On what would have been Larry Kramer's 86th birthday, we look at the history of the iconic Silence = Death poster and the pioneering ACT UP organization—the political action group that Kramer catalyzed. Four decades into the AIDS crisis, and during this year's Pride Month celebrations, The Henry Ford recognizes the tireless advocates who have fought and continue to fight, refusing to stay silent, for equitable treatment for those in the LGBTQ+ community.
On July 3, 1981, the New York Times published an article that would send shockwaves through the LGBTQ+ community across the country. Headlined “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” the article, which appeared not on the first page, but on page A20, reported the death of eight individuals, and that the cause of the outbreak was unknown. For LGBTQ+ individuals living in the affected areas, the article was more a confirmation of their fears than new information. And for many heterosexual people, it sparked trepidation and deepened discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Other smaller publications had published articles in the months preceding July 1981, and Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, from the U.S. Center for Disease Control (now known as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), documented early cases of the epidemic in June. In the gay community, friends and loved ones were getting sick and many were dying. The alarm bell had been rung.
The Silence = Death Collective designed this poster prior to the formation of the ACT UP organization, but transferred ownership to ACT UP in 1987. / THF179775
Silence = Death
The Silence = Death poster has come to symbolize the early fight against the AIDS epidemic. It was borne of deep grief and an unrelenting desire for action. One evening in late 1985, after the loss of his partner from AIDS in November 1984, Avram Finkelstein met with Jorge Socarras and Oliver Johnston in a New York City diner to catch up. Although the AIDS epidemic was a constant, tumultuous undercurrent in the gay community in the mid-1980s, the topic was often coded or avoided. That night, Finkelstein recalls, AIDS was all the men discussed, which he found “exhilarating after so many years of secrecy.” They decided to form a collective, each agreeing to bring one additional person to their next meeting. Chris Lione, Charles Kreloff, and Brian Howard joined. These six men met regularly to discuss the epidemic’s impact on their lives—and to process, rage, mourn, and, eventually, strategize. Finkelstein illustrates these meetings in his book After Silence: A History of AIDS through Its Images: “There were animated conversations, always, and there was often hilarity. We were almost never mean, but we frequently fought. There was shouting, there was fist pounding, and occasionally tears…. Fear may have been the canvas for our conversations. But anger was definitely the paint.”
These conversations turned to action. Each of the men had an artistic background—the group was comprised of art directors, graphic designers, and a musician. They decided to create a political poster, hoping to inspire action from the community’s fear. According to Finkelstein, “the poster needed to simultaneously address two distinctly different audiences, with a bifurcated goal: to stimulate political organizing in the lesbian and gay community, and to simultaneously imply to anyone outside the community that we were already fully mobilized.” The group spent six months designing the poster—debating everything from the background color to the text before deploying the poster all over Manhattan by March of 1987.
The poster’s central graphic element is a pink triangle. It references and reclaims the pink triangle patches on concentration camp uniforms that homosexual men were forced to wear by the Nazi regime during World War II (lesbian women were given a black triangle). The pink triangles subjected the men to added brutality. The poster’s triangle is inverted, however, from the one used during the Holocaust. This was initially a mistake. Chris Lione had recently been to the Dachau concentration camp and recalled that the pink triangle he saw on exhibit pointed upward. However, the collective embraced the accident once it was discovered, reasoning that the inverted triangle was “superimposing an activist stance by borrowing the ‘power’ intonations of the upwards triangle in New Age spirituality.” The expansive black background created a meditative negative space that further emphasized the bright pink triangle and the white text below.
The tagline for the poster—“SILENCE = DEATH”—was quickly developed. It also soon became the name of the men’s group: the Silence = Death Collective. The equation references the deafening silence of the public and government-at-large—the New York Times didn’t give the AIDS crisis front-page coverage until 1983; President Ronald Reagan’s administration made light of the epidemic in its early years (the administration’s press secretary jokingly referred to the epidemic as the “gay plague” in 1982); and President Reagan didn’t address the AIDS epidemic publicly until September of 1985. The tagline also targeted the LGBTQ+ community, whose uncomfortable silence came at ultimate risk. Without discussion, education, and action about the AIDS crisis, many more people would die. By the end of 1987, over 47,000 people had already died of AIDS. Silence—quite literally—equaled death.
Artist and activist Keith Haring designed this poster, titled “IGNORANCE = FEAR, SILENCE = DEATH Fight AIDS ACT UP,” in 1989 for the ACT UP organization. It utilizes the “Silence = Death” tagline and the inverted pink triangle symbol initially created by the Silence=Death Collective. / THF179776
The Formation of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power)
At almost the same time that the Silence = Death Collective’s poster began appearing around Manhattan, playwright and activist Larry Kramer gave a legendary lecture at New York’s Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center on March 10, 1987. Kramer famously began this speech by telling the crowd that half of them would be dead within the year (due to the AIDS epidemic). He repeatedly asked the crowd “What are you going to do about it!?!” Kramer’s rage and urgency pushed the crowd towards actionable steps to combat the AIDS crisis. Within days, a group met that would become the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—or ACT UP. Around 300 people attended that first meeting, including some of the members of the Silence = Death Collective.
ACT UP quickly mobilized and became the political action group that many in the LGBTQ+ community—including the Silence = Death Collective—had envisioned. ACT UP was (and still is) “committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” On March 24, 1987, just two weeks after Larry Kramer’s lecture, the group held its first “action” when it protested pharmaceutical price-gouging of AIDS medication on Wall Street. Kramer had published an op-ed in the New York Times the day before, titled “The FDA’s Callous Response to AIDS,” which helped contextualize ACT UP’s protest in the media. ACT UP and its many chapters, subcommittees, and affinity groups kept pressure on the government for its inaction in the AIDS epidemic by frequently staging creative acts of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest.
Over the last four decades, AIDS has taken the lives of men, women, and children, without regard to sexual orientation or race. However, the LGBTQ+ community has suffered the bulk of misinformation and discrimination related to the disease and done the difficult work to push direct action to end the AIDS crisis. The work of activists like the Silence = Death Collective, the members of ACT UP, and many others made treatment available to more people and curbed the spread of the disease. ACT UP broadened its mission to the eradication of AIDS at the global level and remains an active organization.
In 1947, George Nelson opened his eponymous design office on Lexington Avenue in New York City. George Nelson & Co., as the first iteration of the office was named, was located on the second floor of a narrow building; the ground floor was a health food restaurant. In the introduction to Nelson’s collection of 26 essays called Problems of Design, Museum of Modern Art curator Arthur Drexler recalled that the restaurant had a loyal customer base, even though it “smelled funny.” Drexler observed an “unnerving contrast between the solemnity on the ground floor and that haphazard urbanity on the floor above.” George Nelson’s tendency to do many things simultaneously would have created a sometimes chaotic but always exhilarating environment that perhaps occasionally featured a pungent reminder of its downstairs neighbor.
Over the next four decades, the office would change names, move around New York City, employ many of the best and brightest designers, and complete a dizzying number of projects for a variety of clients. Constant through these changes was George Nelson’s emphasis on the importance of the design process. Even late nights at the office, sometimes saturated with drink, could be productive. Concepts imagined the night before might find their way to the drawing board in the bright light of the morning to be refined, altered, and honed further.
Sometimes, Nelson was more involved with the ideation and later refinement of an idea than with its realization—the office’s staff designers tended to that. A one-time employee of the office, architect and designer Michael Graves, reminisced that Nelson “would come in and touch down his magic dust on somebody and then leave.” While Nelson’s “magic dust”—and the powerful brand that his name symbolized—was vital to the office’s success, Nelson’s own hand in the development of a product or design was sometimes exaggerated. It has taken many years for certain designs to be accurately attributed—and surely there are many more that have not been and may never be. This problem is not unique to Nelson’s office, however, and was often the price designers paid to gain experience and contacts in the field. Hilda Longinotti, the office’s long-time receptionist, reflected on this: “As the years went by, George with all of his intelligence, did not do one thing he should have done and that is make the most talented designers partners in the firm. He gave them titles, but he didn’t give them a piece of the business. As the years went by, they left to form their own offices…”
The hundred-plus people employed by George Nelson over the course of his career—some for a short time and others much longer—include Lance Wyman, Ernest Farmer, Tomoko Miho, Irving Harper, Michael Graves, Don Ervin, Lucia DeRespinis, George Tscherny, and many others. The Henry Ford’s collections feature graphics and products designed by Nelson himself as well as some confirmed to be designed by the office’s staff. Below, we will focus on three of these designers: Irving Harper, George Tscherny, and Tomoko Miho.
For many of the years that George Nelson was Herman Miller’s design director, Irving Harper was the director of design at George Nelson’s office. George Nelson hired Harper in 1947, and Harper did a little bit of everything in his tenure there—industrial design, furniture, and, eventually, graphics. Although he didn’t have much experience in graphic design, Harper quickly excelled. Herman Miller’s sweeping red “M” logo was one of Harper’s first forays into graphic design, and, 75 years later, the logo is still beloved and used by the company. Harper also designed many of the Nelson Office’s notable products, including many of the clocks for Howard Miller and the iconic Marshmallow sofa.
Born in New York City in 1916, Harper trained as an architect at New York’s Cooper Union and Brooklyn College. He soon began designing interiors. At the age of 19, Harper was hired by Gilbert Rohde, Nelson’s predecessor at Herman Miller, to work on projects for the 1939 World’s Fair, including renderings and production drawings. Harper worked for George Nelson from 1947 until 1963, when he left to start his own firm, Harper+George, which primarily designed interiors for commercial clients. Harper began to create incredibly intricate paper sculptures in the early 1960s as a stress relief measure, turning him into a proper sculptor as well as designer. The paper sculptures bridged his active design years into his retirement in 1983, when his sculpting output greatly increased. Harper died in 2015 at his long-time home in Rye, New York.
This 1947 advertisement features Herman Miller’s sweeping new “M” logo, which was designed by Irving Harper in one of his first forays into graphic design. / THF623975
Irving Harper designed this 1961 Herman Miller advertisement for the “Eames Chair Collection.” / THF266918
George Tscherny began working at George Nelson & Co. in 1953. Nelson hired Tscherny specifically to design print advertisements for the office’s largest client, Herman Miller, under the direction of Irving Harper. Nelson reportedly had a hands-off approach. Tscherny recalled, “He had no pressing need to involve himself in my area. That meant I could do almost anything within reason.” Tscherny was able to expand and hone his graphic style, which stresses the inherent nature of objects and is always human-centered—even when a human isn’t visible.
Tscherny, born into a Jewish family in 1924 in Budapest, Hungary, grew up in Berlin, Germany. The rise of the Nazi Party and, specifically, the evening of Kristallnacht(“The Night of the Broken Glass”) on November 10, 1938, led Tscherny to believe “there was no future for us in Germany.” The following month, George and his younger brother Alexander escaped to the Netherlands, where they spent the following years moving between refugee camps and Jewish orphanages. Their parents, Mandel and Bella (Heimann) Tscherny, obtained visas and emigrated to the United States in 1939. It wasn’t until June of 1941 that George and Alexander finally joined their parents in New Jersey, after numerous close calls with the Nazi Party. In 1943, George Tscherny enlisted as a soldier in the U.S. Army to fight in World War II and went back to Europe, using his language skills as an interpreter. After the war, Tscherny used the G.I. Bill to fund his study of graphic design, attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York; he would leave just weeks before graduation to work for designer Donald Deskey. In 1953, he was hired by George Nelson.
Although Tscherny only worked for Nelson until 1955, numerous advertisements he designed for Herman Miller during his short tenure became iconic of the era. Tscherny left the office to start his independent design studio, which designed graphics for major corporations. He also taught at the School of the Visual Arts in New York City for over half a century. Tscherny says he attempted to teach his students, as Nelson taught him, “not to have preconceptions, but rather to be receptive to new ideas.” Tscherny, currently 96 years old, lives in New York City with Sonia, his wife of over 70 years.
The famous "Traveling Men" advertisement for Herman Miller was designed by George Tscherny in 1954. / THF624755
George Tscherny’s 1955 “Herman Miller Comes to Dallas” advertisement implies a human presence through the inclusion of a cowboy hat. / THF148287
Tomoko Miho was one of a few women that George Nelson hired to design for his office. Miho is not very well-known today, both due to a societal tendency to ignore contributions of women working in the mid-century period and to her private and reserved nature. Although her name may be unfamiliar, this is not due to a lack of talent—Miho’s skill in graphic design and art direction were extraordinary. Once you identify her clean, minimalist, architectural style, it becomes distinct from the others working in the Nelson office.
Born Tomoko Kawakami in 1931 in Los Angeles, she and her family were held at the Gila River Japanese internment camp in Arizona during World War II. Afterwards, the family moved to Minneapolis, where Tomoko began coursework in art and design. She received a full scholarship to the Art Center School in Los Angeles, where she graduated with a degree in Industrial Design in 1958. She worked as a packaging designer for Harley Earl Associates before moving to New York City and, on the recommendation of George Tscherny, she contacted Irving Harper and was then hired by George Nelson in 1960. As the prominent graphic designer (and later colleague of Miho) John Massey stated, Miho was “a master of the dramatic understatement.” Her work is graceful, clean, and highly structured, while also seeming unrestricted. Her designs are masterfully well-balanced and lend themselves well to their primary purpose—conveying information.
Miho worked for the Nelson office until 1965, when family commitments took her to California, back to New York City, and then to Chicago, where she worked for the Center for Advanced Research and Design (CARD). She designed possibly her best known work while working for CARD—the 1967 "Great Architecture in Chicago" poster. It reflects her sense that Chicago’s architecture is “both solid and ethereal,” as Miho explained. Miho continued to collaborate with designers she met at George Nelson & Co. for years. She also had an incredibly long-lasting relationship with Herman Miller: she began designing for the company during her tenure at George Nelson & Co., continued while she was employed by CARD, and even after starting her own firm, Tomoko Miho Co., Herman Miller remained a client. Miho passed away in 2012 in New York City.
Tomoko Miho featured the Herman Miller logo in this price list, camouflaging it in bold contrasting stripes. This is one document in a suite, all featuring the same design, but in different colorways. / THF64160
The “Library Group” trade literature was designed by Tomoko Miho, circa 1970. / THF147737
Product Tag for an Original George Nelson Design Executed by Herman Miller, 1955 / THF298217
George Nelson is one of the giants of American Modern design. Often with such individuals, it is usually sufficient to point to their output—the architecture, products, graphics they designed—as a way to simplify and quantify their impact. While George Nelson’s output was undeniably significant, an accounting of his legacy in this way will always fall short. Nelson’s contributions to Modernism and the field of design are akin to his office’s famous Marshmallow Sofa—a study in how parts relate to the whole.
Born in 1908 to an affluent family in Connecticut, George Nelson was encouraged to cultivate his intellect from a young age. He attended Yale University—more so for its proximity to home and prestige in the eyes of his parents than due to his own desire—and quite literally happened upon the study of architecture by chance. He recalled ducking into the architecture building on Yale’s campus to avoid a sudden rainfall. Student renderings of cemetery gateways hung in the halls. Nelson “fell in love instantly with the whole business of creating designs for cemetery gateways” and decided, “without further question,” to become an architect. He graduated with his B.A. in 1928 and a B.F.A. in 1931.
Nelson graduated with his new degree as the Great Depression tightened its grip on the United States. He was offered a teaching job at Yale, but was soon let go. He later considered this lucky, saying “…if you’re lucky, you are not allowed to stay safe. You’re thrown into jeopardy.” After a period of uncertainty in which he threw himself into applications for architectural fellowships in Europe, he was successful in winning the prestigious Rome Prize. This came with an all expenses paid, two-year architectural fellowship in Rome, which he took from 1932–1934. Those years in Rome allowed Nelson to travel throughout Europe, study great architecture, and become acquainted with many of the leading figures in the budding Modernism movement.
Architectural criticism and theory writing became a continuous outlet for Nelson throughout his career, beginning in the early 1930s when he first published drawings and articles in Pencil Points and Architecture magazines. Upon his return to the United States, he took a position with The Architectural Forum in New York City and worked his way up to co-managing editor. Nelson’s career path didn’t continue in a linear fashion, but sprouted offshoots. Soon, he simultaneously continued his journalistic pursuits (and expanded to other publications), designed architectural commissions, and created exhibitions. The work was never about the output, but about the process and the solving of problems in whichever way a circumstance demanded.
While writing a book on the house of the future titled Tomorrow’s House with Architectural Forum colleague Henry Wright, Nelson confronted the problem of household storage inadequacies, among other domestic matters. He explained his method in writing the book, “you will not find a chapter on bedrooms … but a great deal about sleeping.” His storage solution was a masterful rethinking of furniture and architecture in one. He recalled his “aha” moment: “My goodness, if you took those walls and pumped more air into them and they got thicker and thicker until maybe they were 12 inches thick, you would have hundreds and hundreds of running feet of storage.” Nelson’s innovative “storage wall” opened new doors for the furniture industry for years to come. His idea was featured in Architectural Forum in 1944 and then in a generous 1945 spread in Life magazine. It also attracted the attention of D.J. De Pree, the founder of the Herman Miller Furniture Company in Zeeland, Michigan.
After the untimely death of Gilbert Rohde, D.J. De Pree began to look for a new director of design. Rohde had successfully set the Herman Miller Furniture Company on the path of Modernism and De Pree was looking to continue that trajectory. Initially, De Pree considered German architect Erich Mendelsohn or industrial designer Russel Wright for the post, but eventually chose George Nelson, sensing a kindred spirit in a perhaps unlikely partnership. De Pree was devoutly religious and a teetotaler; Nelson, always accompanied by the lingering smell of cigarette smoke, questioned everything—especially religion—and loved martinis. Despite these differences, De Pree thought, rightfully, that Nelson was “thinking well ahead of the parade,” and hired him for the job. Like De Pree and Rohde, Nelson was completely invested in continuing Herman Miller’s focus on honesty and quality in Modern design. In the forward to a groundbreaking 1948 catalogue, Nelson outlined the company philosophy:
The attitude that governs Herman Miller’s behavior, as far as I can make out, is compounded of the following set of principles:
What you make is important….
Design is an integral part of the business….
The product must be honest….
You decide what you will make….
There is a market for good design.
Advertisement for Herman Miller Furniture Company, "George Nelson Designs," October 1947 / THF623977
Herman Miller and George Nelson’s decades-long collaboration was fruitful almost immediately. Nelson rethought some of Gilbert Rohde’s furniture and issued lines of his own furniture design. He had proven himself a prescient thought leader in the design world through his writing, but became adept at finding talented people and bringing them together for the greater good of design. D.J. De Pree admitted surprise when Nelson requested to bring on other designers—even before his own contract was formalized. Instead of hoarding the glory (and potential income) for himself, Nelson saw the far-reaching benefits of collaboration with other visionary designers. It was Nelson who brought together the core design team that still shapes Herman Miller’s design today—most notably, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and Alexander Girard.
A tendency towards collaboration was not isolated to Nelson’s work at Herman Miller. In his personal life, he counted architect Minoru Yamasaki and architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller among his close friends. And those that he employed in his eponymous design office (which had many clients, although Herman Miller was certainly the largest account for many years) were the best of the best too. These staff designers—Irving Harper, Tomoko Miho, Lance Wyman, and Don Ervin, to name just a few—maintained the constant hum of the office. They diligently continued to ideate, design, and make for the office’s clients. Sometimes they executed their own concepts, and other times the staff designers brought their metaphorical and literal pens to paper for some of Nelson’s lofty visions.
Nelson has faced fair criticism of taking more credit than was due for some of the designs that came from his office. He positioned himself as a powerful brand—and many of those who worked under him gained valuable experience, but perhaps never the full realization of their efforts in the public sphere.
Trade Card for Herman Miller, “Come and See the New Designs at the Herman Miller Showroom,” circa 1955 / THF215327
George Nelson actively designed for Herman Miller until the early 1970s and continued designing products, exhibits, interiors, graphics, and more with his own firm until 1984. He lectured and wrote on design theory and practice until his death in 1986, influencing and inspiring generations of designers. George Nelson’s contributions to design are much greater than his output—the products, writings, structures, and graphics he produced. He may have been more concerned with principles and processes than about the tangible result—but his loftier focus is what made his tangible designs so effective. Nelson’s ideas and ideals shaped the Modernist design movement and his influence can still be felt, reverberating through the halls of design offices and school halls alike.
Imagine attending a choral concert in a century-old church. Instead of monochromatic robes, the choristers emerge in bright, radiant color with bold geometric design. The colors of the robes are a musical key, made visual—yellow for the soprano, orange for the contralto, red for the tenor, and purple for the bass. As the choristers sing and sway, the robes come alive, a modern counterpoint to the traditional church interior.
Imagination aside, this is a scene familiar to those who have watched the Hope College Chapel Choir perform. Originally a creation of Charles and Ray Eames from the 1950s, faithful replicas of the robes continue to be used.
The Hope College Chapel Choir at Dimnent Chapel, circa 2001. Photo Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.
Although husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames collaborated in nearly everything, it was Ray who showed an early and enduring interest in textiles and fashion design. The daughter of a theatre aficionado and manager, she attended the Bennett School for Girls, a two-year college in Millbrook, New York, earning a degree in Fashion Design in 1933. She completed fashion sketches throughout her life—even creating original paper dolls with custom clothing, complete with the tabs used to affix the clothing onto the doll! She designed a few textiles (one of which—“Crosspatch”—won an honorable mention in a 1946 Museum of Modern Art competition) and dedicated significant energy into the design and creation of her own clothing. The clothes she designed for herself and for Charles are quintessential Eames—functional yet beautiful, with playful delights to be found in the details.
D.J. De Pree, the founder and president of the Herman Miller Furniture Company (which produced Charles and Ray Eames’ furniture), was known for his religious fervor. Further, the company is headquartered in Zeeland, Michigan, a Dutch-American enclave with deep Protestant Christian roots. So, when an employee suggested the creation of a company-sponsored chorus in 1952 (something that might otherwise have been an unusual corporate activity), the De Prees granted it legitimacy, naming it the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus and inviting the chorus to perform at company and company-sponsored events. They soon required choral robes to outfit the company chorus and asked Charles and Ray Eames to design them.
Herman Miller Mixed Chorus Soprano and Contralto Vocalist Choir Robes, 1953-1960 / THF75585, THF75580
With Ray’s background, it is likely that she was primarily responsible for the design, although as always in collaboration with her husband. The robes are bold and colorful and make a statement, but they are also functional. Their symbolism is evidence of the Eames’ signature research-heavy process and attention to detail. The colors of the robes identify the vocal type (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and each color’s hue (from light to dark) corresponds with the vocal range (from high to low). The horizontal black lines at the center of each robe reference the musical staff. Charles and Ray may have scoured the extensive Eames Office reference library to ensure symbolic depth and accuracy. Or, perhaps, this came from an ingrained knowledge of music. They enjoyed a variety of musical types, like jazz, folk, and classical, and music was a major component of the films they produced throughout their life, often collaborating with talented composers like Elmer Bernstein. The theatrical backdrop of Ray’s childhood, her interest in textiles and fashion, and the Eames’ interest in music coalesce in these robes.
Herman Miller Mixed Chorus Tenor and Bass Vocalist Choir Robes, 1953-1960 / THF75574, THF75569
The robes were designed at the Eames Office in Los Angeles, but it is unknown whether the robes were created there and shipped, finished, to Zeeland, or if the patterns and fabric were shipped and the robes were then sewn locally.
By 1960, the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus was disbanded, and Hugh De Pree, son of D.J. De Pree, donated the robes to the Hope College Chapel Choir in the neighboring city of Holland, Michigan, where the family had deep connections. The Hope College Chapel Choir was larger than the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus, so more robes had to be made. Doris Schrotenboer and Millie Grinwis, a mother and daughter team from Zeeland, made the extra. Millie Grinwis recalls that the fabric and patterns were shipped from the Eames Office to her mother’s home, where they were painstakingly put together.
After over 44 years in use, the original robes were retired in 2004. Unwilling, however, to part with the signature design, Hope College commissioned replicas, albeit in a slightly lighter fabric. The original robes were donated to several institutions. At The Henry Ford, these robes add an extra dimension to our design collections, as well as another way to better understand the many talents of Charles and Ray Eames.
The Hope College Chapel Choir recording at Milwaukee’s WTMJ-TV, circa 1965. / Photo Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. She is also an alumnus of Hope College, where she was first delighted by these robes! Thank you to Geoffrey Reynolds at the Joint Archives of Holland for graciously sharing pictures of the Hope College Chapel Choir through the years.
Kalamazoo, Michigan, is known for its industry. For a relatively small midwestern city, it became a leader in the production of an impressive number of products, some more readily remembered today than others—including celery, paper, stoves, taxicabs, guitars, craft beer, and pharmaceuticals. At the turn of the 20th century, the Kalamazoo Corset Company gave the city more reasons to be noticed—for its high output of corsets, the advertising used to sell them, and for an historic labor strike, led primarily by women.
The Kalamazoo Corset Company began as the Featherbone Corset Company. The company’s name changed in 1894, a few years after the company was relocated 70+ miles from Three Oaks, Michigan, to the city of Kalamazoo. As the original name suggests, the company prided itself on its innovative use of turkey wing feathers—“featherbone”—which replaced the occasionally malodorous whalebone corsets (while these corsets were referred to as containing “whalebone,” it was actually whale baleen that was used, which is not bone).
While the company featured numerous lines of corsets, by 1908, they were focusing on advertising for their “American Beauty” line. These corsets were named to reflect a version of an idealized American woman—an “American Beauty.” Charles Dana Gibson had created his version of the feminine ideal of physical attractiveness, the “Gibson Girl,” during the 1890s—this “American Beauty” followed in her footsteps. The company’s use of “American Beauty” also likely referenced a deep crimson hybrid rose bred in Europe in 1875, which by the turn of the 20th century was popularized in America as the rather expensive American Beauty Rose. By associating their corset line with both the concept of the quintessential American girl and the coveted American Beauty Rose, they were sending a message to the consumer—"buy our corset and you too will take on these qualities!”
Promotional songs that advertised a product were becoming increasingly popular at the time. Since the end of the Civil War, Americans had been purchasing parlor pianos for their homes in great numbers—as many as 25,000 per year. The parlor piano became the center of most Americans’ musical experience. Music publishers, like those in the famous Tin Pan Alley of New York City, took note and sold sheet music aimed at these amateur musicians. The rise of music publishing led to a new mode of advertising for retailers and manufacturers. How better to promote your product than by creating a tune that consumers could play in their homes? It seems the Kalamazoo Corset Company agreed, hiring Harry H. Zickel and the Zickel Bros. to write three such songs to advertise the “American Beauty” line: the “American Beauty March and Two-Step” (1908), “My American Beauty Rose: Ballad” (1910), and “My American Beauty Girl” (1912).
Around the time these songs were being written, issues at the company began to come to light. The company was a major employer in the area, employing 1026 people, 835 of whom were women, in 1911. This made the company the largest employer of women in Kalamazoo. First in 1911, and then again in 1912, around 800 mostly female workers went on strike. They formed the Kalamazoo Corset Workers’ Union, Local 82 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and protested unequal wages, unsanitary working conditions, and sexual harassment.
The strike gained national attention and the ILGWU headquarters in New York City sent well-known women’s rights advocates Josephine Casey and Pauline Newman to Kalamazoo to assist in the negotiations. The strike looked to New York as an example—the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and subsequent “Uprising of the 20,000” strike of 1909–1910 had sparked more uprisings, some far from New York City, as in Kalamazoo’s example.
The protesters received support from local unions, but the owner of the company, James Hatfield, was a prominent Kalamazoo businessman and was well-liked among his upper-class peers. Local women’s organizations did not come to the aid of the protestors. Even the local group of suffragettes did not openly support the strike, possibly due to class issues (the suffragettes were upper class, while the women protesting were working class) or because their focus was on getting a women’s suffrage amendment to the state’s constitution passed. The women of the Kalamazoo Corset Company faced an uphill battle to obtain even a semblance of equality in the workplace.
The strike ended on June 15, 1912, ultimately unsuccessful. While an agreement was reached which addressed many of Local 82’s demands, no measures were put in place to ensure adherence, and the company quickly lapsed in its promises. Within just a few years, James Hatfield left the company to begin another, and the company was renamed Grace Corset Company. Between the financial woes wrought by the strike and changing fashions, difficult days for the company were ahead.
The Kalamazoo Corset Company’s business was women—manufacturing garments for women, shaping idealized notions of women—but it was still unable to adequately value the many women it employed by creating an equitable and safe workplace. In the end, the inability of the company to recognize the value of the gender by which they made their business helped to ensure its downfall.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
The story of Frederick Douglass’s life is, at turns, tragic and awe-inspiring. He is a testament to the strength and ingenuity of the human spirit. The Henry Ford is fortunate to have some materials related to Douglass, as well as to the many areas of American history and culture he touched. What follows is an exploration of Frederick Douglass’s story through the lens of The Henry Ford’s collection, using our artifacts as touchpoints in Douglass’s life.
This portrait of Douglass was taken circa 1860, around the time Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States. /THF210623
Early Life & Escape
Born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, Frederick Douglass was named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey by his enslaved mother, Harriet Bailey. Tragically, Douglass only saw his mother a few times before her early death, when Douglass was just seven years old. Though he had few memories of his mother, he recalled her fondly and was proud to learn that she also knew how to read. He wrote that he was “quite willing, and even happy, to attribute any love of letters I possess” to his mother. Few enslaved people could read at that time—Douglass’s pride in his mother was certainly justified.
In 1826, Douglass was sent to Baltimore, Maryland, to live with the family of Hugh and Sophia Auld—extended family of his master, Aaron Anthony. This move to Baltimore would be transformative for Douglass. It not only exposed Douglass to the wider world, but was also where Douglass learned to read.
Douglass was initially taught to read by Sophia Auld, who considered him a bright pupil. However, the lessons were put to a stop by Hugh Auld. It was not only illegal to teach an enslaved person to read, but Hugh also believed literacy would “ruin” Douglass as a slave. In a sense, Douglass agreed, as he came to understand the vast power of literacy. Douglass would later remark that “education and slavery are incompatible with each other.”
Douglass was determined to read. He “converted to teachers” some of the friendlier white children in the neighborhood. They showed him a school reader entitled The Columbian Orator, by Caleb Bingham, that he came to rely upon. In 1830, he purchased his own copy for 50 cents. The book—a collection of exceptional oration, poems, dialogue, and tips on the “art of eloquence”—became a great inspiration to Douglass. He carried it with him for many years to come.
“The Columbian Orator” features a discussion between an enslaved person and their master which impressed Douglass. The enslaved person’s dialogue—referred to as “smart” by Douglass—resulted in the man’s unexpected emancipation. / THF621972, THF621973
As recollected in his first memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845, Douglass’s teenage years were some of his most challenging. He became viewed as a “troublemaker.” He was hired out to different farmers in the area, including one who had the reputation as an “effective slave breaker” and was especially cruel. Knowing that a larger world awaited and facing a terrible quality of life, Douglass attempted an escape in 1836. The escape failed and he was put in jail. Douglass was surprised to be released. He was sent not to the deep South as he had feared, but instead, back to Baltimore and the family of Hugh Auld, to learn the trade of caulking at the shipyards. While working there, Douglass was subjected to the animosities of his white coworkers, who beat him mercilessly—and were never arrested for it because a white witness would not testify and the word of a Black man was not admissible. He continuously dreamt of escape.
In this first memoir, Douglass provides great detail into his early life. However, because he was still a fugitive at the time of publication, he omitted details related to his escape. / THF8133
Recalling the ships on Chesapeake Bay, Douglass wrote:
“Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of the freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. You are loosed from your moorings and are free; I am fast in my chains and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip!”
The ships’ freedom taunted him.
On September 3rd, 1838, Douglass courageously escaped slavery. Dressed as a sailor and using borrowed documents, he boarded a train, then a ferry, and yet another train to reach New York City—and freedom. His betrothed, a free Black woman named Anna Murray, followed, and soon after they were married. Frederick and Anna Murray Douglass moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, with hopes that Frederick could find work as a caulker in the whaling port. Instead, he took on a variety of jobs—but, finally, the money he earned was fully his.
The American Anti-Slavery Society & the Abolitionists
While living in New Bedford, Douglass encountered William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, for the first time. Douglass later wrote that the paper “took its place with me next to the Bible.” The Liberator introduced to Douglass the official abolitionist movement.
In August of 1841, Douglass attended an abolitionist convention. In an impromptu speech, he regaled the audience with stories of his enslaved past. William Lloyd Garrison and other leading abolitionists noticed—Douglass’s career as an abolitionist orator had begun. Douglass became a frequent speaker at meetings of the American Anti-Slavery Society. His personal story of life enslaved humanized the abolitionist movement for many Northerners—and eventually, the world.
This copy of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator was published on August 16, 1839—around the time when Douglass first encountered the paper. /THF621979
Douglass was also supportive of the women’s suffrage movement. He spoke at the famous Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 in support of women’s rights. In fact, the motto of his newspaper, The North Star, was “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color—God is the Father of us all, and we are brethren.”
While Douglass forcefully supported women’s suffrage, some of his actions put him at odds with others in the movement. He supported the adoption of the 14th amendment, ratified in 1868, which guaranteed equality to all citizens—which included Black and white males, including the formerly enslaved. It did not include women. He also supported adoption of the 15th amendment, ratified in 1870, which secured Black males the right to vote. Again, the amendment excluded women. Although a dedicated women’s rights activist, Douglass supported the adoption of the 14th and 15th amendments as he believed the matter to be “life or death” for Black people. This put him in disagreement with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, as well as his friends. Despite this disagreement about timing, Douglass would continue to lecture in support of women’s equality and suffrage until his death.
John Brown’s Raid
Douglass was well-acquainted with famous abolitionist leader John Brown, first meeting him in 1847 or 1848. Brown became known for leading a raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, intending to create an “army of emancipation” to liberate enslaved people. Douglass and Brown spoke shortly before John Brown’s raid. Brown had hoped that Douglass would join him, but Douglass declined. He believed that Brown was “going into a perfect steel trap, and that once in he would not get out alive.”
Douglass was right. Brown was captured during the raid and was subsequently tried, convicted, and executed. Brown became seen as an anti-slavery martyr, as the below print shows. Henry David Thoreau remarked about him, “No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature…”
A letter from Douglass was found among John Brown’s belongings, leading to warrants for Douglass’s arrest as a conspirator. He was lecturing in Philadelphia at the time of the discovery. John Hurn, Philadelphia’s telegraph operator, was sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. He received a dispatch for the sheriff calling for Douglass’s arrest and both sent a warning to Douglass and delayed relaying the dispatch to the sheriff. Douglass fled and made it to Canada, narrowly escaping arrest. He then went abroad on a lecture tour, resisting apprehension in the States.
The text on this Currier & Ives print reads “John Brown—The Martyr: Meeting a Slave Mother and her Child on the steps of Charlestown Jail on his way to Execution. Regarding them with a look of compassion Captain Brown stooped and kissed the Child then met his fate." This did not actually occur, but became popular lore, as well as the subject of artwork and literature. / THF8053
The Civil War & Abraham Lincoln
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. At the time, Douglass was not optimistic about the cause of abolition under Lincoln’s presidency. As tensions between the North and South grew and Civil War loomed, Douglass welcomed the impending war. As biographer David Blight states, “Douglas wanted the clarity of polarized conflict.”
Douglass got involved in the war effort through the recruitment of Black soldiers. Two of his sons, Charles and Lewis, joined the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the second Black regiment in the Union Army. Douglass first met President Abraham Lincoln in August 1863, when he visited the White House to discuss grievances against Black troops. Even without an appointment and a room full of people waiting, Douglass was admitted to see Lincoln after just a few minutes.
Two of Frederick Douglass’s sons, Lewis and Charles, fought with the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment. Lewis Douglass was appointed Sergeant Major, the highest rank that a Black person could then hold. / THF73704
Douglass would go on to advise Lincoln over the following years. After Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he asked Douglass his thoughts about it, adding, “There is no man in these United States whose opinion I value more than yours.”
On February 1, 1865, Lincoln approved the Joint Resolution of the United States Congress proposing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution—the “nail in the coffin” for the institution of slavery in the United States. But before the 13th Amendment could be ratified, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865. While Douglass and Lincoln certainly disagreed on many topics, Douglass remembered him fondly. In his eulogy, Douglass called Lincoln “the Black man’s president: the first to show any respect to their rights as men.”
After the Civil War and even after Reconstruction, Douglass held high-ranking government appointments—often becoming the first Black person to do so. Douglass was appointed the Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti in 1889.
While Douglass certainly supported the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery, he did not think it went far enough. He remarked, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot. While the legislatures of the south retain the right to pass laws making any discrimination between black and white, slavery still lives there.” / THF118475
Douglass continued to lecture in support of his two primary causes—racial equality and women’s suffrage—until the very end. On February 20, 1895, he attended a meeting of the National Council of Women, went home, and suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 77 years old.
Frederick Douglass remains one of the most inspirational figures in American history. We can still feel the weight of the words he wrote and spoke, more than 125 years after his passing. Douglass said, “Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is … the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future and by which we may make it more symmetrical.” This work continues.
Frederick Douglass remains a powerful symbol of the fight for racial justice and equality. Here, his image graces the cover of Ebony Magazine’s issue celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. / THF98736_REDACTED
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. She appreciated the recently published book by David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, as she conducted research for this post.
"Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," 1845 / THF8133
“I was born in Tuckahoe…in Talbot County, Maryland,” begins Frederick Douglass, in this, his first of three memoirs. In 1818, he was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, to Harriet Bailey, his enslaved mother, and an unknown white father—likely his master, Aaron Anthony. At the age of twenty, he escaped slavery and changed his name to Frederick Douglass. This first memoir, published in 1845, is foremost an account of Douglass’s early life—from the time of his birth until his daring escape.
But it is also a political text that humanized the enslaved and the cause of abolition. Douglass was a master storyteller—as well as a legendary orator—and this memoir is a compilation of the most moving moments of his young life, including the tragically few memories he has of his mother, the gruesome beatings he both endured and witnessed, the joys and challenges of learning to read, and, of course, his courageous escape from slavery. By 1847, it had already sold more than 11,000 copies and supported the young family he was building with his wife, Anna Murray Douglass.
Portrait of Frederick Douglass, circa 1860 / THF210623
Douglass is best known for his long and celebrated career as an abolitionist orator, which began with an impromptu speech at an 1841 antislavery meeting. This would be the first of a lifetime of speeches. Douglass would go on to lecture about racial equality all over the world until his death in 1895. He also advised numerous sitting American presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, and was the first Black man to hold numerous high-ranking governmental posts.
Douglass was both a witness and a catalyst: he exposed the horrors of slavery and inequality, and then made it his life’s work to create a more just America.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Stories of Black Empowerment” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, 2018 / THF185488
People might think that curators look at objects in the same way. In fact, every curator at The Henry Ford has a different background and range of expertise, and we interpret things through a varied set of lenses.
Take, for example, an artifact in The Henry Ford’s collection that is related to a top-of-mind subject right now—vaccines. We were asked to offer two interpretations of the Stone Cold Systems Ice-less Vaccine Refrigerator, a 2018 IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) winner (you can find out more about The Henry Ford’s relationship with IDSA here). Here are our thoughts.
Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content:
At its best, design solves problems. Good designers are problem solvers, creatively working through a problem’s constraints towards a competent solution. When I first became familiar with this artifact, the Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, I was taken with its functionality and potential for social impact, all wrapped in a sleek case. This vaccine refrigerator, built within a siren-red carrying cage, aims to improve vaccine distribution to hard-to-reach locations.
The invention of vaccines has had an incredibly positive impact on global health. The World Health Organization estimates that 2–3 million deaths globally are avoided due to immunizations each year. But, perhaps surprisingly, vaccines can be fragile. They often need to be kept at a stable temperature (usually cold) without exposure to light or significant environmental fluctuation. The efficacy of the vaccine could be compromised should these factors not be met. The journey from the scientist’s laboratory to the arm of someone in New York City is a long one—and an even longer journey should that someone live in a rural area or developing country.
Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator Quick Start Guide / THF621440
This vaccine refrigerator aims to increase access to immunizations, regardless of where one calls home. It utilizes a more reliable iceless thermoelectric cooling technology and is rechargeable by multiple methods, including solar energy, so can be used anywhere. Although developed prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic, its future in fighting the pandemic is clear.
The late design critic Ralph Caplan is noted as saying that “design is a process of making things right.” Creation of a product which facilitates access to effective immunizations for all people—even far from a modern hospital building—is certainly one way to make things right.
Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life:
This vaccine refrigerator immediately brought to mind the recent research I’ve been doing on Dr. Alonson Bingley Howard, a 19th-century country doctor whose office is now located in Greenfield Village. At the time Dr. Howard was practicing medicine (1855–83), people didn’t understand the nature of germs and contagion, or that diseases were transmitted this way. As a result, infectious diseases—like cholera, tetanus, yellow fever (or malaria), measles, dysentery, scrofula, and typhoid—were the leading causes of death at the time. These often reached epidemic proportions and people constantly feared that they, or members of their families, might contract them. But, without knowledge of what caused and spread disease, or modern pharmaceuticals (including vaccines), safe drinking water, and improved sanitation facilities, 19th-century country doctors constantly fought an uphill battle.
How relevant this is, I thought, to our lives today—to the COVID-19 pandemic; to people fearing they or members of their family might contract the virus; to our current knowledge of germs and our understanding that washing our hands, cleaning surfaces, and wearing masks reduces their spread; and to our hopes for combatting this disease through the application of successful vaccines.
Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, alternate view / THF185489
What about those deadly infectious diseases of the 19th century that Dr. Howard was attempting to treat, like cholera, yellow fever, and typhoid? One might assume they have disappeared—but they haven’t. Many of them still exist, especially in developing countries that have limited-to-no access to modern medical treatments, sanitation facilities, and vaccines. This refrigerator was, in fact, designed to hold vaccines where there is no electricity—in these very countries.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Braniff Airliner with "Jelly Bean" Orange Livery Designed by Alexander Girard, circa 1965//THF275594
Let’s set the scene: it’s the late 1960s, you need to book a flight, and you fancy yourself a stylish and forward-thinking consumer. Which airline do you choose? One airline in particular catered to just such a savvy passenger. Flying with Braniff International Airways in the late 1960s into the 1970s was a fashionable—and colorful—experience.
In 1965, Braniff International hired designer Alexander Girard to completely and comprehensively redesign its image and each step of the airline passenger’s experience. Girard was a trained architect who became one of those Modernist designers to try his hand at everything—textiles, furniture, objects, interiors, toys, graphics, and more. He was known for a humanistic approach to design. Departing from the white-walled minimalism of the earlier Modernists, Girard valued color, folk art, and designs that evoked joy and delight. In 1965, he was known primarily as the director of design for Herman Miller Furniture Company’s textile division, as well as for his encyclopedic 1960 design of La Fonda del Sol restaurant in New York City’s Time & Life Building. For La Fonda del Sol, Girard designed everything from the matchboxes to the menus, the dishware to the large-scale murals and sculptural objects.
Left: Set of Braniff International Airways Playing Cards, circa 1973//THF175414 Right: Braniff International Airways Bar Soap, 1965-1975//THF172360
Girard’s approach to the Braniff redesign was similar. Braniff named the campaign “The End of the Plain Plane.” It was an absolutely appropriate name, too—Girard implemented over 17,000 design changes in total. Girard wanted to “destroy the monotony” of the traditional airplane and instead, “do something to make the performance lively and interesting.” The exteriors of the airplanes were perhaps the most immediately obvious change. There were seven exterior paint colors: yellow, orange, turquoise, dark blue, light blue, ochre, and beige—each with a black nose, white wings, and white tail. Girard explained, “The idea was to make a plane like a great racing car—with the fuselage painted a solid color clearly expressing its shape.” The airplane interiors featured seven different coordinating color palates. Girard designed 56 new upholstery fabrics for the project, featuring solids combined with patterns of checks and stripes. Television ads for Braniff boasted, “you can fly with us seven times and never fly the same color twice…”
Undigitized textile samples by Girard for Braniff International Airways in The Henry Ford’s Collection.
The changes didn’t stop at the airplane’s paint scheme and upholstery. Girard designed a new logo, ticketing areas, and airport lounges which featured furniture designed by his friends and colleagues Charles and Ray Eames as well as new furniture that Girard himself designed. His new line was futuristic and colorful with contrasting upholstery, rounded edges, aluminum legs, and cantilevered arms. A plethora of small objects—soap packaging, blankets, playing cards, sugar packets, ticket holders, dishware, luggage tags, litter bags, and more—rounded out the comprehensive redesign.
Ottoman Footstool, 1966-1967, from The Girard Group Series//THF93606
To top it all off, Girard suggested the commission of Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci to create a line of uniforms for Braniff pilots and flight attendants. The futuristic space age-themed uniforms were colorful and included go-go boots and translucent plastic helmets. Braniff International’s new flying experience was no longer simply travel between two points, but instead it became an immersive journey. As one television advertisement concluded, “Braniff International announces the end of the plain plane. We won’t get you where you’re going any faster, but it’ll seem that way.”
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Brochure for Chicago Merchandise Mart Exhibit, "Herman Miller Modern for Your Home," 1935-1940 (THF229429)
West Michigan is known for its furniture. Furniture factories-turned-apartment or office buildings can be seen throughout Grand Rapids and its surroundings—some with company names like Baker Furniture, John Widdicomb Co., and Sligh Furniture still visible, painted on the brick exterior. While fewer in numbers today than in 1910, West Michigan still boasts numerous major furniture manufacturers. One of these, the Herman Miller Furniture Company in Zeeland, is known around the world for its long history of producing high quality modern furniture—but the Herman Miller name was not always synonymous with “modern.”
A young man named Dirk Jan (D.J.) De Pree began working as a clerk at the Zeeland-based Michigan Star Furniture Company in 1909, after graduating from high school. It was a small company and De Pree excelled, partly due to his appetite for reading books about business, accounting, and efficiency. Just a decade after starting with the company, he was promoted to president. In 1923, De Pree convinced his father-in-law, Herman Miller, to go in with him to purchase the majority of the company’s shares. The furniture company was renamed the Herman Miller Furniture Company in honor of De Pree’s father-in-law’s contribution, although Miller was never involved in its operation. Renamed, rebranded, and under new ownership, D.J. De Pree pushed a new culture of quality and good design that, he hoped, would help the company stand out amongst a competitive and crowded West Michigan furniture industry.
Dressing Table, ca. 1933 (Object ID: 89.177.112), Image copyright: Herman Miller, Inc.
At the time, many West Michigan furniture companies were producing stylistically similar pieces that were essentially reproductions of historic forms, especially Colonial and European Revivals. Most of the manufacturers “designed” furniture by copying from books or authentic vintage furniture found in museums. The best designers were known to be the most faithful copyists. The Herman Miller Furniture Company manufactured primarily reproduction furniture until the early 1930s. Their furniture lines were typically very ornate and sold in large suites—and following in the footsteps of other West Michigan companies, Herman Miller released new lines with each quarterly furniture market, despite the undue pressure this placed upon them.
As the Great Depression crippled industry across America in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Herman Miller Furniture Company struggled to survive. With bankruptcy on the horizon, D.J. De Pree reflected on the shortcomings of the furniture industry and issues within the company. A devoutly religious man, he also prayed. Whether by divine intervention or regular old coincidence, Gilbert Rohde—a young designer that would leave an indelible mark on the Herman Miller Furniture Company—walked into the company’s Grand Rapids showroom in July of 1930, bringing with him the message of Modernism.
The Herman Miller Furniture Company, Makers of Fine Furniture, Zeeland, Michigan, 1933 (Left: THF64292, Right: THF64290). Herman Miller continued to produce historic revival furniture, like the above Chippendale bedroom suite, even while embracing the more modern Gilbert Rohde lines, like the above No. 3321 Dining Room Group.
Born in New York City to German immigrants in 1894, Gilbert Rohde (born Gustav Rohde) showed aptitude for drawing at a young age—he claimed to have drawn an identifiable horse by the age of two-years-old! He was admitted to Stuyvesant High School in 1909, which was reserved for gifted young men. There, he designed covers for the school’s literary magazine, won drawing contents, and began to experiment with furniture design. While he had aspirations (and demonstrated aptitude) to become an architect, he began working as an illustrator and later, a commercial artist. He was successful in this venture for years and learned invaluable lessons about advertising and marketing which would help him—and his future clients—tremendously in the years to come. With determination to become a furniture designer, in 1927 Rohde departed on a months-long European tour of sites associated with the modern design movement. Among his stops, he visited the Bauhaus design school in Germany and the Parisian design studios that featured the modernist ideas exhibited in the breakthrough Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. Returning to the United States months later, he began designing furniture with a clear European modern influence and soon began to focus on designing mass-produced furniture for industry, namely for the Heywood-Wakefield Company of Massachusetts.
Dresser, 1933-1937 (THF156178). An early example of Rohde-designed furniture manufactured by Herman Miller, this dresser was designed for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair’s “Design for Living Home.” The house and its furniture garnered broad public acclaim, benefitting the budding Rohde and Herman Miller partnership.
By 1930, Rohde was looking for more clients. He visited the Herman Miller showroom in Grand Rapids, Michigan—at the end of a long day of denials by other manufacturers—and met D.J. De Pree. Rohde argued that modern furniture was the future and told him, “I know how people live and I know how they are going to live.” This confidence, despite few years of actual furniture design, convinced De Pree to give Rohde a chance at designing a line for Herman Miller. Further, Rohde was willing to work on a royalty arrangement with a small consultation fee instead of all cash up front. In combination with Herman Miller’s already-precarious financial situation, these factors helped to offset some of the risk in producing this forward-thinking furniture. Herman Miller began selling Rohde’s first design, an unadorned, modern bedroom suite in 1932, but still played it safe by continuing to sell historic revival lines alongside Rohde’s modern furniture. As design historian Ralph Caplan notes, in those early years, Herman Miller was “like a company unsure of what it wanted to be when it grew up.” But Rohde’s furniture sold. By the early 1940s, Rohde’s modern lines made up the vast majority of Herman Miller’s output.
Left: Coffee Table, 1940-1942 (THF35998), Right: Rohde Sideboard, 1941-1942 (THF83268). Gilbert Rohde admired the Surrealist Art Movement. In his early 1940s Paldao Group, the forms and materials pay homage to the work of the Surrealists—and were the first biomorphic forms used in furniture manufactured in the United States.
Tragically, Rohde’s tenure at Herman Miller was cut short by his untimely death at the age of 50 in 1944, but his impact is lasting. Rohde’s emphasis on simplicity and functionality of design meant the materials and the manufacturing had to be of the highest quality—this honesty of design and emphasis on quality appealed to De Pree’s Christian values. It remains a hallmark of Herman Miller’s furniture to this day and undoubtedly contributed to the longevity of Rohde’s furniture sales. Sales of Rohde’s furniture did not slow the season after it was introduced, like many of the historic reproductions. The Laurel Line, Rohde’s first coordinated living, dining, and sleeping group, remained in production almost his entire tenure with Herman Miller. D.J. De Pree recounted that his lines often sold for 5-10 years instead of the 1-3 that was typical of the historic reproduction styles. Rohde’s design work for Herman Miller extended far beyond furniture and into advertising, catalogues, and showrooms, and he advised on the manufacture of his furniture too. This expansion of the designer’s role and the creative freedom allowed by D.J. De Pree came to define Herman Miller’s relationship with designers and then the company itself.
Rohde Modular Desk, 1934-1941 (THF159907). This Laurel Group desk was part of one of Rohde’s early—and most successful—lines for Herman Miller. It was part of a coordinated modular line, which meant that new pieces would be added regularly over years. This was in opposition to the new lines for each quarterly furniture market approach that D.J. De Pree counted as an “evil” of the furniture industry.
Cover and interior page from Catalog for Herman Miller Furniture, "20th Century Modern Furniture Designed by Gilbert Rohde," 1934 (left: THF229409, right: THF229411).Gilbert Rohde expanded the role of the designer during his tenure at Herman Miller. In this 1934 catalogue, he was educator as well as designer, explaining to the consumer that “Every age has had its modern furniture…When Queen Elizabeth furnished her castles, she did not order her craftsmen to imitate an Egyptian temple…”
Gilbert Rohde and D.J. De Pree transformed the Herman Miller Furniture Company—from one manufacturing reproductions at the brink of bankruptcy, to one revolutionizing the world of modern furniture. George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard and countless others were able to make incredible leaps in the name of modernism, largely due to the culture and partnership developed by Gilbert Rohde and D.J. De Pree. In George Nelson’s words, “we really stood on Rohde’s shoulders.”
Katherine White is an Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.