No two companies have so influenced the 20th Century contemporary design as have the iconic brands Herman Miller and Knoll. So, it seems quite fitting in this era of consolidation that these design powerhouses should come together as was announced in a stock and cash deal valued at $1.8 billion. The combined companies will have the pro-forma annual revenue of $3.6 billion.
A joint statement from the two companies stated “This highly complementary combination will create the preeminent leader in modern design, catalyzing the transformation of the home and office sectors at a time of unprecedented disruption.”
The two companies combined have 19 leading brands, but the brands themselves belie the star-power and notoriety of the designers whose careers the two companies spawned and fostered. I would argue that these company’s support and backing of the most notable designers of the 20th century is akin to the relationship between the “Medici’s and Michelangelo.” The resulting products had a profound effect on the look of business, hospitality, and home environments, while being copied industry wide.
Herman Miller MLHR Casts a Long Shadow
Herman Miller was founded in 1905 as the Star Furniture Company. Dirk Jan De Pree with support of his father-in-law, Herman Miller became its president by 1919, renaming it the Michigan Star Furniture Co. It had modest success with its “modernist offerings” at the direction of designer Gilbert Rohde through the first half of the twentieth century. Upon Rohde’s passing in 1944, architect George Nelson took over as design director in 1945 and a design revolution followed along with iconic works from Isamu Noguchi, Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard, and Robert Propst.
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Nelsons modular seating introduced in 1955 became the template for every sectional since. Roberts Propst research into ergonomics and how people worked led to the development of Herman Millers “Action Office” the origin of every open office landscape system that followed.
In 1946 when Miller took over production of the Eames Chair it became so transformative as to become a symbol of 20th century contemporary furniture design. Charles and Ray Eames would ultimately be named “The Most Influential Designers of The Twentieth Century” in 1979 by the Industrial Design Society of America. That credit in no small part stems from the popularity and influence of their work which was developed and produced at the Zeeland, Michigan based Herman Miller.
Florence Knoll Bassett, Synonymous with Good Design
Just as the genesis of Charles and Ray Eames career’s can be traced back to their Cranbrook Academy of Art education, so can Florence Knoll Bassett’s. Knoll actually explored furniture making with Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames in the late 1930’s, before becoming involved with the Bauhaus design movement, and subsequently receiving her bachelor’s degree at Illinois Institute of Technology under the tutelage of none other than Mies van der Rohe. How could she not have become a design force of the ages.
She joined the Hans Knoll company in 1943 and ultimately married its founder in 1946. She combined her design skills and business acumen to become an international arbiter of great design and style. After her husband’s untimely death in 1955 she led the company into pioneering the aesthetic of the post war corporate office. And, unlike what happened at Herman Miller, she utilized friends and influential designers Harry Bertoia, Mies van der Rohe, and Eero Saarinen’s iconic furniture designs.
Investing in Authenticity and Sustainability
Both Herman Miller and Knoll at their nucleus have placed values of great design, unparalleled quality, and authenticity above all else. It is for these reasons that even through difficult periods in their respective history’s they have been able to sustain, grow and prosper. Additionally, few companies can point to the fact that virtually every example of their prized products, almost regardless of age, have had enduring value. Many pieces today are considered investment grade. More importantly, each company has had a long heritage of research and investment, and environmental stewardship. I believe the coming together of these iconic brands bode well for their combined futures.