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The Secret Weapon Of “Mad Men”? Herman Miller

How the Zeeland, Michigan, furniture company helps Mad Men set decorator Claudette Didul-Mann get the details right.

Sterling Cooper and Partners is an agency whose reputation is built on a progressive approach to advertising. So it has made sense, throughout the last few seasons, to see Herman Miller’s mid-century aesthetic seep into the offices designed by Mad Men’s set decorator Claudette Didul-Mann. An Eames Time-Life chair shows up in Roger’s office; Don gets an Aluminum Group chair. And for good reason. Herman Miller helps to visually represent the cultural evolution at the heart of Mad Men.

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Didul-Mann, who spoke to Co.Design about her process, says she is a stickler for details. As such, she relies heavily on the expertise of Herman Miller staff to help bring design context to the set. Product loans from Herman Miller would look too contemporary, so Didul-Mann and the show’s research department work closely with Herman Miller’s archives team in finding vintage and accurate pieces. When Didul-Mann found a Nelson Swag Life chair, for instance, she contacted Herman Miller to see what year it would have been upholstered.

Because the show’s approach to period design is both sumptuous and obsessively fastidious, nothing is taken for granted. For example, the Lounge Chair was off limits, according to Didul-Mann, because Matt Weiner thought it would be a cliché. Even the hardware has to be accurate. “One or two other times I’ve called [Herman Miller] trying to find shelves or bases for shelves, or the bumper for the base of the shelf,” Didul-Mann says.

Her additional research and inspiration for the set includes studying vintage issues of magazines like Interior Design and House Beautiful, as well as old Herman Miller ads, which were often designed by in-house design director and legend Irving Harper. Didul-Mann also has a personal trove of images to pull from. “My father worked in advertising for over 40 years and there was Herman Miller and Knoll furniture everywhere you went.”

The Eames Time-Life chair.

Herman Miller’s role in the show isn’t just about recreating a retro aesthetic. The company ushered in a new era of office design when the white collar creative industry began to flourish after World War II. In 1956, the company issued an advertisement for the “living room in your office,” saying, “An office isn’t just an office. It’s a conference room, a living room, and a library too. The furniture, therefore, must be as flexible as the functions it performs.”

The Aluminum Group chairs.

Likewise, on Mad Men, work isn’t just work. For Don, it’s how he fashions his new identity, and his very own brand that disguises his shabby former life. For Peggy and Joan, the office life offers a chance to be more than just housewives. Does it work out? Well, couches tell stories about ambition and influence–Megan makes her move on Don’s couch–and chairs show how high up the ladder you made it–when Peggy sits in Don’s chair at the close of season six, it’s suggestive of her escalating role in the office.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.

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