna-based EOOS offers a problem-solving design to help Europe’s refugee crisis.

Written by: Joann Plockova
Artwork by: Paul Kranzler

In a converted 1980s office building in Vienna this past spring, a group of men from multiple nations gathered in a self-built, communal kitchen and cooked together.

The event was one of the first tests inside Haus Erdberg—a building once used for customs officers, which today houses hundreds of refugees who have fled to Austria. The initiative was part of Social Furniture: Living, Cooking, Working, an intervention by Vienna-based design firm EOOS. The multifaceted social and spatial project was conceived as part of Places for People—Austria’s contribution to the 2016 Architecture Biennale in Venice.

“A Syrian was talking to an Afghan, an Afghan talked to a Moroccan and so on,” says Martin Bergmann, EOOS founder, along with Harald Gründl and Gernot Bohmann. “Then they all ate together and told stories about their cultural and cooking rituals,” he says. “They were so proud—and we felt the power of our idea.”

Marking 20 years in 2015 with a retrospective exhibition at MAK (Austrian Museum of Applied Arts) and an accompanying monograph, EOOS was invited to participate in Places for People along with Vienna-based architecture firms Caramel Architects and The Next ENTERprise (tnE Architects).

EOOS views design as a poetic discipline. “The field we are working in is in between the archaic and high-tech,” says Bergmann. The trio has based their award-winning firm on this approach. Recognition has followed, including for the firm’s “Blue Diversion Toilet”—a universally applicable solution for those with inadequate sanitation created for the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Places for People encompasses three formerly vacant office buildings in Vienna that were selected to accommodate refugees escaping war and persecution. “How can we use freestanding office buildings in Vienna? This was a central question of the project,” explains Gründl. “There are many buildings like this in Vienna; it’s a huge, unused potential.”

Assigned to one of the three buildings and working in cooperation with the NGOs participating in the project, each team was asked to conceive of an intervention to improve the living conditions of the refugees. Beyond the immediate situation, they were also asked to view the project from a broader perspective, one that could be applied going forward in a variety of contexts.

In February 2016, EOOS set up a temporary field office inside Haus Erdberg “Our strategy was to understand the context,” explains Gründl. Through this on-site approach they were able to observe the day-to-day realities and therefore understand what a better way of life might look like.

Through “Poetical Analysis”—the firm’s trademarked approach to complex design problems where the designers look beyond the immediate context through the exploration of intuitive images, myths, and rituals—EOOS landed on Utopia as a starting point.

“The building is like an island,” says Gründl. “The people are isolated. They can’t afford a ticket to the city.” The team at EOOS noted the parallels to the fictional island of Utopia in Thomas More’s book published in 1516. They also saw analogies with the ”ideal” society portrayed by More in Utopia—including an absence of money as a medium of transaction, a reduction to the absolutely necessary, and the idea of self-sufficiency.

“Social doesn’t mean for people who don’t have money, social means doing things together, living together. It’s truly about being social.”

-Harald Gründl

With that poetic point of departure, EOOS soon arrived at the concept for Social Furniture. The initiative is centered around 18 furniture designs, including stools, storage systems, and shelving; tables for working, meeting, and cooking; wall panels for orientation signage, workshop trestles, and a raised-bed garden framing system. Beyond physical, functional pieces that enhance the quality of the space, Social Furniture is designed to be collectively constructed by the refugees themselves. The establishment of an on-site workshop is also part of the project.

Made from yellow shuttering panels of a solid three-layer spruce wood construction that allow for easy assembly as well as disassembly, Social Furniture creates communal spaces, typically lacking in this type of accommodation, for collective living, cooking, and working.

“Social doesn’t mean for people who don’t have money,” says Gründl. “Social means doing things together, living together. It’s truly about being social.”

Among the specific realities that EOOS observed from their field office was that the refugees were not allowed to cook for themselves. A mix of 40 nations was being delivered three meals a day. “What do you cook for 40 nations?” says Gründl. This became a point of departure for the idea of building kitchens, or what EOOS dubbed ”islands of self-effectiveness.” “When you cook together, you have communication,” says Bergmann. “We thought, when we do this it’s a chance to change communication, to create a better life. As Harald said, there are 40 cultures, they can learn from each other.”

So the firm tapped into their experience creating the b2 kitchen workshop for Bulthaup. In both that high-end consumer version, and Social Furniture, elements are reduced to their essence, and function and use are exposed. Social Furniture for cooking includes a kitchen wall panel for storage, a mobile mini-kitchen (for refrigerator storage and transporting personal kitchen items to the communal kitchens), and cooking tables.

EOOS also witnessed firsthand the reality of asylum seekers not being able to work. “Cooking is an everyday ritual, and working is the same; it creates structure, meaning, and identity,” says Gründl. “It is something you do with other people, it fosters community.”

To remedy the absence of work, in March 2016 EOOS established the in-house furniture workshop. The pilot program now employs 60 people. The production schedule, created by EOOS, includes 30 kitchens and 500 pieces of individual furniture. “This is the first time we tried something out on that scale,” says Gründl. “The first weeks of the factory opening, they produced 15 tons of material.”

Yet, the project goes well beyond the production of furniture. “Building the furniture only defines the material part of the project. The social construction (who uses the furniture) and the regulative level (the usage rules) must be determined in a collective (design) process,” states one of the 20 points included in the Social Furniture Manifesto.

Referencing Enzo Mari, Victor Papanek, and James Hennessey, who pioneered and promoted DIY furniture in the 1970s, EOOS created a catalogue of the DIY collection, which is prefaced by the manifesto. “The catalogue documents part of the solution, so other people can build on it,” says Bergmann. Beyond Haus Erdberg, EOOS was challenged by the Places for People curators to “create a kind of model,” says Gründl, for an alternative way of living that could be applied to other contexts.

Inspired by Torre David, a 45-story office tower in Caracas that was informally occupied by 750 families who created a shop system within the structure, EOOS also envisions a system of shops—a hairdresser and a food co-op for example—within Haus Erdberg. Influenced by the moneyless economy in More’s Utopia, residents will be able to access goods and services within the shops via a cash-free, cell phone-based currency. These transactions will further opportunities for work and communication.

Along with a positive response to the pavilion in Venice, EOOS has been receiving invitations to share Social Furniture at various initiatives around Europe. “It’s growing,” Gründl says. The project will be shown at this year’s Vienna Design Week.

“We use design as a tool,” says Bergmann. “The user takes it as a tool and decides whether or not to make it meaningful.” 

“We use design as a tool. The user takes it as a tool and decides whether or not to make it meaningful.”

– Martin Bergmann

Six Eames Designs You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know

Join us for a dig through Charles and Ray’s deep cuts

Written by: Dan Maginn
Artwork by: Travis Stearns

Charles and Ray Eames left us with dozens of iconic masterworks, from classic furniture and textiles still in production some 70 years after their introduction to pioneering films that broke new ground in the way information is presented and digested. Part of the magic was their iterative process, with each completed design building on previous work and setting the stage for the next. You’ve seen the Eames Lounge and Ottoman, the shell chairs, and the Surfboard table hundreds of times, so come with us on an Eamesian “crate dig” as we rummage for the deep album cuts, oddities, and rarities to fill in the blanks between their greatest hits.

The 3473 Sofa had some truly innovative features—like an aluminum frame whose cross section graduated from round to elliptical. Its overall form and construction alluded both to the Eames Sofa Compact and the Eames Executive Chair. The Sofa Compact struck a chord because it was like a post-war hot rod: its structure exposed and straightforward, its demeanor youthful and mobile. But, let’s be honest, the upholstered seat and back cushions on the 3473 Sofa look, just a bit, like a couple of old-school swimming pool floats. Eames Demetrios, Charles and Ray’s grandson and director of the Eames Office, calls the sofa “a transitional piece, and it’s valuable as such. The last thing on Charles and Ray’s mind was what something looked like—they were more concerned with how it solved the problem.” Herman Miller made the 3473 from 1964 to 1973.

The Intermediate Chair from 1968 is similar to the 3473 Sofa, in that its DNA is aligned with a classic design that preceded it—the Eames Executive Chair. Comfortable without feeling stuffy, this chair is just as solid as its more imposing forebears, but the vibe isn’t as sedentary. The open lower back and the tilt swivel mechanism on the pedestal base reinforce the idea that even though you’re sitting, you’re still on the move. Back in the day, with the Intermediate Chair under you and a pack of Pall Malls at your side, you could knock out reports for eight hours straight. Designed for the commercial office market, it was a solid chair, but the introduction of the popular Soft Pad Chair led to it being discontinued in 1973. A true nod to its importance: the Intermediate was the chair that Charles used at his personal desk.

The EC-127 was a variation of the DCM-L (Dining Chair Metal, Library version). The main innovation here was the substitution of fiberglass-reinforced plastic for plywood, allowing the introduction of a new shock-absorbing rubber and metal mount. This new detail, which maintained the dramatic cantilevered interface of the metal frame while avoiding the pitfalls of a glued connection, proved valuable enough to be used in most Eames plastic chairs for years to come. While most of America was high-fiving the moon landing in 1969, the engineers at the Herman Miller Tech Center were high-fiving the shock-mount connection. The EC-127 was more durable and less expensive to produce than the DCM, which resulted in strong sales in the library, school, and hospital markets in the US. Its back legs were also ¾” longer than the DCM, to allow for a more ergonomic reading posture.

“Charles and Ray thought of systems like Contract Storage as tools to perform a task,” says Demetrios. “Think of a hammer—you admire a hammer not for looking pretty, but because it does a good job of driving nails.” Less hammer than Swiss Army Knife, the Eames Contract Storage system featured an arrangement of furniture items: bed, desk, and closet. Designed for student dormitories—at a time when universities and institutions were the major consumer of Eames seating—the system was orderly, well-crafted, and responsive to the needs of students and maintenance workers alike. For fans of Charles and Ray’s work, there’s a lot to nerd out on here—scratch-resistant embossed fir plywood, polished cast aluminum hardware, innovative continuous aluminum hinges, wire shelves and drawers, a built-in light, and a handy tackboard. All of it in motion and interconnected. It was all about achieving order in the midst of a college student’s chaotic life—and maybe that’s what did it in. Its production (1961–1969) just happened to coincide with a decade more closely associated with students looking to disrupt order, not contain it. That said, Demetrios muses that Contract Storage could still today help people organize their increasingly compact homes and apartments.

You can’t knock the Loose Cushion Armchair for lack of hustle. The technique of injecting polyurethane foam into a mold—with the actual polyester seat shell forming the other half of the mold—had been around for only three years when this chair was introduced in 1971. The Loose Cushion Armchair was an attempt to build on the popularity of the ubiquitous Shell Chair, with additional comfort. Here, the foam injection process at the time didn’t allow for a significant increase of foam at the seat, so the introduction of a loose cushion with a different level of “give” helped to make up for it. The end result was indeed comfortable—but caught between the office and the home, the chair never quite gained traction.

The Incidental Table, or IT-1, was intended by the Eamses as a kind of furniture stem cell for post-war modern families. It could be a side table, looking sharp next to your LCW chair. Or, it could be your kid’s desk, providing a stylish yet durable surface for her to assemble a jigsaw puzzle. Or, it could even be a makeshift seat when you hosted a cocktail party and were light on chairs. The IT-1 was a nice, sturdy, portable table, with its roots in Charles’ 1946 so-called “one-man” exhibit, New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames at MOMA. Perhaps in the end, the public saw it as a card table—and it couldn’t compete with cheaper card tables—so it went out of production in 1964. Our crate dig resulted in an interesting sidebar from Demetrios: “The artist Tony Rosenthal was a friend of my grandparents, and he loved the folding tables. He hung one on his wall as a piece of sculpture with the underside showing.”

Max De Pree, 1924-2017

Former CEO Max De Pree’s relationships with designers and architects put human-centered, problem-solving design at the heart of the company he served for more than 40 years.

Written by: The Editors
Artwork by: The Herman Miller Archives

In Zeeland, Michigan, you can drive down a typical small-town street lined with typical small-town houses—shingled roofs, painted shutters, clapboard siding and all—until you come to something altogether different. At first, it looks like there’s a mistake or a missing house. Approach further and you’ll find a low-slung set of flat-roofed shoeboxes set back from the street into the woods beyond. This is the home Charles and Ray Eames designed in 1952 for their friend and colleague, Max De Pree—one of Herman Miller Founder D.J. De Pree’s three sons—his wife Esther, and their four children. Like the man who commissioned it, the house is humble, approachable, appropriate, warm, and completely one-of-a-kind.

Max De Pree helped make Herman Miller a leader in management philosophy and human-centered design. The last De Pree to hold the position of CEO, Max codified the company’s values in a series of books on leadership, which have gone on to sell more than a million copies in more than 20 languages around the world. He will be fondly remembered for establishing concepts such as “servant leadership” and “inclusive capitalism” that have become deeply rooted in our culture. In 1970, Max began a poetic brief for a Herman Miller manufacturing facility in the United Kingdom by stating, “Our goal is to make a contribution to the landscape of aesthetic and human value.” While he may have only had a building in mind, the contributions he made throughout his life extend far beyond.

Back row, left to right: Alfred Auerbach, Jim Eppinger, D.J. De Pree, Max De Pree, George Nelson Seated, left to right: Charles Eames, Hugh De Pree

“Max was simply a wonderful and complete human being. Toward the end of his life, we had several conversations that connected us and passed along his family’s commitment to Herman Miller. He taught me many things—how to listen, how to ask questions, and above all the debt all leaders owe to the people they lead.”

—Brian Walker, CEO, Herman Miller

“I have known Max for 50 years. He is the most principled person I have ever met: severe and, at the same time, kind and caring—a model of wisdom, warmth, and spirituality. He was a great teacher and my mentor in the early years of my professional life. I still use the note cards with the rounded edges that he gave me to get organized. More importantly, I learned through my exchanges with Max that ethics and business are compatible.

“I have not seen Max often over all these years, but every time I would visit Max and Esther, it was as if we had not been separated for long. This immediate intimacy—Max’s big smile when I entered the room—sadly, I shall not experience any more.”

—Rolf Fehlbaum, Chairman Emeritus, Vitra

“Max had a striking and original way of describing and valuing all the important things we can’t see—human potential, corporate spirit, and even love. His legacy extends far beyond the company he led, and all of us who are part of the community called Herman Miller will miss him and benefit every day from his and his family’s gifts to us. I will smile at his humor and wonder at his insights for a long time.”

—Clark Malcolm, Writer, Editor, and Friend, Herman Miller

Vintage Herman Miller Finds a Home

How a small shop in Brooklyn is remixing modern design

Written by: Aaron Britt
Artwork by: Nicholas Calcot

“Today everything is ecomm, ecomm, ecomm,” laments Jared Blake, the 29-year-old co-owner of Lichen, a year-old Brooklyn vintage furniture shop. It might sound like an old-fashioned complaint for someone so young and clearly good at Instagram, but for Blake and his partner Ed Be, 31, selling furniture is as much about community as commerce.

“You know, Craigslist actually offers that kind of immediate interaction because you have to meet people to pick up what you buy,” Blake says. “No tracking number. Just a handshake.”

That’s precisely how Blake and Be met. Each had developed something of a side hustle collecting and selling vintage modern furniture. After trading emails over a Craigslist post, the pair met when Be bought a set of Herman Miller shell chairs from Blake.

The pair met when Blake sold Be this vintage Eames Shell Chair on Craigslist.

“We offer a different approach. Typically walking into a furniture store in Brooklyn probably means I can’t afford anything. So, when people walk into Lichen and it’s me and Ed, it’s a bridge across cultures.”

“Jared was selling a set of Shells in greige and yellow,” Be recalls. “Usually that’s where Craigslist relationships come to an end. But we just kept talking. Had coffee. We sat down and I told him about my idea of a brick-and-mortar to sell all this furniture that I had been stockpiling.”

In October of 2018, the duo turned their passion projects into Lichen, a store on the corner of Manhattan and Montrose in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. When I visited the following September, the kind of IRL community Blake and Be craved kept coming through the doors of the 700-square-foot shop.

Their first visitor works at the neighboring deli and came armed with two cups of soup, a welcome gift on a rainy autumn day. The next was a woman who has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years and wanted to peruse the pair’s selection of vintage designs, which include a counter made from USM Haller storage, an assortment of housewares from HAY, an Alto vase from Iittala, a bench that Be himself reupholstered with material from a military duffel bag, and a Kiva table by Eric Chan for Herman Miller.

“Herman Miller is a good anchor … It’s what a lot of our customers already have, but also what they crave

For Blake and Be, Herman Miller was an on-ramp into what’s now a full-blown fascination with design. Be fell for “the curves of the Eames DCM [Molded Plywood Dining Chair],” while one of Blake’s early acquisitions was an Eames Wire Chair with bikini pad.

“Herman Miller is a good anchor,” says Be of the shop’s product mix. “It’s the first designer furniture that a lot of our customers delve into. It’s what a lot of our customers already have, but also what they crave.”

In addition to its stock of vintage furniture, Lichen is also a licensed HAY dealer. Blake has long been a fan of both the Eames Wire Chair with Bikini Pad (left) and the Two-Piece Eames Secretarial Chair (right) which Herman Miller produced from 1971 to 1981.

A lot of those customers live in the neighborhood, are often between 25 and 40, and work in creative professions. A good audience for the pair’s keen eyes for design perhaps, but not necessarily with the paychecks to chase vintage Charlotte Perriand or Joe Colombo pieces.

“We offer a different approach,” says Blake. “Regardless of color or culture, typically walking into a furniture store in Brooklyn probably means I can’t afford anything. So, when people walk into Lichen and it’s me and Ed, it’s a bridge across cultures.”

Herman Miller has also offered Be, at least, a bridge across time. His history with Herman Miller runs far deeper than his beloved Eames DCM. His father actually sold Herman Miller office furniture. “Action Office was big for him,” Be said. “He outfitted the UN.”

“To watch his dad come into the shop,” recalled Blake. “To watch that torch passed. This furniture meant something completely different to Ed’s dad, and in my head I’m like your son is doing the same thing in a completely different and contemporary way.”

That sense of finding new meanings and new markets animates Lichen in another way too. “It’s important for everyone involved to look at these objects differently than they have before,” says Blake. “I believe that great design really is for everyone. But people don’t see that enough. You don’t see it in ads. You don’t see people of color, but we like good design as well.”

Good design remixed for a generation eager to explore its creative legacy and the power of community.

No tracking number. Just a handshake.

Lichen is all about the human touch, growing community, and serving as a space to explore the world of design.

The Shell Chair Everywhere

See why the Eames Shell Chair was designed for all of life’s moments

Written by: Amber Bravo
Artwork by: Bill Porter

Charles and Ray Eames, designers of the Eames Shell Chair famously said: “The role of the designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of his guests.” Most of the designs that came out of the Eames Office did just that—suiting a need and solving a problem. But what is perhaps most remarkable about Charles and Ray’s 1950 design for the Eames Shell Chair is just how many of life’s requirements they were able to meet in a single, gracious form.

So we commissioned animator Bill Porter to sketch out how a single chair can touch so many parts of one’s life—and how so many small moments can sometimes add up to our greatest

What makes the Shell Chair so beloved is its universality and adaptability—no wonder then, that it’s equally at home in museum collections, living rooms, Laundromats, lobbies, and cafés. It’s also an inextricable part of our DNA at Herman Miller: The company has a longstanding tradition of giving every employee an Eames Shell Chair Rocker when they welcome a new family member into their home. So we commissioned animator Bill Porter to sketch out how a single chair can touch so many parts of one’s life—and how so many small moments can sometimes add up to our greatest.

How Designers Stay Productive While Working From Home

Our designs address the realities of modern living. But with modern life upside down, what’s a designer to do?

Written by: The Editors

Design at Herman Miller is an inherently collaborative activity. In a time of social distancing, however, how might designers continue to solve problems through a process so intrinsically social? We posed this conundrum to some of our favorite design partners. We’ll share their answers here as part of this ongoing series. Together, we’ll all navigate this strange, uncharted territory from our individual homes and home studios.

Finding the Good

with Ayse Birsel

Ayse Birsel often says that life is our biggest project. Working on that project in the midst of a pandemic and its resulting anxieties can be difficult, but the designer finds herself rising to the challenge. From her home in New York City (which doubles as the studio she shares with her husband Bibi Seck), the author, speaker, and designer is on a daily quest to embrace our current reality with optimism and empathy.

Ayse Birsel,Designer

On the Present Moment
If someone would’ve told us even a year ago this would be happening, I don’t think we could’ve even started to imagine this crisis. But, being in the middle of it and acknowledging how difficult it is for many of us on so many levels, I also think it’s an incredible opportunity for rebirth and transformation. In design, constraints are opportunities, so I think we need to put our designer hat on and think like designers. Currently, we’re very close to it, so it’s hard to appreciate the opportunity. But the world is going to change, and I would like to think that it’s going to change in some positive ways.

On Finding Calm
One thing that I noticed is that I’m very much affected in a negative way by the news. So I’ve been practicing what a friend of mine calls “media distancing,” which has helped me greatly. The other things that help me get out of my head—to forget time and space and the situation—are drawing and thinking creatively. I also find it helpful to take time out of your day to make a list of everybody you love and send them a note.

On Connecting
I’m part of this community my friend Marshall Goldsmith created, the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches. As soon as the crisis started, he started daily calls for anyone and everyone of our community who’s interested to join and talk. He said one thing that resonated with me: “Through these calls, if I can help one person …” And I thought to myself, “Can I do that with my community—starting with Design the Life You Love?” And I also thought, “If I could just help one person …” So then it started with 15 people, and now we’re about 50 people who meet up every Wednesday at 5 for a Virtual Tea. I don’t know if it’s helping anyone else, but probably the number one person it’s helping is me. Because it gives my week and days a sense of meaning and purpose.

On Balance
I’ve had so many conversations with people who are making time for working out, making time for calling family, making time for reading a book, making time for themselves—whether it’s meditating or napping. They never really talked about those things, let alone practiced them. I see, there’s this incredible intentional approach to asking: Is my life balanced? Did I work out today? Did I read something that inspired me today? Did I call my friends today?

On Laughter
One of the things that I realized I needed more of was laughter, and a friend of mine suggested that I start watching stand-up comedy. I started with Dave Chapelle. And I think he’s a genius. He says, sometimes we’re too close to things. It’s like being in a room with an elephant; if you’re right next to it, you can’t see that it’s an elephant…You need distance between you and the elephant to understand what it is. And he tells this beautiful story of Emmett Till and the Civil Rights Movement, and how if it wasn’t for this incredibly tragic happening in history, Civil Rights wouldn’t haven’t happened—or wouldn’t have happened quite the same way. He does a beautiful telling of that story which shifts your perceptions, and it makes you think. Right now, we’re too close to the elephant to see the good that might come out of this.

Moving into the Unknown

with Kim Colin and Sam Hecht

We reached longtime Herman Miller collaborators Kim Colin and Sam Hecht of Industrial Facility as they were both recovering from COVID-19. While their cases were relatively mild—culminating with an annoying cough and two weeks without taste or smell—the experience has already begun reshaping their views on the future. They predict a heightened awareness of health and well-being as design and society move forward.

Now that you’ve both recovered, what has been the biggest challenge for you as you transition back to work?
 Probably the biggest challenge is that our process is far more analog than one would imagine. I am not just talking about drawing things by hand, but we constantly need to physically make things, and that is an iterative process—gradually allowing a design to reveal itself. Like any craftsperson, we need a model shop with machines and 3D printers. This cannot be replicated working from home on a laptop. We need to make one mistake after another—until there is rough equilibrium of desire and function, long before a client even sees our intention. These are important steps in the process.

So, to address the crucial nature of our model shop, we implemented a rota-system whereby only one of us can be in the model shop on any given day. This protects all of us and reduces virus transmissions to the community, while still allowing this analog creative act to take place. I can’t deny that it continues to be challenging, but by supporting each other, it’s manageable.

How are you compensating for the loss of meaningful impromptu interactions between colleagues when only one member of your team can physically be in your space at a time?
 Impromptu interactions are important—absolutely. As Sam said, our process is often tied to mistakes. The mistakes reveal new directions and refinements. These sometimes remain mistakes until someone sees potential or even misreads them, and it’s not possible to replicate this so easily between people on schedule via video chat. Good ideas can’t be scheduled. I cannot think of one of our designs that has been created without lengthy, ongoing conversations. So at distance, working from home, we try to connect regularly and even informally, to capture some of the spontaneity that propels the thinking in the work through conversation. There’s a lot to talk about right now!

A Taste for Coconut

An excerpt from a serendipitous tale of design provenance, starring a pair of vintage Coconut Chairs with a cameo by an influential California modernist.

Written by: Brent Lewis
Foreward by: Amy Auscherman

Inside Craig Ellwood’s Hunt House in Malibu, circa late 1950s. Photo © Marvin Rand; courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Over the years, I’ve received many emails from curious people asking for any “receipts” in the Herman Miller Archives that help tell a story about the piece of George Nelson- or Eames-designed furniture they’ve picked up at auction, a garage sale, or in the back corner of an antique store. They want to know exactly where (usually Michigan) and when (mid-century, most likely) a piece was made, and how much it cost when it was introduced. Most of the time, I guide them to look for product markings to help them guess a DOB for their furniture and consult our pricelists, with a reminder to adjust the seemingly low price for inflation. Herman Miller just wasn’t keeping track of customer order data like that at the time these vintage pieces were produced. When I read Brent Lewis’ story about the Coconut Chairs and other Herman Miller deep cuts that lived in Craig Ellwood’s Hunt House, I was thrilled to see that literal receipts kept by the Hunts helped some Coconuts find their way back to their original beachside home in Malibu. With Herman Miller relaunching the original Nelson Office design in a new, more sustainable shell material and more extensive upholstery options, we’re thrilled to share the story with WHY readers.

Amy Auscherman, Head of Archives and Brand Heritage at Herman Miller

Herman Miller upholstery department, Zeeland, Michigan, 1956.

A Discovery in Malibu

I’ve always liked George Nelson’s Coconut Chair. It’s a strange design, almost like the beginning of an origami fold. The story is that Nelson—or perhaps George Mulhauser, who worked in Nelson’s office and designed it—related its form to a chunk of coconut. It’s generous in proportion and comfortable, yet less ubiquitous than other iconic mid-century designs. In fact, it’s one of the very few chair designs that emerged from Nelson’s office, as prolific as they were.

Design work on the Coconut Chair wrapped up in 1955, and it went into production at Herman Miller the following year. It was a time of advancement for lounge seating and incidentally, must have been an exciting year at the Herman Miller offices. For at the same moment, they began production on Charles and Ray Eames’ iconic 670/671 lounge chair and ottoman—not to mention Nelson’s Marshmallow Sofa, which also made its debut in 1956.

Coconut Lounge Chair advertisements designed by Irving Harper and Don Ervin for George Nelson Associates, 1956.

Birth of the Cool

Just a few years earlier, Knoll acquired the production rights to Mies van der Rohe’s seminal Barcelona Chair. Where Barcelona is two flat planes, angled apart from each other, the Coconut seat is slightly curved and gracefully transitions into the backrest, which is gently folded inward. In that sense, it more closely relates to Eero Saarinen’s Womb Chair, which had already been in production by Knoll for nearly a decade. The Womb Chair certainly earns its place as one of the greatest MCM lounge chairs. But put it side by side with the Coconut Chair, and it’s like they come from completely different worlds. It certainly makes sense that the latter, with its sleek, three-legged, sensual lines, was so well received by a groovy, plugged-in creative set that was also hearing Miles Davis’ ’Round About Midnight for the first time.

Quite the Pair

The Coconut Chair could also come with an ottoman, and I have seen many nice sets over the years. That said, it’s a chair unburdened by the responsibility of one, unlike, in my view, the Eames 670/671. To see the Eames Lounge Chair without an ottoman seems almost unnatural—at once vulnerable and naked. Not so with Coconut, which sits proudly and quite comfortably alone. There are some chairs where one is enough, but the Coconut Chair is strong with a mate, which I attribute to the compositional effect provided by two in proximity to each other. As each ascends upward at the top of the backrest, negative space is created between them echoing the form of the chair itself. When photographed well, this has an enthralling effect.

Simple, but Far from Plain

It’s worth considering that as far as chairs go, few are as simple as the Coconut. It really has the appearance of one fluid gesture, which aside from the angularity of the seat’s edges and legs, gives it a quite elegant overall appearance. If you study its form as if it were sculpture, you see how balanced it is. As one moves around the chair, it moves with you, always submitting its supple curvilinear shapes, while simultaneously confounding the organic quality with a geometric rigor. It’s really a perfect chair.

We’ve Got the Receipts

As this story goes, in the summer of 2018 I was emailed a pretty low-quality image of a Coconut Chair. I couldn’t make out much detail, save for the chair’s potentially interesting color, a kind of orange-pink. Perhaps my personal affinity for that design prompted me to respond right away, inviting the client to consign it to my upcoming design auction while spelling out estimates, terms, marketing, and logistics—an all-in, one-shot proposal for something based on a value of around $2,000. I really shouldn’t spend much time pursuing this, I thought at the time. I’m so glad that I did.

A pair of Nelson Coconut Lounge Chairs from Craig Ellwood’s Hunt House. Photo © Heritage Auctions.
Elizabeth Hunt’s Archive for Craig Ellwood’s Hunt House, circa 1957. Photo © Heritage Auctions.

The reply days later was a single sentence: “Is that for the pair or just one chair?” I was confused and wondered if I had made a mistake. After going back over the original inquiry, I saw only one chair was shown. So I looked again and noticed there was an attachment. It was a scan of a sales receipt from the 1950s, which listed “2-Coconut Chairs – $445.” This is the beginning of the story, which is told in complete detail on the Design Miami website.

Origin Story

There are many things specialists can do to understand the authenticity and date of something that has been in production for many decades. There is provenance itself, and the personal stories owners or families can offer, which are compelling and always significant in providing context and color. And of course, there is the object itself, with labels, markings, construction methods, and patina. But nothing can take the place of pure documentation.

In this case, the invoice would also lead us to something even more interesting. While great design can be like a work of art, with value unto itself, to be placed in a great setting is a bit of icing on the cake. One reason is that everyone loves a good story; and the only thing people like more than hearing a good story is telling one. So to tell a fascinating story of an object, where it has been, in whose hands and so on, is a tempting prospect. In this case, the invoice would lead our journey back to one of the great modern houses by a great modern architect. It would also lead to a further sense of discovery when the images of the chairs in its original house were found. It’s the sprinkles on the icing on the cake.

Craig Ellwood’s Hunt House (1955-1957) in Malibu. Photo © Marvin Rand; courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

But back to the invoice itself that kicked off this particular story … As invoices go, it included all the usual details you’d find, including the name of the purchaser at the top: Craig Ellwood, one of the foremost proponents of mid-century modern architecture on America’s West Coast.

Intrigued? Continue reading on Design Miami.