In 1984, Herman Miller asked George Nelson to write an essay on the nature of his design relationship with Herman Miller. This is an edited version the result. Here, he reflects on unfaltering trust the company’s owner, D.J. DePree, had in his designers, which resulted not only in superior products but a never-before-used marketing tactic. —Ed.
Life with Herman Miller began, for me, with a surprise visit from D.J. DePree sometime in the mid-’40s. I had never heard of Herman Miller from my little office at Fortune magazine, but the publication of the Storagewall in Life had stirred up a hornet’s nest in the furniture publications, denouncing the red-eyed radicals who had secretly forged a lethal weapon in the disguise of a harmless wall storage system, aimed right at the heart of a corporate functionary who has been asleep at the switch and now has nightmares about losing his company Cadillac and other perks, like membership in the country club.
D.J. had read all this and, never a man to run with the herd, he had decided that if the Storagewall was indeed a wave of the future, it might make more sense to ride it than to fight it. So there he was, in my little office high up in the Empire State Building, asking if I would like to think about becoming Herman Miller’s designer. There was no way at the time of realizing that this quiet, courteous man, conservatively dressed in a dark three-piece suit and a broad-brimmed hat, had just turned my life inside out. I remember worrying about my total ignorance of the furniture industry, and suggesting that he look around first for a real pro. He thought about this for a minute, agreed to look around, and quietly left.
Months later, after I had forgotten all about our meeting, he came back and we made what I suppose was a deal, although neither one of us ever signed anything; shortly afterwards I took a train to Detroit, where we met at the Book Cadillac Hotel. At dinner he asked me if I would like something to drink and I said I would like a very cold, very dry martini, a request he passed on to the waiter with an absolutely straight face. I knew nothing at that time of his stern views on the evils of liquor, and it must have pained him to find his new designer already on the path to eternal damnation.
Quite unexpectedly, this affair of the martini provided an interesting start for the relationship, for while we soon discovered other areas of disagreement, almost immediately a kind of mutually tolerant, even protective attitude came into existence. He bought me two excellent martinis that evening, but I never did it again, not because he was a client to be cosseted, but because I did not like to see him pushed into an act he deplored.
If this talk about D.J., his disapproval of dry martinis, and his theological preoccupations seems like an irresponsible way to use a modest budget of words, the only response I can offer is that I do not know any stories that are closer to the point. The point is that D.J.’s beliefs, and his lifelong efforts to live what he believed, surfaced as a strong moral base which permeated his entire working life and, by extension, the company he controlled. That is the point.
To describe this moral base is almost impossible, for it all comes out as shopworn truisms: honesty is the best policy; the customer is entitled to the very best quality you can produce; the workers are entitled to respect and fair compensation; the designs have to be the best that can be created whether they conform with prevailing fashions or not. Pious platitudes—until you try to put them into action.
After I wrote some of these things in the introduction to our first catalog, I was sometimes buttonholed by skeptical manufacturers: "Okay, George," was the way it went, "we know what you wrote in the catalog. But what is the real secret of Herman Miller’s success?"
Their inability to believe that we meant exactly what we had said turned out to be an unexpected blessing, for it protected us, during those vulnerable first years, from the plagiarism which was the industry’s way of life. Nobody but nobody was copying anything those oddballs at Herman Miller were turning out. It was pathetic, even comic, to see their persistence in believing that D.J. and his designers were incorrigible innocents and eccentrics. Even the fact that the company had never had a strike or even a slowdown taught them nothing. It is to be expected in such a social environment that D.J.’s concern with a moral base should come to be perceived as a charming, nostalgic relic of a bygone time. And yet it is central. Losing this core of meaning in work erodes the possibility of innovation.
What D.J. did to his designers was instill in them his belief that what they were doing was important. Because it was important, he trusted them without reservations of any kind. I remember a scrap of a conversation with Charles Eames at his then-new house in Pacific Palisades. "Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night in a panic," he remarked, "because I am suddenly wondering if that last stuff we sent to Zeeland was good enough. I don’t think I could take if we failed D.J.’s trust, and let him down. Does it ever worry you?"
Yes, it worried me. How could it not? Total trust is a rare privilege, but also a heavy burden. One’s integrity is at stake.
I find it interesting to think back to the meetings, over the years, between D.J. and his designers, because of the way in which we played out our roles. D.J.’s role was that of the man who ran the company, who had to concern himself with all the problems. When he spoke at these meetings, he was listened to as the man who had to make the decisions. All this was about as anyone would expect it to be. However, when the designers spoke, each one assumed a kind of leadership too, and then D.J. listened very carefully.
This fast, unconscious switching of roles went on all the time. There was never any display of status: people took the leadership when it was indicated, and relaxed and listened when it was not. One result of this was that we all had a very good time; another was that, despite the easy conversational atmosphere, a prodigious amount of work got done. No one felt the need for power plays and, in consequence, no one felt the need to take sides, assemble supporters, or do anything except deal with the problem at hand.
The memory to which I always go back for an example of the relationship in a working situation is the first catalog. After the introduction of the new line of furniture my office did, and the showing of the new Eames pieces, D.J. asked for a catalog. Heaven knows one was badly needed; the existing catalogs were cobbled up by printers here and there and inappropriate in every way for what we had in mind.
The opportunity presented was to design a new catalog that transmitted the same sense of quality as the new furniture. The problem was that money was very tight. I got hold of Ezra Stoller, at the time the best (and most expensive) of the architectural photographers, and we made a dummy, got some prices for a quantity of 10,000 and notified D.J. D.J., as always, was enthralled by what he was shown, but horrified when he saw the price estimates.
"How could you do this?" he asked mournfully. "You know we don’t have this kind of money. It is beautiful, but you will have to go back and find some way of making it affordable."
None of this came as a surprise: D.J. was always very open in talking about the company’s financial problems; I knew that there was no adequate budget for what we needed. I also knew that a certain quality level in the catalog was essential, for the distribution system in those days was pitifully inadequate, and the only way many possible specifiers were going to see the furniture was in the catalog. In other words, the quality of the furniture was going to have to be apparent in the pages themselves.
D.J. left for Zeeland quite unhappy, and I stayed in my office, even more unhappy. I simply did not know how to get the quality needed for the money available, and finally I went home and worried about it. Sometimes these impossible problems resolve themselves, so I worried until I fell asleep and woke up the next morning with an answer so simple, but also so radical, that it scared me. When I got to the office the next morning, I called our little team together and said to shift the catalog from a booklet format to hardcover, with a jacket, and when D.J. got back to New York a few weeks later it was ready.
"Didn’t you listen to me, George?" he asked. "This costs even more!" He was right; it did cost more.
"Open it and look at the jacket fold on the inside of the cover," I said, and he did. There at the top of the jacket there was a price for all to see: $3.00.
D.J. was stunned. "Nobody in the entire history of the furniture industry has ever charged for a catalog!" he cried. "You can’t sell a furniture catalog!"
"There’s no other answer," I replied.
He sat down and slowly leafed through the dummy, thinking.
"Some of the architects are going to have to order it by mail. This is their only contact with the product."
"We aren’t a mail order house," he said.
"I don’t know what kind of house we are," I replied. "Anyway, all your competitors are going to buy it."
He sat looking at it, and handling it. Finally, "We’ll sell it," he said. "Go ahead."
So we all took a very deep breath and went ahead. It would be foolish to pretend that we were not scared. The book came out, and sold out. Months later Knoll came out with their new catalog. It had a price of $5.00 on it, and we relaxed. The gamble had paid off. We now had company.