Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged by katherine white

Museum display with large flat case containing paper and small items, a few large artifacts behind it, and extensive labels on either side
Designs for Aging: New Takes on Old Forms, a temporary pop-up exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation from August through October 2022 / THF191476


A chair, a cane, a vegetable peeler.

These are not new forms. Versions of these objects have existed for hundreds of years and have even worked well enough for many people. 

But did these objects work well for all people?

This is the question that Universal Design asks. As the industrial design discipline has evolved, designers’ awareness of needs beyond those of “the average person”—such as children, those with disabilities, and older adults—has grown. The practice of Universal Design advocates for the inclusion of a range of bodies and abilities in the design of objects.

Each of the objects below represent the story of a designer working to transform an ordinary object into one that performs better for a group whose needs are often overlooked: older adults.

The results are products that work better for all of us.

Disability Rights & the “Graying of America”


The American disability rights movement gained traction and national attention by the mid-1970s. Activists advocated for equitable care for all people and framed accessibility as a civil rights issue—modeling their language after the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

At the same time, concerns were raised about the future impacts of the baby boom and decreasing fertility rates: soon, the media reported, elderly people would outnumber children.

The disability rights movement and the “graying of America” converged and designers began to explore what part design could play in creating equitable and accessible environments for older adults.

Black-and-white page with text and 8 images of bent-over person using a cane
Notal Program, 1979, page 6 / THF702602

Herman Miller’s Projects for Aging


In the 1970s, Michigan-based furniture company Herman Miller embarked upon exploratory design projects for the elderly.

The Notal project was their first foray into design specifically for older adults, researching how their day-to-day lives were affected by ill-suited environments.

The MetaForm project was established in the mid-1980s. The project’s leaders hoped to reimagine whole environments to best suit the challenges that accompany aging—enabling people to “age in place,” at home instead of an institution. A variety of high-profile consultants and designers were hired to explore solutions for five specific areas—sleeping, long-term sitting, food preparation, material handling, and personal hygiene.

Photo with three superimposed images of a woman with gray hair wearing blue scrubs leaning back in a burnt-orange reclining chair
Woman in Motion Study with Prototype Sarah Chair, 1987-1991 / THF702658

The Sarah Chair


Herman Miller designers Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf were tasked with creating a chair that would accommodate long-term sitting for the MetaForm project.

Stumpf had deep knowledge of ergonomics; Chadwick was especially adept at solving problems of form. Their “Sarah Chair” incorporated ideas to serve aging bodies, including an advanced tilt mechanism to aid users in getting into and out of the chair without losing balance.

Despite years of research, user testing, and prototyping, Herman Miller canceled MetaForm in 1991, primarily due to the challenges of marketing high-end furniture to older adults.

Stumpf and Chadwick applied the lessons learned from the Sarah Chair toward another group of people who sat for long periods: office workers. The Aeron Chair was introduced in 1994 to immediate and lasting acclaim.

Wooden chair with visible reclining mechanisms on side with steel blue/gray upholstery on seat and seat back
Prototype Sarah Lounge & Rocker Combination Chair, 1987-1991 / THF191319

OXO Good Grips


In the 1980s, Sam and Betsey Farber had retired from a long career in the cookware industry and were enjoying travel. While on vacation, Betsey was trying to peel an apple but was having difficulty due to the arthritis in her hands. The traditional vegetable peeler she was using was difficult to grip, especially when applying force. Sam and Betsey realized there was an opportunity to improve this object and called a friend, Davin Stowell of design consultancy Smart Design, and asked him to prototype an easier-to-user peeler.

The OXO Good Grips Swivel Peeler was introduced in 1990. Despite its cost (nearly triple the traditional peeler), it sold well. This relatively simple improvement to a classic tool increased usability for a wide range of people. The OXO Good Grips line of tools now numbers in the hundreds.

Vegetable peeler with broad black handle in black and white plastic blisterpack with text and image of potato peelings
OXO Good Grips Swivel Peeler, 2022 / THF191162

Patricia Moore: Designer and Gerontologist


As a young industrial designer working for the firm of design legend Raymond Loewy, Patricia Moore often challenged her superiors to design more accessibly, for a wider variety of body types and abilities. Looking to better understand the challenges of an elderly person, Moore employed a professional makeup artist and transformed herself into an 80-year-old woman using a latex mask and custom prosthetics. She even put baby oil in her eyes to blur her vision, stuffed wax in her ears to muffle sound, and bound her body to restrict movement. She then went out into the world—observing, interacting, and connecting with people as an elderly woman—with the ultimate goal of using these experiences to help design better products for aging adults.

Moore disguised herself for over three years, conducting research and becoming a sought-after expert in design for aging populations. She has spent decades consulting on projects, including Herman Miller’s MetaForm and OXO Good Grips.

Book cover with text, portrait of smiling woman, and inset image of same woman in white wig, glasses, and makeup to simulate aging
Disguised!, 1985 / THF703274

Michael Graves’s Canes


Architect and industrial designer Michael Graves developed an interest in Universal Design and the healthcare industry after an infection left him paralyzed from the waist down in 2003. In the years after his own ability shift, Graves redesigned the utilitarian objects that become indispensable with age and disability—objects that didn't hold the attention of most mainstream industrial designers. He focused on the cane as an object particularly ripe for revision, prototyping numerous ergonomic handles and experimenting with the grip.

Board with different styles and shapes of cane handles mounted on it--mostly gold but also silver and gray colored
Cane Handle Models on Display Board, 2014-2015 / THF191163

The canes that Graves designed, as well as those created by his design firm after his death in 2015, are adaptable to bodies as well as lifestyles. They are lightweight, available in numerous colors, adjustable to accommodate differing heights, and foldable for storage. 

Box with black plastic item in foamcore inside and text inside top flap; instruction pamphlet sitting in front of box
Quick Fold Cane, 2021 / THF191154

Michael Graves Design & Stryker


Michael Graves Design teamed up with Stryker, a medical technologies company, to reimagine the hospital patient’s experience. Spurred by one of his many extended hospital stays, Michael Graves remarked, “It was far too ugly for me to die in there!”

Wheelchair with white plastic frame and blue plastic seat and seat back
Stryker Prime TC Transport Chair, 2013 / THF188699

Graves redesigned the wheelchair—a chair that had seen little change since the 1930s—as well patient room furniture. User comfort was the ultimate focus. The objects Graves designed feature adjustable components, easy maneuverability, and intuitive operation, as well as quality finishes and his signature injection of color.


Katherine White is Associate Curator at The Henry Ford. A temporary exhibit, Designs for Aging: New Takes on Old Forms, curated by Katherine, was on view in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation from August–October 2022. The content of the exhibition is replicated in this post.

home life, furnishings, healthcare, Herman Miller, by Katherine White, design

A display case holds paper items by a graphics-covered wall and a sign with text

Photo by Kristen Gallerneaux/Katherine White

A new temporary exhibit, OUT!: LGBTQ+ Visibility and Identity, is now on view until August 15, 2022, in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. The exhibit, co-curated by Kristen Gallerneaux and Katherine White, contains recent acquisitions that relate to the history and lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people. The content of the exhibition is replicated in this post (with slightly expanded descriptions) for those unable to see it in person.

The first theme explored in this exhibit focuses on how LGBTQ+ communities have used a variety of communication networks—from print media to Internet platforms—to advocate and educate, to resist discrimination, and to unapologetically celebrate identity.

The second major theme gathers collections that relate to queer-positive and diverse forms of gender expression. These artifacts include stories of gay pride and trans visibility through acceptance, body positivity, and pronoun advocacy.

These artifacts do not sit still. The stories and lives represented here are evidence of turning points and triumphs—and ongoing battles—of the LGBTQ+ community individually, communally, and societally.

Getting the Word Out


In the 1960s, LGBTQ+ people faced a largely unaccepting American society and legal landscape that restricted how they could express themselves. Queer bars and clubs were among the only private, “safe” spaces, for LGBTQ+ patrons but they were also easy targets for police, who harassed and arrested patrons. On June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village. A riot ensued.

Queer bars and clubs also became sites of community and connection—even amidst persecution and harassment—and became fertile soil for the burgeoning queer liberation movement.  LGBTQ+ newspapers were distributed in these spaces, broadcasting news unlikely to be shared in mainstream media. Print media like these unified queer/LGBTQ+ people in the fight for acceptance and equality through sharing manifestos, organizing protests, and recruiting members.

Today, we recognize the legacy of the Stonewall Riots as the genesis for the Pride marches that celebrate the LGBTQ+ community every June, in cities big and small across America. 

Front page of newsletter with headlines, text articles, and a cartoon
THF627212

Bright pink piece of paper with text
THF627336

These fliers were created by New York City’s chapter of The Mattachine Society, one of the oldest gay rights groups in America, in the months following the Stonewall Riot. They illustrate the urgency felt by the queer community in the wake of persistent and brutal police violence.

Raising Awareness


In the early and mid-1980s, activist collectives formed to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS. This advocacy was critical, since government and public health organizations initially refused to act or acknowledge the developing crisis. Misinformation about HIV and AIDS transmission was widespread, and so LGBTQ leaders and allies spoke up—demanding an end to negligence, access to testing, treatment options, and vetted public education about HIV prevention.

Black poster with pink triangle and text "SILENCE=DEATH"
THF179775

Yellow poster with image of Ronald Reagan with purple eyes and text "AIDSGATE"
THF627370

The Silence=Death Collective’s “AIDSgate” poster condemns then-president Ronald Reagan’s lack of response to the AIDS epidemic. In 1981, the first AIDS cases in the United States; President Reagan did not recognize AIDS in a public speech until September 1985.

Line drawing depicting group of people arm-in-arm, some with hands in the air, one holding a sign reading "Gay Is Good"
THF627364

Line drawing of four people, one in a wheelchair, marching and holding signs with text
THF627366

Howard Cruse, author of the acclaimed graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, uses the slogan of the Gay Liberation Front in the top drawing above: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” The “Gay is Good” illustration mimics historical photographs of protestors at the 1969 Stonewall Uprising that were also referenced in the “Gay Liberation” poster by Su Negrin, Peter Hujar, and Suzanne Bevier.

Poster with text and photo of cake with large number "10" and Keith Haring-esque figure kicking open a door on it
THF190487

In 1988, Richard Eichberg and Jean O’Leary founded Coming Out Day to provide resources for LGBTQ+ people wishing to publicly declare their identity. The pair believed that “coming out” would promote solidarity and acceptance while reducing homophobia. The Human Rights Campaign (an LGBTQ+ advocacy and political lobbying group) sponsors this event in the United States. This poster commemorates the 10th anniversary of the observance, which remains active in 2022. The logo of a person dancing their way out of a closet depicted on the cake on this poster references artist Keith Haring’s original NCOD logo.

Online Identity & Safe Spaces


Online platforms can act as digital “safe spaces” for LGBTQ+ community-building. Beginning with Usenet bulletin board systems in the 1980s and transitioning to LiveJournal, Twitter, and Tumblr in the 2000s, these sites can act as support networks for LGBTQ+ people—including those who live in isolated areas or in situations where openly exploring identity poses challenges AFK (away from keyboard). 

Several screenshots from a tumblr blog, featuring images and text
Photo by Kristen Gallerneaux/Katherine White

Zack Arad launched a microblog on July 21, 2010. Arad, who self-identifies as gay, has been active on social media since he was a teenager. His popular Tumblr blog and YouTube vlogs explore themes like gay pride, pop culture, humor, dating, and political issues.

Photo of man, arch-shaped fabric with shiny silver squares, and four booklets with graphic of mouth with teeth and text
Photo by Kristen Gallerneaux/Katherine White

This “mini-quilt” was created by Zak Foster, a textile artist who identifies as gay and has a strong online following for their work, selling one-of-a-kind upcycled quilts on Etsy. With Grace Rother, Foster also created this collection of “zines,” and distributed them online “as a love offering … to all the queer folks in the quilting community.”

Identity & Solidarity


Buttons, patches, badges, and pins are consciousness-raising, inexpensive, quick to create, and able to be distributed widely. Wearing a button can be a method of activism. When simply being “out” as LGBTQ+ means possible danger and discrimination, choosing to wear a visible symbol of queerness is a courageous act. 

Black motorcycle covered with more than a dozen pins and buttons
THF189705

The cap above was worn by a member of a California-based gay motorcycle club. Among the oldest gay organizations in the United States, these clubs emphasized hypermasculinity, which appealed to many gay men who had long been stereotyped as effeminate.

Six pins/buttons with text related to LGBTQ+ issues, most also featuring triangles
Photo by Kristen Gallerneaux/Katherine White

Many of the buttons featured here use symbols or terms that were once weaponized against the LGBTQ+ community but were later reclaimed. The inverted pink triangle, for example, has its roots in the Holocaust, when Nazis forced queer people to wear a pink triangle as a form of identification and persecution. By repurposing these symbols, a shared and recognizable language of identity and solidarity is created among LGBTQ+ people and allies.

Trans Acceptance


Transgender and nonbinary people have always existed, across time and in every corner of the world—just as have gay, bisexual, lesbian, and other queer communities. But acceptance by the broader world has been difficult to achieve. Even the early leaders of the LGBTQ+ equality movement pushed the transgender community to the fringes. For many transgender and nonbinary individuals, the realization that their gender identity does not align with their assigned-at-birth gender comes long before even their own acceptance and celebration of it.

Khaki-colored knapsack or backpack with cross made out of red duct tape and striped patches at top
THF190453

Photo of people in protest march, some walking bicycles or holding signs; person in center carries a white flag with a red cross; also contains text
THF611162

Miley Kirby came out publicly and applied trans flag patches to her medic bag during Detroit’s Black Lives Matter protests, which held supplies used to provide medical care to fellow protestors. Kirby is visible carrying this same bag in the center of the press photo above, published in the Detroit News during the Black Lives Matter protests of Summer 2020.

“The people I met at the [George Floyd] protest were one of the first groups of people that encouraged me to be me. They refused to let me cop out on pronouns, names, or hand-waving of my transness for others comfort. We yelled our message in the streets, why not scream your identity to the world? My time in those protests found me my voice as Miley Kirby, or at least the beginning of one.” – Miley Kirby 

Floor-length, long-sleeved, v-necked purple dress with lavender and black paisley pattern and tie at waist
THF190458

Allie Zecivic listened to an insistent inner voice and purchased this dress, her first article of women’s clothing. It helped her to accept her gender identity as a transwoman.

“Hot Topic skinny jeans and too tight graphic tees were alright, but this was a dress. A long, flowy, spinny dress. I spent a lot of time sitting alone in my room wearing it, my heart racing and the paranoia spinning horrible outcomes in my head, but it felt right. The validation that dress brought was freeing. It was this feeling in the face of trepidation of being caught, that solidified my need for more. And such my wardrobe grew.” – Allie Zecivic 

Orange plastic prescription bottle with white lid and white label containing text (some of which is blacked out)
THF190456

Small glass prescription bottle with silver cap and white and red label containing text
THF190457

Laura Bowman began the medical transition to female with these hormone replacement therapy medications. She crossed out her “deadname”—the male name she was given at birth—and kept these bottles as symbols of her journey.

“Hormones don't make a transperson trans, but for many of us they are the beginning of the end. The end of the old life, and the beginning of a new experience, a new chance to be who we want to be, to make the outside fit how we feel inside. When I first picked up these pill bottles, I felt a giant weight off my chest as it felt like I was going to be able to make some progress on that person in the mirror and come to like her just a little better. The major part of that comes when you change the way you perceive yourself, but damn do the hormones help!” –Laura Bowman

Body Positive 


Carrie Metz-Caporusso is an artist and tattooer who identifies as queer and non-binary. They began tattooing in 2011 and are committed to challenging traditions in tattooing culture that sometimes stigmatize LGBTQ+ and larger-bodied people. After experiencing fat shaming in the tattooing world, Carrie brainstormed a way to celebrate—rather than conceal—plus-sized body types with custom “roll flower” tattoos. These tattoos align with the body positivity movement by embracing the natural folds and creases on client’s backs or sides, which serve as a “stem” for flowers and leaves emerging from above and below.

Line drawing of partial silhouette of body with flowers drawn on it
THF190488

Line drawing of partial silhouette of body with botanical design drawn on it
THF190489

These signature “roll flower” tattoo flash designs were drawn and donated by Metz-Caporusso to The Henry Ford. In 2022, The Henry Ford commissioned Metz-Caporusso to create illustrations for apparel, which will soon be available in museum stores. 

Smiling person in black gloves tattoos another person's arm; framed art hangs on a wall behind them
Photo courtesy of Carrie Metz-Caporusso

Mother of the Movement


Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson was a New York City–based drag performer and activist who identified as a gay transvestite (the term transgender was not used at that time).

She was tireless in her advocacy for gay rights. From the mid-1960s on, she was an active presence—often a mischievous instigator—at almost every major uprising, parade, and political action connected to the LGBTQ+ equality movement. She clashed with police during the Stonewall Uprising, helped create the Gay Liberation Front, and participated in AIDS awareness group ACT-UP. With Sylvia Rivera, Johnson was a “house mother” for the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries—a political collective and homeless shelter for trans youth of color. Johnson died under suspicious circumstances in 1992—believed by many to be a victim of anti-gay violence.

Poster with illustration of person wearing black jacket with rainbow pocket among blue and pink flowers; also contains text
THF190491

This print, created by Julia Feliz in 2018, honors the intersectional legacies of Black LGBTQ+ leaders, as well as Daniel Quasar’s redesign of the Pride Flag to include stripes for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and trans people.

Listening to the Community


The stories and lives represented in this exhibit just barely scratch the surface of what it means to be LGBTQ+ in the United States. Visibility often increases vulnerability—and backlash. In 2022, bigotry, discrimination, and social justice issues related to equal rights and access continue to impact LGBTQ+ people around the world.

In 2021, The Henry Ford began to seek community feedback for ways to update and improve our permanent exhibit With Liberty and Justice for All. This temporary exhibit, OUT!: LGBTQ+ Identity and Visibility, is connected to ongoing work related to this project, which will continue throughout 2022.


Kristen Gallerneaux, Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford, and Katherine White, Associate Curator at The Henry Ford, collaboratively produced this exhibit and blog.

Henry Ford Museum, by Katherine White, by Kristen Gallerneaux

The posters designed for Herman Miller’s annual employee picnic are some of the best-known examples of American graphic design from the latter half of the 20th century. Much has been written about how the 1970 poster was Steve Frykholm’s first assignment as Herman Miller’s first internal graphic designer—as well as how his series of posters gained fans almost immediately. Museums took notice and collected these posters, even while the series was still ongoing—including The Henry Ford. However, Frykholm did not design all of Herman Miller’s picnic posters, but the first 20 of them, from 1970–1989. Kathy Stanton, a graphic designer on Frykholm’s team, recalled telling Frykholm, “if you ever decide to give this [the picnic posters] up, I’ll be interested.” In 1989, after designing 20 posters, Steve Frykholm decided it was time to pass the reins, and took Kathy Stanton up on her offer.

Poster showing blue, white, black, red, and yellow tropical fish and a fishhook against a background of blue water
Herman Miller Picnic Poster, "Fish," 1992 / THF626917

Kathy Stanton began taking art classes in high school at the Cincinnati Art Museum and the University of Cincinnati, in her hometown. She went on to attend the University of Cincinnati and received her Bachelor of Science degree in Graphic Design. In 1979, shortly after graduation (and in a tough job market), she was hired by Herman Miller to work in their internal graphic design department. Stanton worked on many projects in her time at Herman Miller, but she was particularly interested in designing for difficult technical and informational projects, like sales manuals and price books. She explained, “if you said it was impossible to digest, I was all on it.” The picnic posters, then, were a bit more free-form than the work that she had gravitated towards in her first decade at Herman Miller.

Poster illustrating aerial view of large and small mallard ducks swimming by a lilypad
Herman Miller Picnic Poster, "Duck Pond," 1998 / THF189134

Frykholm’s picnic posters famously focused on the food that might be found at the company’s annual employee summer picnic. Stanton decided to take another approach. Each of the 11 posters Stanton designed, one each year from 1990–2000, showcases an activity or feature of the summer picnic—from the clown that entertained children and adults alike, to the mallard ducks floating in a pond, or a game of croquet or ring toss in action. The earliest of these posters—"Ring Toss,” 1990; “Carousel,” 1991; and “Fish,” 1992—coincide with the growing availability (and capability) of computer programs to aid in design. “Ring Toss” is the only poster of her series that did not utilize a computer; “Carousel” was a hybrid design; and “Fish” was designed using a computer program but drawn freehand. She recalled, “I can tell where I grew and how the programs improved as I designed the posters.” Each of Stanton’s posters also include a small “Easter egg,” or additional element to delight the viewer. The first poster, “Ring Toss,” features a small ladybug resting in the grass in the lower right quadrant. Can you find the surprise element in each of the other posters?

Poster with stylized ring toss game illustration and detail showing ladybug among stylized grass
“Ring Toss, 1990” by Kathy Stanton, with detail of ladybug / THF626913

Stanton would hand off the picnic poster project to designer Brian Edlefson for the 2001 poster. He designed the series through 2005, when Andrew Dull took over and designed the final two posters in 2006 and 2007. Kathy Stanton would remain at Herman Miller until 2008, after 29 years at the company. Today, she is a freelance designer and artist working primarily in photography, painting, and jewelry-making. As she’s expanded her work, she still relies on balance, color, line, and composition—design concepts she learned in design school and honed at Herman Miller.

Poster illustrated with stylized view of croquet pitch with mallet, balls, hoops, and the player's shoes against a background of grass and clover
Herman Miller Picnic Poster, "Croquet," 1999 / THF626929


Katherine White is Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.

art, summer, design, by Katherine White, Herman Miller, posters, women's history

Peggy Ann Mack was an early industrial designer, an author, an artist, and a woman who persisted despite the roadblocks of gender-based discrimination. She is known today primarily for her association with Gilbert Rohde, the famed designer who helped to modernize the Herman Miller Furniture Company in the 1930s. Peggy Ann Mack was Gilbert Rohde’s student, employee, collaborator, his wife, and, just a few years later, his widow. In a pamphlet published by Herman Miller in 1942, Peggy Ann Mack’s name is listed on the cover, with credit for the pamphlet’s “delineation” or illustration. Until recently, these scant details summed up what was known about her life and work, but recent research has revealed a fuller picture of who Peggy Ann Mack was, as well as surfaced some of the many things she accomplished.

Page with text and line drawings of furniture
Page with text and stylized drawings of human figures at desks and tables
Peggy Ann Mack illustrated both of these publications for Herman Miller Furniture Company. She is credited on the “An History…” pamphlet—the middle of the page reads, “Delineation by: Peggy Ann Mack.” /
THF626879, THF229445

Peggy Ann Mack was born Margaret Ann Cecelia Kruelski on May 11, 1911, to Anthony and Frances (Krupinska) Kruelski. She grew up as the eldest of six children in the Bedford-Stuyvesant Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Her parents were Polish immigrants and her father Anthony’s occupation was “decorator,” according to census records. He was also an artist who specialized in gilding—or gold leaf application—on bottles and small objects, even on store windows. Peggy, as she preferred to be called, was one in a line of artistically minded members of her family.

Peggy Ann Mack went to Pratt Institute and graduated on June 4, 1931, with a diploma in Teacher Training in Fine and Applied Arts. She later attended Columbia University and the art school at Yale University, first serving as a model there. She was a recipient of a travel fellowship through the Kosciuszko Foundation to study at Krakow University in Poland and, while there, traveled and studied Europe’s Modernist art and architecture. A 1940 article reports that “she became so intrigued with the European methods of industrial designing she flatly refused to come home in time to take up her duties. So, there she stayed until her money ran out and, perforce, she had to return.” The “duties” the article refers to were her teaching duties—she was employed as an art and design teacher in New York City’s high schools at the time. A 1945 Interiors magazine article reports that she considered those four years of teaching to be “miserable.” She was increasingly interested in becoming a practicing industrial designer. Peggy Ann Mack often turned to formal education to help guide her and enrolled at the tuition-free Works Progress Administration (WPA) design school headed by Gilbert Rohde and called the Design Laboratory.

Peggy Ann Mack was one of many students who enrolled at the Design Laboratory. By 1936 she was recommended for an apprenticeship at the Gilbert Rohde Office at 22 East 60th Street in New York City and began working there. Rohde had been hired by the Herman Miller Furniture Company of Zeeland, Michigan, in the early 1930s and was hard at work to modernize the company’s furniture. The Rohde Office also did work for companies like Heywood-Wakefield, Troy Sunshade, and Modernage Furniture Company, as well as completed quite a bit of work for both the 1933–34 Chicago World’s Fair and the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair. It is likely that Peggy Ann Mack did a bit of everything in the office, but, as was common, staff designer contributions largely went unnoted. She was, however, named in a few instances for her illustrations as well as for murals completed in some of Rohde’s interiors. She also likely had a hand in interior, showroom, and exhibit design for many Rohde Office projects.

White line drawing on black of stylized human figures working at desks
Peggy Ann Mack’s illustration of Gilbert Rohde’s Executive Office Group (EOG) desks in the Herman Miller EOG catalog, 1942. / THF229448, detail, and THF229449, detail

At some point in Mack’s time employed by the Gilbert Rohde Office, a romance blossomed. Gilbert Rohde and Peggy Ann Mack married on July 28, 1941, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The couple did not have children of their own but Gilbert’s sons (from his second marriage to Gladys Vorsanger), Kurt and Lee, got to know Peggy for a short period. Lee Rohde recalls that Gilbert, Lee, and Kurt Rohde drove all the way to New Mexico from New York, ostensibly for a family vacation, and the boys were surprised when Peggy arrived in Santa Fe. Lee Rohde recalled, “We didn’t know—my brother and I—that our trip to New Mexico was more than just a vacation, that it was a wedding trip!”

In 1944, at the age of just 50, Gilbert Rohde suffered a heart attack while he and Peggy ate lunch together at Le Beaujolais, one of their most-frequented restaurants, as it was located directly across the street from the Rohde Office. A few magazines reported Gilbert’s death and pointed to Peggy as the new director in the same breath—one article reported that she “decided to continue his work in industrial design, product development, store modernization and interiors…” Peggy took over the design office, completing already-begun projects and starting new ones. However, certain clients—like Herman Miller—declined to continue the relationship with the Rohde Office after Gilbert’s death because they did not want to work with a woman. The loss of this business must have dealt a double blow to Peggy Ann Mack—both financially and to her spirit.

Line drawing of very ornate vanity table with many small stylized figures in maid uniforms dusting it
“Oodles of duster-uppers” clean the “dust-cashing gee gaws” in Peggy Ann Mack’s 18th-century modern vanity illustration, juxtaposed with the simple lines of the 20th-century modern vanity designed by her husband. / THF626888, detail

Peggy Ann Mack’s work after Gilbert Rohde’s death is easier to account for than her work while under the auspices of his office, but only just slightly. A few documented commissions include the design of model showrooms for department stores and storefronts. She designed interiors for New London, Connecticut–based Templeton Radio in 1947, as well as a line of radio cases for the company. In 1950, she wrote and illustrated a book, Making Built-In Furniture, using the surname Rohde. Peggy’s signature illustrations fill the book, both to convey information as well as for added flourish.

Brown book cover with text and line drawing of tools and books
Peggy Ann Mack wrote and illustrated this handy book in 1950, using the surname of her late first husband, Gilbert Rohde. / THF700688

Peggy Ann Mack was an early member of the Society of Industrial Designers (SID). SID was established in February of 1944 and Gilbert Rohde was one of the founding designers, but his name was removed after his death in June of that year, effectively removing record of his involvement as the organization became established. The Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA) reports that SID “membership requirements were stringent, requiring the design of at least three mass-produced products in different industries. SID was formed in part to reinforce the legality of industrial design as a profession, and to restrict membership to experienced professionals.” Peggy Ann Mack was the only female member of SID in its early years, alongside the much better remembered names of designers such as Walter Dorwin Teague, Raymond Loewy, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and George Nelson. Her membership certificate, dated November 9, 1945, was signed by SID President Walter Dorwin Teague and Secretary Egmont Arens.

Peggy Ann Mack’s story ends somewhat abruptly. In the early 1950s, Peggy Ann Mack moved to Northern California, where some of her family lived. She died in 1956 in Alameda, California, just days before her 45th birthday. She has been largely forgotten by the design world—a world that was unkind to her as an outspoken woman in its male-dominated club.  She was an impressive and talented woman who continued to find creative avenues to push her design aspirations forward, all the while trying to combat the mounting frustration of doors closing around her due to her gender. Evidence of her life and work continue to evaporate as time marches on, as is unfortunately common for many overlooked women designers from the period. Peggy Ann Mack’s story—and the stories of many other unsung women—is worth uncovering, preserving, and remembering.

Boxy brown wooden radio with beige fabric or burlap front grille
Peggy Ann Mack designed a line of radio cases (as well as the storefront interior) for the Templetone Radio Company of New London, Connecticut, including this E-514 Model. She described it as follows: “ACDC Table Model with walnut cabinet and glass slide rule dial in red, brown, and silver. Cream and “silver” rayon and cotton grille cloth. Aluminum legs, White plastic inlay. Wartime availability determined materials used.”/ THF189960

A note on her name: Margaret Kruelski began going by the nickname “Peggy” at least by the time she enrolled at Pratt Institute in 1929. She chose “Peggy Ann Mack” in the mid-1930s. While we don’t know where “Mack” comes from, she reputedly chose to cease using her given surname because people had difficulty saying the Polish “Kruelski.” Even after marrying Gilbert Rohde in 1941 and legally taking the surname “Rohde,” she continued to use the surname “Mack.” However, after Rohde’s death in 1944, she increasingly used the surname “Rohde,” likely to give credence and name recognition to her work. She continued to alternate between “Peggy Ann Rohde” and “Peggy Ann Mack” until her death, even after a second marriage to Basil Durant in 1946. Peggy Ann Mack is used here because it is the name she chose for herself.


Katherine White is Associate Curator at The Henry Ford. Her research on Peggy Ann Mack is ongoing.

drawings, art, Herman Miller, furnishings, by Katherine White, design, women's history

Language helps fulfill the human need to be understood, but what happens when you can’t find the precise word to express yourself? When one word just doesn’t do justice to the situation or emotion you are trying to convey? In these circumstances, we often turn to figurative language, like metaphors, hyperbole, or symbolism. These non-literal tools give our speech and writing color, drama, and often a specificity that is hard to achieve with more direct language.

One such linguistic tool is so frequently used that it tends to “fly under the radar.” An idiom is a non-literal expression whose meaning cannot be deduced from the true meaning of its individual words. It comes to have its own meaning. But the concept is more easily understood by examples of its usage—like “raining cats and dogs,” “grab the bull by the horns,” “get cold feet,” or “cost an arm and a leg.” These phrases only make sense because of our association with them. Today, taken literally, they have no understandable meaning. However, when they were first used, the situation described would have been familiar enough with others to resonate and repeat.

Idioms are democratic. Although perhaps invented by one person, that one person cannot force an idiom into the lexicon. The expression has to connect with enough people to gain momentum and spread. Eventually, the idiom’s origin story is often forgotten, divorced from the expression—and yet, sometimes, the idiom and the expression it conveys remain.

Above all, the persistence of idioms demonstrates that the words we use matter. They attest to our need for connection—their precision allows for shared experience or shared understanding. Idioms both evidence and activate human imagination.

A survey of The Henry Ford’s collection reveals idioms in every corner. Certain objects inspired or played a role in the origin stories of idioms. Other objects integrate idioms, and still others serve to illustrate them.

Mad as a Hatter

Someone who is behaving unpredictably; insane

Somewhat battered black top hat
Top Hat, 1830-1860 / THF301599

Hatmakers from the 18th through early 20th centuries used the toxic substance formally named mercurous nitrate to turn an animal hide into the felt used to make hats, especially top hats. Mercury is a cumulative poison—the longer and more often one is exposed, the more it builds, and symptoms worsen. Prolonged exposure can cause mood swings, loss of coordination, memory loss, paranoia, and erratic behavior. Many hatmakers experienced the symptoms of acute mercury poisoning—but were thought to have gone insane or “mad as a hatter.” By late December 1941, the use of mercury in the felt industry was banned by the United States Public Health Service, but the concept of a “mad hatter” was properly solidified in the English vernacular.

Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865, popularized the caricature in the portrayal of the Hatter. By the time Carroll wrote the novel, the idiom was in common use.

Fly by the Seat of Your Pants

To improvise by instinct

Woman in an open plane cockpit smiles at the camera; a row of sheds is in the background
Agnes Firth in a Caudron Airplane, 1911-1912 / THF255259

Prior to the widespread use of reliable aviation instruments, pilots were at the mercy of the weather. Assessment of cloud cover and potential storms were vital in the early days of flying, when encapsulation of an aircraft by thick cloud or dense fog could have fatal consequences. The thin air and inability to see could become disorienting. When overtaken by rough conditions, a skilled pilot would “fly by the seat of their pants.” They flew by instinct and feel—and their backside, or the seat of their pants, made the most physical contact with the airplane.

The Time Is Ripe

It is the most favorable time

White poster with bold black text
Protest Poster, "The Time is Always Ripe to Do Right –Martin Luther King, Jr.," 2020 / THF610242

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this idiom has agricultural roots. While substituting “right” for “ripe” maintains the meaning of the expression, there is a loss of specificity that the idiom allows. For example, when an apple is perfectly ripe, it is sweet with a satisfying crunch. When it passes peak ripeness, it begins to rot. The sweetness becomes cloying, and the crunch turns to mush. Moreover, one rotten apple begets another and another. As poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, “A rotten apple’s better thrown away before it spoils the barrel.” “The time is ripe” implies that not only is the time right, but that it is the perfect time—and that waiting has consequences.

This famous quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., was printed on a protest poster following the brutal murder of George Floyd by police in May 2020. King used the idiom to promote urgency in a 1968 speech at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”:

“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’ Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right [emphasis added].”

Burning the Midnight Oil

To work late into the night

Silver table lamp with base, stem, and loop for carrying
Pewter Oil Lamp, 1842-1847 / THF153606

Before the invention of gas-powered lamps (or later, electricity), candles or oil lamps were used to illuminate the darkness. Poet Francis Quarles refers to “mid-night oil” in Emblem II of his 1635 book Emblemes:

“We spend our mid-day sweat, our mid-night oil,
We tire the night in thought; the day in toil.”

College students today might “burn the midnight oil” while “pulling an all-nighter.” Although oil lamps were superseded by kerosene lamps in the 19th century, and then by electricity in the 20th, the expression remains in use, but may be well on its way to obsolescence.

Break the Ice/Ice-Breaker

To prepare the way; to do something to relieve tension

Boat on ice-packed body of water, taken from another ship partially visible in foreground
U.S.S. Eagles 1 and 2 in Ice at Entrance to White Sea, Bound for Arkhangelsk, 1919 / THF270358

A still-relevant, centuries-old idiom is “break the ice” or “ice-breaker.” Referring originally to the physical breakage of the frozen surface of a body of water to allow a boat’s passage, it quickly became a resonating figurative expression, seemingly ready-made for its idiomatic use. The phrase has become a favorite of authors and playwrights, used from the 16th century up to the present. Nowadays, “ice breakers”—in the form of a personal question or group activity—are often used at the start of a class or meeting to relieve nerves and get participants involved.

Handle with Kid Gloves

To deal with a situation gently or carefully

Pair of white gloves with elastic strips on top and buttons on underside
Ladies Leather Gloves, 1920-1930 / THF102566

Some of the finest leather gloves are made of kidskin or kid leather—made from the hide of a young goat, called a “kid.” Kid leather is especially soft and thin, so the wearer of kid gloves must handle objects carefully so as not to scratch or rip the leather. To “handle with kid gloves” means to handle a situation carefully, as one would if wearing fine, fragile gloves.

Make the Grade

To succeed

Large, complex black locomotive
Allegheny Steam Locomotive, 1941 / THF134572

Standing next to the Allegheny steam locomotive in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, you can almost feel its physical power—even when static, unmoving. The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway’s Allegheny steam locomotives were incredibly powerful, featuring an output of 7,500 horsepower. They were designed to pull heavy, loaded coal trains up and over the Allegheny Mountains. These trains had a steep climb to the summit, but the 771,000-pound giants had enough traction to “make the grade.”

Although many people queried today might point to academics as the origin of the idiom “make the grade,” the phrase comes from a train’s ability to successfully climb a hill—or gradient.

Surf the Net/Net Surfer

To move quickly from webpage to webpage

Book cover with text, icons, and image of children on surfboards floating above the planet Earth
Internet: A First Discovery Book, 2000 / THF627799

A librarian is to be credited with the perfect ‘90s slang idiom: “surf the net.” Jean Armour Polly was one of the first librarians to prioritize free Internet access in a public library setting. An assistant librarian in 1981, Polly advocated for the Liverpool Public Library of Liverpool, NY, to make computer and Internet access available to the library’s patrons. She faced backlash from traditional librarians who saw the Internet as a threat to books and other printed matter, but worked to convince others that the Internet could be a resource for learning.

Polly’s 1992 guide for a library journal, titled “Surfing the Internet: An introduction,” used surfing as a metaphor for using the internet. She recalled that she felt it appropriate because, “It’s hard. You need some skill. You never know if there are going to be sharks.” The phrase “surfing the net” quickly caught on and spawned variations, like “net surfer.”

She later wrote a book—Net-mom’s Internet Kids & Family Yellow Pages—which became a best-selling resource for families looking to provide fun and safe educational internet access for children. In 2019, Polly was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame.

Eye Candy

Superficially attractive

Colorful glass balls are stacked in wire "holder" for display
"Patterns of Thought: Eye Candy" by Ginny Ruffner and Steve Kursh, 1994 / THF164911

Glass artist Ginny Ruffner was in serious car accident in 1991. She awoke after weeks in a coma, but was partially paralyzed and suffered significant memory loss—including about her own identity. She recalled, “I was terrified. My mind was like a big empty house that you knew you used to live in." In order to stimulate her memory, friends—fellow studio glass artists—sent Ruffner a bouquet of “eye candy”—blown glass orbs of brilliant color and pattern, individually crafted by her friends and loved ones. This eye candy surely would have stimulated Ruffner’s spirit as well as her memory.

Ruffner eventually made miraculous improvements and just a year later, was back at work creating glass sculpture, persevering through vision issues, lingering paralysis in her dominant hand, and the challenges of being confined to a wheelchair.

The idiom “eye candy” is often used today to describe a superficially attractive person or object. This use of “eye candy” is a slightly more literal use of the non-literal phrase—the orbs look like pieces of candy in a dish, but for your eyes! Also, the meaning of “superficial” here may refer to its definition of “occurring at the surface.” These blown glass orbs are only attractive at the surface because, of course, nothing lies beneath the surface—just air.


Katherine White is Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.

by Katherine White

The Henry Ford’s curatorial team works on many, many tasks over the course of a year, but perhaps nothing is as important as the task of building The Henry Ford’s collections. Whether it’s a gift or a purchase, each new acquisition adds something unique. What follows is just a small sampling of recent collecting work undertaken by our curators in 2021 (and a couple in 2020), which they shared during a #THFCuratorChat session on Twitter.

In preparation for an upcoming episode of The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation, Curator of Domestic Life Jeanine Head Miller made several new acquisitions related to board games. A colorful “Welcome to Gameland” catalog advertises the range of board games offered by Milton Bradley Company in 1964, and joins the 1892 Milton Bradley catalog—dedicated to educational “School Aids and Kindergarten Material”—already in our collection.

Yellow page with text and image of family walking through "doors" made of two giant board game boxes turned on end
Milton Bradley Company Catalog, “Welcome to Gameland,” 1964. / THF626388

Page with elaborate text and illustration of children, one holding a number toy or board
Milton Bradley Company Trade Catalog, “Bradley’s School Aids and Kindergarten Material,” 1892. / THF616712

We also acquired several more board games for the collection, including “The Game of Life”—a 1960 creation to celebrate Milton Bradley’s centennial anniversary that paid homage to their 1860 “The Checkered Game of Life” and featured an innovative, three-dimensional board with an integrated spinner. “The Game of Life,” as well as other board games in our collection, can be found in our Digital Collections.

GIF that cycles through images of several board games: Life, Candy Land, Clue, and Settlers of Catan
Board games recently acquired for use in The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation. / THF188740, THF188741, THF188743, THF188750

This year, Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content, was thrilled to unearth more of the story of designer Peggy Ann Mack. Peggy Ann Mack is often noted for completing the "delineation" (or illustration) for two early 1940s Herman Miller pamphlets featuring her husband Gilbert Rohde's furniture line. After Rohde's death in 1944, Mack took over his office. One commission she received was to design interiors and radio cases for Templetone Radio. The Henry Ford recently acquired this 1945 radio that she designed.

Rectangular brown radio with two knobs and tan-colored fabric on front
Radio designed by Peggy Ann Mack, 1945. / Photo courtesy Rachel Yerke

Peggy Ann Mack wrote and illustrated the book Making Built-In Furniture, published in 1950, which The Henry Ford also acquired this year. The book is filled with her illustrations and evidences her deep knowledge of the furniture and design industries.

Book cover in rose and mauve with text and image of tools and book
Making Built-In Furniture, 1950. / Photo courtesy Katherine White

Mack (like many early female designers) has never received her due credit. While headway has been made this year, further research and acquisitions will continue to illuminate her story and insert her name back into design history.

Katherine White also worked this year to further expand our collection of Herman Miller posters created for Herman Miller’s annual employee picnic. The first picnic poster was created by Steve Frykholm in 1970—his first assignment as the company’s internal graphic designer. Frykholm would go on to design 20 of these posters, 18 of which were acquired by The Henry Ford in 1988; this year, we finally acquired the two needed to complete the series.

Graphic poster with stylized lollipops with text on sticks and at top of poster
Herman Miller Summer Picnic Poster, “Lollipop,” 1988. / THF626898

White poster with text at top and stylized peach wedges at bottom
Herman Miller Summer Picnic Poster, “Peach Sundae,” 1989. / THF189131

After Steve Frykholm, Kathy Stanton—a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s graphic design program—took over the creation of the picnic posters, creating ten from 1990–2000. While The Henry Ford had one of these posters, this year we again completed a set by acquiring the other nine.

GIF that cycles slowly through a number of graphic posters
Recently acquired posters created by Kathy Stanton for Herman Miller picnics, 19902000 / THF626913, THF626915, THF626917, THF626921, THF189132, THF189133, THF189134, THF626929, THF626931

Along with the picnic posters, The Henry Ford also acquired a series of posters for Herman Miller’s Christmas party; these posters were created from 1976–1979 by Linda Powell, who worked under Steve Frykholm at Herman Miller for 15 years. All of these posters—for the picnics and the Christmas parties—were gifted to us by Herman Miller, and you can check them out in our Digital Collections.

GIF cycling through a number of graphic posters with text and a few images
Posters designed by Linda Powell for Herman Miller Christmas parties, 19761979 / THF626900, THF189135, THF189137, THF189136, THF189138, THF626909, THF626905

Thanks to the work of Curator of Communications and Information Technology Kristen Gallerneaux, in early 2021, a very exciting acquisition arrived at The Henry Ford: the Lillian F. Schwartz and Laurens R. Schwartz Collection. Lillian Schwartz is a groundbreaking and award-winning multimedia artist known for her experiments in film and video.

Lillian Schwartz was a long-term “resident advisor” at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. There, she gained access to powerful computers and opportunities for collaboration with scientists and researchers (like Leon Harmon). Schwartz’s first film, Pixillation (1970), was commissioned by Bell Labs. It weaves together the aesthetics of coded textures with organic, hand-painted animation. The soundtrack was composed by Gershon Kingsley on a Moog synthesizer.

Thick red text reading "PIXILLATION" over black background with blue digital pattern
“Pixillation, 1970 / THF611033

Complementary to Lillian Schwartz’s legacy in experimental motion graphics is a large collection of two-dimensional and three-dimensional materials. Many of her drawings and prints reference the creative possibilities and expressive limitations of computer screen pixels.

Framed artwork filled with colorful abstract shapes
“Abstract #8” by Lillian F. Schwartz, 1969 / THF188551

With this acquisition, we also received a selection of equipment used by Lillian Schwartz to create her artwork. The equipment spans from analog film editing devices into digital era devices—including one of the last home computers she used to create video and still images.

Storage shelves filled with electronic equipment
Editing equipment used by Lillian Schwartz. / Image courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux

Altogether, the Schwartz collection includes over 5,000 objects documenting her expansive and inquisitive mindset: films, videos, prints, paintings, sculptures, posters, and personal papers. You can find more of Lillian Schwartz’s work by checking out recently digitized pieces here, and dig deeper into her story here.

Katherine White and Kristen Gallerneaux worked together this year to acquire several key examples of LGBTQ+ graphic design and material culture. The collection, which is currently being digitized, includes:

Illustrations by Howard Cruse, an underground comix artist…

Cartoon-like line drawing of three people, one in a wheelchair, most holding signs
Illustration created by Howard Cruse. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux

A flier from the High Tech Gays, a nonpartisan social club founded in Silicon Valley in 1983 to support LGBTQ+ people seeking fair treatment in the workplace, as LGBTQ+ people were often denied security clearance to work in military and tech industry positions...

Tri-fold page with text under plastic mounted on cardboard
High Tech Gays flier. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux

An AIDSGATE poster, created by the Silence = Death Collective for a 1987 protest at the White House, designed to bring attention to President Ronald Reagan’s refusal to publicly acknowledge the AIDS crisis...

Acid yellow/lime green poster with image of Ronald Reagan's face and text
“AIDSGATE” Poster, 1987. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux

A number of mid-1960s newspapers—typically distributed in gay bars—that rallied the LGBTQ+ community, shared information, and united people under the cause...

Page with text
“Citizens News.” / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux

A group of fliers created by the Mattachine Society in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, which paints a portrait of the fraught months that followed...

Pink page with text
Flier created by the Mattachine Society. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux

And a leather Muir cap of the type commonly worn by members of post–World War II biker clubs, which provided freedom and mobility for gay men when persecution and the threat of police raids were ever-present at established gay locales. Its many pins and buttons feature gay biker gang culture of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Black leather cap covered in buttons with images and text
Leather cap with pins. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux

Another acquisition that further diversifies our collection is the “Nude is Not a Color” quilt, recently acquired by Curator of Domestic Life Jeanine Head Miller. This striking quilt was created in 2017 by a worldwide community of women who gathered virtually to take a stand against racial bias.

Brown quilt with text "NUDE IS NOT A COLOR" and quilted image of woman wearing dress with many short-sleeved shirts on it
“Nude is Not a Color” Quilt, Made by Hillary Goodwin, Rachael Door, and Contributors from around the World, 2017. / THF185986

Fashion and cosmetics companies have long used the term “nude” for products made in a pale beige—reflecting lighter skin tones and marginalizing people of color. After one fashion company repeatedly dismissed a customer’s concerns, a community of quilters used their talents and voices to produce a quilt to oppose this racial bias. Through Instagram, quilters were asked to create a shirt block in whatever color fabric they felt best represented their skin tone, or that of their loved ones.

Fabric panel featuring a number of short-sleeved shirts on a white background with brown around the edge
Shirt blocks on the “Nude is Not a Color” quilt. / THF185986, detail

Quilters responded from around the United States and around the world, including Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands, and Australia. These quilt makers made a difference, as via social media the quilt made more people aware of the company’s bias. They in turn lent their voices, demanding change—and the brand eventually altered the name of the garment collection.

Jeanine Head Miller has also expanded our quilt collection with the addition of over 100 crib quilts and doll quilts, carefully gathered by Paul Pilgrim and Gerald Roy over a period of forty years. These quilts greatly strengthen several categories of our quilt collection, represent a range of quilting traditions, and reflect fabric designs and usage—all while taking up less storage space than full-sized quilts.

GIF cycling through a variety of quilts
A few of the crib quilts acquired from Paul Pilgrim and Gerald Roy. / THF187113, THF187217, THF187075, THF187187, THF187251, THF187197

During 2021, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment Debra Reid has been developing a collection documenting the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program that employed around three million young men. This year, we acquired the Northlander newsletter (a publication of Fort Brady Civilian Conservation Corps District in Michigan), a sweetheart pillow from a camp working on range land regeneration in Oregon, and a pennant from a camp working in soil conservation in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest.

GIF cycling through newsletter front page, pillowcover with elk and fringe, and green and maroon pennant
Recent Civilian Conservation Corps acquisitions. / THF624987, THF188543, THF18854

We also acquired a partial Civilian Conservation Corps table service made by the Crooksville China Company in Ohio. This acquisition is another example of curatorial collaboration, this time between Debra Reid and Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable. These pieces, along with the other Civilian Conservation Corps material collected, will help tell less well-documented aspects of the Civilian Conservation Corps story.

White plate with blue edge and blue internal ring and text "C.C.C."
Civilian Conservation Corps Dinner Plate, 1933–1942. / THF189100

If you’ve been to Greenfield Village lately, you’ve probably noticed a new addition going in—the reconstructed Vegetable Building from Detroit’s Central Market. While we acquired the building from the City of Detroit in 2003, in 2021, Debra Reid has been working to acquire material to document its life prior to its arrival at The Henry Ford. As part of that work, we recently added photos to our collection that show it in service as a horse stable at Belle Isle, after its relocation there in 1894.

Page with black-and-white photograph of low open building among trees by dirt road; also contains text
“Seventy Glimpses of Detroit” souvenir book, circa 1900, page 20. While this book has been in our collections for nearly a century, it helps illustrate changes in the Vegetable Building structure over time. / THF139104

Black-and-white photograph of two-story building
Riding Stable at the Eastern End of Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, October 27, 1963. / THF626103

Elaborate two-story building with cars parked along street in front
Horse Stable on Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, July 27, 1978. / THF626107

This year, Debra Reid also secured a photo of Dorothy Nickerson, who worked with the Munsell Color Company from 1921 to 1926, and later as a Color Specialist at the United States Department of Agriculture. Research into this new acquisition—besides leading to new ideas for future collecting—brought new attention (and digitization) to a 1990 acquisition: A.H. Munsell’s second edition of A Color Notation.

Woman with bob wearing round glasses in front of a porch
Dorothy Nickerson of Boston Named United States Department of Agriculture Color Specialist, March 30, 1927. / THF626448

All of this is just a small part of the collecting that happens at The Henry Ford. Whether they expand on stories we already tell, or open the door to new possibilities, acquisitions like these play a major role in the institution’s work. We look forward to seeing what additions to our collection the future might have in store!


Compiled by Curatorial Assistant Rachel Yerke from tweets originally written by Associate Curators, Digital Content, Saige Jedele and Katherine White, and Curators Kristen Gallerneaux, Jeanine Head Miller, and Debra A. Reid for a curator chat on Twitter.

quilts, technology, computers, Herman Miller, posters, women's history, design, toys and games, #THFCuratorChat, by Debra A. Reid, by Jeanine Head Miller, by Kristen Gallerneaux, by Katherine White, by Saige Jedele, by Rachel Yerke, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

Page with text and image from behind/side of man sitting in a chair at a table with a globe-shaped lamp behind it

The Detroit News Magazine, "Noguchi: He Sculpts the Landscape," April 15, 1979. / THF147950

Isamu Noguchi sculpted the landscape, just as stated in the title of this 1979 Detroit News article. Born in 1904 in Los Angeles, California, to an American mother and Japanese father, Noguchi spent his childhood in Japan and his adolescence in rural Indiana. He attended the Interlaken School in LaPorte, Indiana, under the mentorship of the school’s founder, Dr. Edward Rumely. The school emphasized both craft and industry—a tension Noguchi would work within all his life, sometimes moving towards handicrafts, and other times toward mass production and new technologies.

In his own words, Noguchi was “foremost a sculptor.” The material, size, and function might change, but the result was always sculpture. In Noguchi’s early years working as an artist, he designed product packaging and sculpted busts on commission to help to pay his living expenses. Later, he designed furniture and lighting, like the Noguchi Table for Herman Miller and the electrified sculptures known as his Akari lamps. He ventured more fully into mass production and industrialization with the striking design of the molded Bakelite Radio Nurse—the first baby monitor.

Noguchi was always interested in environmental and space-planning projects—it’s just that the environments and spaces evolved from rooms to stage sets to entire landscapes. He had aspired to complete a large-scale environmental project for a civic space for many years. In 1933, Noguchi submitted his first of such proposals: a design for “Play Mountain,” a pyramidal play landscape intended for the heart of Manhattan’s Central Park. That project—and many other proposed landscape projects—did not come to fruition.

But late in his career, Noguchi embarked on one of his largest environmental projects—a 10+ acre site in downtown Detroit. In Noguchi’s hands, the landscape became a large-scale sculpture in the form of a public plaza.

Image of construction site by river with tall buildings behind and to the side of it
Detroit Free Press Article, "Park, Fountain to Rise at River," March 16, 1976. / THF147953

Detroit’s Philip A. Hart Plaza


Detroit had long been interested in a civic park in the center of the city and by the late 1890s, the Detroit River waterfront had been identified as a prime location for such a park. Numerous designs were submitted—and even agreed upon—in the 80+ years between these early discussions and the completion of Hart Plaza (notably iterations designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen of Cranbrook fame). Buildings were razed and space was made along the riverfront. Civic-minded buildings, meant to surround the park, were constructed, but the park itself languished. As politics and priorities shifted, so did the fate of the park. In the early 1970s, the park’s completion again became a priority, mostly due to a bequest of two million dollars by Anna Thomson Dodge for the completion of a fountain dedicated to the Dodge family. A committee was created to select an artist to complete the fountain, and the committee chose Isamu Noguchi’s proposal in 1971. Noguchi ended up with the commission to design not only the fountain, but the entire plaza.

Today, Noguchi’s design for the park still plays with the interaction between positive and negative space. Although the use of concrete is liberal, the plaza exudes a feeling of softness and flexibility alongside its strength. Noguchi designed Hart Plaza as a sculpture, a place where people could interact bodily with art. Below, we’ll explore a few of the key elements of the plaza.

Silver fountain with large elevated silver circle through which water spouts; buildings in background
The Detroit News Magazine, "Noguchi, He Sculpts the Landscape," April 15, 1979. / THF626513, detail

Horace E. Dodge & Son Memorial Fountain


At Hart Plaza’s center, both figurately and literally, resides Noguchi’s now-acclaimed fountain. A modern futuristic abstraction of a fountain, it looks nothing like the traditional fountains found in most public parks and plazas the world over. In his presentation to the selection committee, Noguchi explained: “The great fountain, projected to be the most significant of modern times, will rise from the plateau of primal space. It will be an engine for water, plainly associating its spectacle to its source of energy, an engine so deeply a part of Detroit. It will recall and commemorate the dream that has produced the automobile, the airplane, and now the rocket, a machine become a poem.”

The “cloud creating, computer-operated” Dodge Fountain comprises a stainless-steel torus, or donut shape, hoisted 30 feet into the air that features 80 continually changing jet and light shows. A 120-foot-wide basin with a 7-foot-high granite pool creates the base of the fountain. Noguchi’s long-time collaborator, architect Shoji Sadao, was instrumental in ensuring the fountain’s successful completion and operation.

The Pylon


The Pylon, a 120-foot-tall tower, stands to greet the public at the city-side entrance to the park. Constructed of aluminum plating on stainless steel, the tower gently twists upwards, spiraling into the sky, as 120 lights illuminate the tower from its base. Noguchi explained that it symbolized “the spiral of life; the double helix upon which all life is based.” This was a fitting welcome for a park which Noguchi said would be “a people’s park, not a monument.”

Imprints and Extrusions


Detroit’s leaders commissioned the park with numerous purposes in mind, but one of them took precedence in discussions—events and festivals, especially cultural and music festivals. Festivals need seating, and a stage. Noguchi provided multiple spaces for such purposes.  A large amphitheater, a recessed oval pushed into the ground as if imprinted into the land, could transform into an ice-skating rink in the winter. A pyramidal form that extrudes from the northeast section of the plaza provided more seating. Ingeniously, the pyramid also hides some of the mechanical equipment in a functional, graceful solution. In a change-order request by Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, Noguchi expanded the area underneath the plaza to incorporate space for offices, kiosks, a restaurant, and more. Noguchi’s concrete landscape on the river seems to push and pull at the earth, creating a finely balanced public space for Detroiters to enjoy.

Rendering of urban park by river and buildings, with features such as amphitheater and fountain labeled
Detroit Free Press Article, "Park, Fountain to Rise at River," March 16, 1976. / THF147954

When Hart Plaza was dedicated on April 20, 1979, it completed a nearly century-old desire by Detroit’s leaders to have a civic plaza on the Detroit River. It also marked complete one of Noguchi’s most expansive projects and a decades-long desire to transform such a landscape. Detroit’s Hart Plaza serves as one of Noguchi’s crown jewels, showcasing his ability to sculpt on all levels—from small busts to the land at large.


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

Michigan, Detroit, design, by Katherine White, art

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.

Black poster with pink triangle in center and text "SILENCE = DEATH" at bottom
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.

Poster with simple yellow human figures with hands over eyes, ears, and mouth, respectively, with blue bands containing text at top and bottom of poster
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.

“We had designed Silence = Death. ACT UP was about to create it,” Finkelstein wrote. The Silence = Death Collective gave the rights for the poster to ACT UP and it became a fundraiser for the organization. When this transition occurred, a few changes were made to the poster, including the correction of some minor errors (the “Food and Drug Administration” had been mistakenly referred to as the “Federal Drug Administration,” for example) and the addition of the “© 1987 AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power” in the bottom righthand corner.

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.


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

design, art, healthcare, posters, by Katherine White

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.

Irving Harper


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.

Page with text, pink-striped background, and large, heavily stylized white letter "M"
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

Blue advertisement with text and large image of chair, with smaller images of other chairs on the large chair's back
Irving Harper designed this 1961 Herman Miller advertisement for the “Eames Chair Collection.” / THF266918

George Tscherny


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.

Page with text and images of three men in suits, one reading a book, one looking at a map, and the third reading a magazine, with luggage nearby
The famous "Traveling Men" advertisement for Herman Miller was designed by George Tscherny in 1954. / THF624755

Red page with image of minimalistic chair with cowboy hat sitting on top; also contains text
George Tscherny’s 1955 “Herman Miller Comes to Dallas” advertisement implies a human presence through the inclusion of a cowboy hat. / THF148287

Tomoko Miho


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.

Page with op-art-like black and white stripes, offset to create a stylized letter "M"; also contains text
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

White page containing text and colorful pattern of squares and semi-circles
The “Library Group” trade literature was designed by Tomoko Miho, circa 1970. / THF147737


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

furnishings, immigrants, women's history, by Katherine White, design, Herman Miller, advertising

Page with red hand icon; also contains text
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.

Love seat with minimal metal frame and seat and back each composed of nine blue fabric-covered rounds
Marshmallow Love Seat, 1956-1965 / THF134573

Writing on Design


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.

Image of woman sitting surrounded by random items next to a large, thin cabinet
LIFE magazine for January 22, 1945 / THF623999

The Storage Wall


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.

Page with text; illustration of house at top; and two photos of thin storage cabinets at bottom
LIFE Magazine for January 22, 1945 / THF623998

A Market for Good Design


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.

Page with large "a" and "z," photos of desk and chair, and text
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.

Graphic card containing geometric shapes, some in red and black, and text
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.


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

home life, furnishings, Herman Miller, by Katherine White, design