Herman Miller Taps Students To Rethink Our Workplaces

What do students know about the soul-sucking problems facing office workers today? More than you’d think.

Michigan furniture manufacturer Herman Miller has tapped a handful of industrial-design students to take on some of the biggest challenges facing office managers today: How do you offer workers privacy in an open-plan workplace? How do you encourage balance between working and living, when digital communication has rendered that once-rigid divide obsolete?


Herman Miller has built an empire on addressing, if not exactly solving, these kinds of problems through smart furniture design. The company also has a rich history of collaborating with the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where Charles and Ray Eames–the furniture giant’s most famous designers–met in 1940.

Recently, Herman Miller selected six out of 16 original seating and workstation concepts, designed by students in Cranbrook’s 3-D Design Department, and helped turn them into full-scale prototypes for an exhibit at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York. The concepts are aimed at encouraging “rest and concentration in the workplace” and include everything from Kyle Fleet’s wooden rocking chair covered in sound-dampening wool to Douglas Leckie’s bench with blanket-like upholstery that can be configured various ways to accommodate different resting positions. Earlier in the week, Cranbrook was announced the winner of the 2012 ICFF Editors Award for Best Design School.

You’d be forgiven for wondering what a bunch of a students know about the soul-sucking trials and tribulations of the 21st-century workplace. More than you’d think. Take Mike Haley. Haley, 26, used to work in a carpet-cleaning call center laid out like most call centers: with cubicles, cubicles, and more cubicles. “It was just like Office Space,” he tells us. People were constantly passing by his desk, shattering his concentration. Worse, there was nowhere comfortable to which he could repair during breaks, so he’d just sit in his car and listen to the radio. “That drew me to the idea that you need a place where you can take a break and remove yourself,” he says.

The Alcove Chair

His design, the Alcove Chair, is an oversized upholstered shell that supports a range of postures for reading, chatting, or sleeping. Extra-tall armrests work as a visual and acoustic barrier against the rest of the office. In a way, the chair is the high-design equivalent of the inside of Haley’s car. Now all it needs is a radio.

Check out our slideshow for more student designs.

[Images courtesy of Cranbrook Academy of Art]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.