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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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?
“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.
Herman Miller Picnic Poster, "Croquet," 1999 / THF626929
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Milton Bradley Company Catalog, “Welcome to Gameland,” 1964. / THF626388
Milton Bradley Company Trade Catalog, “Bradley’s School Aids and Kindergarten Material,” 1892. / THF626712
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.
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.
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.
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.
Herman Miller Summer Picnic Poster, “Lollipop,” 1988. / THF626898
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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…
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...
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...
“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...
“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...
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
Riding Stable at the Eastern End of Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, October 27, 1963. / THF626103
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.
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!
In 1947, George Nelson opened his eponymous design office on Lexington Avenue in New York City. George Nelson & Co., as the first iteration of the office was named, was located on the second floor of a narrow building; the ground floor was a health food restaurant. In the introduction to Nelson’s collection of 26 essays called Problems of Design, Museum of Modern Art curator Arthur Drexler recalled that the restaurant had a loyal customer base, even though it “smelled funny.” Drexler observed an “unnerving contrast between the solemnity on the ground floor and that haphazard urbanity on the floor above.” George Nelson’s tendency to do many things simultaneously would have created a sometimes chaotic but always exhilarating environment that perhaps occasionally featured a pungent reminder of its downstairs neighbor.
Over the next four decades, the office would change names, move around New York City, employ many of the best and brightest designers, and complete a dizzying number of projects for a variety of clients. Constant through these changes was George Nelson’s emphasis on the importance of the design process. Even late nights at the office, sometimes saturated with drink, could be productive. Concepts imagined the night before might find their way to the drawing board in the bright light of the morning to be refined, altered, and honed further.
Sometimes, Nelson was more involved with the ideation and later refinement of an idea than with its realization—the office’s staff designers tended to that. A one-time employee of the office, architect and designer Michael Graves, reminisced that Nelson “would come in and touch down his magic dust on somebody and then leave.” While Nelson’s “magic dust”—and the powerful brand that his name symbolized—was vital to the office’s success, Nelson’s own hand in the development of a product or design was sometimes exaggerated. It has taken many years for certain designs to be accurately attributed—and surely there are many more that have not been and may never be. This problem is not unique to Nelson’s office, however, and was often the price designers paid to gain experience and contacts in the field. Hilda Longinotti, the office’s long-time receptionist, reflected on this: “As the years went by, George with all of his intelligence, did not do one thing he should have done and that is make the most talented designers partners in the firm. He gave them titles, but he didn’t give them a piece of the business. As the years went by, they left to form their own offices…”
The hundred-plus people employed by George Nelson over the course of his career—some for a short time and others much longer—include Lance Wyman, Ernest Farmer, Tomoko Miho, Irving Harper, Michael Graves, Don Ervin, Lucia DeRespinis, George Tscherny, and many others. The Henry Ford’s collections feature graphics and products designed by Nelson himself as well as some confirmed to be designed by the office’s staff. Below, we will focus on three of these designers: Irving Harper, George Tscherny, and Tomoko Miho.
For many of the years that George Nelson was Herman Miller’s design director, Irving Harper was the director of design at George Nelson’s office. George Nelson hired Harper in 1947, and Harper did a little bit of everything in his tenure there—industrial design, furniture, and, eventually, graphics. Although he didn’t have much experience in graphic design, Harper quickly excelled. Herman Miller’s sweeping red “M” logo was one of Harper’s first forays into graphic design, and, 75 years later, the logo is still beloved and used by the company. Harper also designed many of the Nelson Office’s notable products, including many of the clocks for Howard Miller and the iconic Marshmallow sofa.
Born in New York City in 1916, Harper trained as an architect at New York’s Cooper Union and Brooklyn College. He soon began designing interiors. At the age of 19, Harper was hired by Gilbert Rohde, Nelson’s predecessor at Herman Miller, to work on projects for the 1939 World’s Fair, including renderings and production drawings. Harper worked for George Nelson from 1947 until 1963, when he left to start his own firm, Harper+George, which primarily designed interiors for commercial clients. Harper began to create incredibly intricate paper sculptures in the early 1960s as a stress relief measure, turning him into a proper sculptor as well as designer. The paper sculptures bridged his active design years into his retirement in 1983, when his sculpting output greatly increased. Harper died in 2015 at his long-time home in Rye, New York.
This 1947 advertisement features Herman Miller’s sweeping new “M” logo, which was designed by Irving Harper in one of his first forays into graphic design. / THF623975
Irving Harper designed this 1961 Herman Miller advertisement for the “Eames Chair Collection.” / THF266918
George Tscherny began working at George Nelson & Co. in 1953. Nelson hired Tscherny specifically to design print advertisements for the office’s largest client, Herman Miller, under the direction of Irving Harper. Nelson reportedly had a hands-off approach. Tscherny recalled, “He had no pressing need to involve himself in my area. That meant I could do almost anything within reason.” Tscherny was able to expand and hone his graphic style, which stresses the inherent nature of objects and is always human-centered—even when a human isn’t visible.
Tscherny, born into a Jewish family in 1924 in Budapest, Hungary, grew up in Berlin, Germany. The rise of the Nazi Party and, specifically, the evening of Kristallnacht(“The Night of the Broken Glass”) on November 10, 1938, led Tscherny to believe “there was no future for us in Germany.” The following month, George and his younger brother Alexander escaped to the Netherlands, where they spent the following years moving between refugee camps and Jewish orphanages. Their parents, Mandel and Bella (Heimann) Tscherny, obtained visas and emigrated to the United States in 1939. It wasn’t until June of 1941 that George and Alexander finally joined their parents in New Jersey, after numerous close calls with the Nazi Party. In 1943, George Tscherny enlisted as a soldier in the U.S. Army to fight in World War II and went back to Europe, using his language skills as an interpreter. After the war, Tscherny used the G.I. Bill to fund his study of graphic design, attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York; he would leave just weeks before graduation to work for designer Donald Deskey. In 1953, he was hired by George Nelson.
Although Tscherny only worked for Nelson until 1955, numerous advertisements he designed for Herman Miller during his short tenure became iconic of the era. Tscherny left the office to start his independent design studio, which designed graphics for major corporations. He also taught at the School of the Visual Arts in New York City for over half a century. Tscherny says he attempted to teach his students, as Nelson taught him, “not to have preconceptions, but rather to be receptive to new ideas.” Tscherny, currently 96 years old, lives in New York City with Sonia, his wife of over 70 years.
The famous "Traveling Men" advertisement for Herman Miller was designed by George Tscherny in 1954. / THF624755
George Tscherny’s 1955 “Herman Miller Comes to Dallas” advertisement implies a human presence through the inclusion of a cowboy hat. / THF148287
Tomoko Miho was one of a few women that George Nelson hired to design for his office. Miho is not very well-known today, both due to a societal tendency to ignore contributions of women working in the mid-century period and to her private and reserved nature. Although her name may be unfamiliar, this is not due to a lack of talent—Miho’s skill in graphic design and art direction were extraordinary. Once you identify her clean, minimalist, architectural style, it becomes distinct from the others working in the Nelson office.
Born Tomoko Kawakami in 1931 in Los Angeles, she and her family were held at the Gila River Japanese internment camp in Arizona during World War II. Afterwards, the family moved to Minneapolis, where Tomoko began coursework in art and design. She received a full scholarship to the Art Center School in Los Angeles, where she graduated with a degree in Industrial Design in 1958. She worked as a packaging designer for Harley Earl Associates before moving to New York City and, on the recommendation of George Tscherny, she contacted Irving Harper and was then hired by George Nelson in 1960. As the prominent graphic designer (and later colleague of Miho) John Massey stated, Miho was “a master of the dramatic understatement.” Her work is graceful, clean, and highly structured, while also seeming unrestricted. Her designs are masterfully well-balanced and lend themselves well to their primary purpose—conveying information.
Miho worked for the Nelson office until 1965, when family commitments took her to California, back to New York City, and then to Chicago, where she worked for the Center for Advanced Research and Design (CARD). She designed possibly her best known work while working for CARD—the 1967 "Great Architecture in Chicago" poster. It reflects her sense that Chicago’s architecture is “both solid and ethereal,” as Miho explained. Miho continued to collaborate with designers she met at George Nelson & Co. for years. She also had an incredibly long-lasting relationship with Herman Miller: she began designing for the company during her tenure at George Nelson & Co., continued while she was employed by CARD, and even after starting her own firm, Tomoko Miho Co., Herman Miller remained a client. Miho passed away in 2012 in New York City.
Tomoko Miho featured the Herman Miller logo in this price list, camouflaging it in bold contrasting stripes. This is one document in a suite, all featuring the same design, but in different colorways. / THF64160
The “Library Group” trade literature was designed by Tomoko Miho, circa 1970. / THF147737
Product Tag for an Original George Nelson Design Executed by Herman Miller, 1955 / THF298217
George Nelson is one of the giants of American Modern design. Often with such individuals, it is usually sufficient to point to their output—the architecture, products, graphics they designed—as a way to simplify and quantify their impact. While George Nelson’s output was undeniably significant, an accounting of his legacy in this way will always fall short. Nelson’s contributions to Modernism and the field of design are akin to his office’s famous Marshmallow Sofa—a study in how parts relate to the whole.
Born in 1908 to an affluent family in Connecticut, George Nelson was encouraged to cultivate his intellect from a young age. He attended Yale University—more so for its proximity to home and prestige in the eyes of his parents than due to his own desire—and quite literally happened upon the study of architecture by chance. He recalled ducking into the architecture building on Yale’s campus to avoid a sudden rainfall. Student renderings of cemetery gateways hung in the halls. Nelson “fell in love instantly with the whole business of creating designs for cemetery gateways” and decided, “without further question,” to become an architect. He graduated with his B.A. in 1928 and a B.F.A. in 1931.
Nelson graduated with his new degree as the Great Depression tightened its grip on the United States. He was offered a teaching job at Yale, but was soon let go. He later considered this lucky, saying “…if you’re lucky, you are not allowed to stay safe. You’re thrown into jeopardy.” After a period of uncertainty in which he threw himself into applications for architectural fellowships in Europe, he was successful in winning the prestigious Rome Prize. This came with an all expenses paid, two-year architectural fellowship in Rome, which he took from 1932–1934. Those years in Rome allowed Nelson to travel throughout Europe, study great architecture, and become acquainted with many of the leading figures in the budding Modernism movement.
Architectural criticism and theory writing became a continuous outlet for Nelson throughout his career, beginning in the early 1930s when he first published drawings and articles in Pencil Points and Architecture magazines. Upon his return to the United States, he took a position with The Architectural Forum in New York City and worked his way up to co-managing editor. Nelson’s career path didn’t continue in a linear fashion, but sprouted offshoots. Soon, he simultaneously continued his journalistic pursuits (and expanded to other publications), designed architectural commissions, and created exhibitions. The work was never about the output, but about the process and the solving of problems in whichever way a circumstance demanded.
While writing a book on the house of the future titled Tomorrow’s House with Architectural Forum colleague Henry Wright, Nelson confronted the problem of household storage inadequacies, among other domestic matters. He explained his method in writing the book, “you will not find a chapter on bedrooms … but a great deal about sleeping.” His storage solution was a masterful rethinking of furniture and architecture in one. He recalled his “aha” moment: “My goodness, if you took those walls and pumped more air into them and they got thicker and thicker until maybe they were 12 inches thick, you would have hundreds and hundreds of running feet of storage.” Nelson’s innovative “storage wall” opened new doors for the furniture industry for years to come. His idea was featured in Architectural Forum in 1944 and then in a generous 1945 spread in Life magazine. It also attracted the attention of D.J. De Pree, the founder of the Herman Miller Furniture Company in Zeeland, Michigan.
After the untimely death of Gilbert Rohde, D.J. De Pree began to look for a new director of design. Rohde had successfully set the Herman Miller Furniture Company on the path of Modernism and De Pree was looking to continue that trajectory. Initially, De Pree considered German architect Erich Mendelsohn or industrial designer Russel Wright for the post, but eventually chose George Nelson, sensing a kindred spirit in a perhaps unlikely partnership. De Pree was devoutly religious and a teetotaler; Nelson, always accompanied by the lingering smell of cigarette smoke, questioned everything—especially religion—and loved martinis. Despite these differences, De Pree thought, rightfully, that Nelson was “thinking well ahead of the parade,” and hired him for the job. Like De Pree and Rohde, Nelson was completely invested in continuing Herman Miller’s focus on honesty and quality in Modern design. In the forward to a groundbreaking 1948 catalogue, Nelson outlined the company philosophy:
The attitude that governs Herman Miller’s behavior, as far as I can make out, is compounded of the following set of principles:
What you make is important….
Design is an integral part of the business….
The product must be honest….
You decide what you will make….
There is a market for good design.
Advertisement for Herman Miller Furniture Company, "George Nelson Designs," October 1947 / THF623977
Herman Miller and George Nelson’s decades-long collaboration was fruitful almost immediately. Nelson rethought some of Gilbert Rohde’s furniture and issued lines of his own furniture design. He had proven himself a prescient thought leader in the design world through his writing, but became adept at finding talented people and bringing them together for the greater good of design. D.J. De Pree admitted surprise when Nelson requested to bring on other designers—even before his own contract was formalized. Instead of hoarding the glory (and potential income) for himself, Nelson saw the far-reaching benefits of collaboration with other visionary designers. It was Nelson who brought together the core design team that still shapes Herman Miller’s design today—most notably, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and Alexander Girard.
A tendency towards collaboration was not isolated to Nelson’s work at Herman Miller. In his personal life, he counted architect Minoru Yamasaki and architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller among his close friends. And those that he employed in his eponymous design office (which had many clients, although Herman Miller was certainly the largest account for many years) were the best of the best too. These staff designers—Irving Harper, Tomoko Miho, Lance Wyman, and Don Ervin, to name just a few—maintained the constant hum of the office. They diligently continued to ideate, design, and make for the office’s clients. Sometimes they executed their own concepts, and other times the staff designers brought their metaphorical and literal pens to paper for some of Nelson’s lofty visions.
Nelson has faced fair criticism of taking more credit than was due for some of the designs that came from his office. He positioned himself as a powerful brand—and many of those who worked under him gained valuable experience, but perhaps never the full realization of their efforts in the public sphere.
Trade Card for Herman Miller, “Come and See the New Designs at the Herman Miller Showroom,” circa 1955 / THF215327
George Nelson actively designed for Herman Miller until the early 1970s and continued designing products, exhibits, interiors, graphics, and more with his own firm until 1984. He lectured and wrote on design theory and practice until his death in 1986, influencing and inspiring generations of designers. George Nelson’s contributions to design are much greater than his output—the products, writings, structures, and graphics he produced. He may have been more concerned with principles and processes than about the tangible result—but his loftier focus is what made his tangible designs so effective. Nelson’s ideas and ideals shaped the Modernist design movement and his influence can still be felt, reverberating through the halls of design offices and school halls alike.
Imagine attending a choral concert in a century-old church. Instead of monochromatic robes, the choristers emerge in bright, radiant color with bold geometric design. The colors of the robes are a musical key, made visual—yellow for the soprano, orange for the contralto, red for the tenor, and purple for the bass. As the choristers sing and sway, the robes come alive, a modern counterpoint to the traditional church interior.
Imagination aside, this is a scene familiar to those who have watched the Hope College Chapel Choir perform. Originally a creation of Charles and Ray Eames from the 1950s, faithful replicas of the robes continue to be used.
The Hope College Chapel Choir at Dimnent Chapel, circa 2001. Photo Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.
Although husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames collaborated in nearly everything, it was Ray who showed an early and enduring interest in textiles and fashion design. The daughter of a theatre aficionado and manager, she attended the Bennett School for Girls, a two-year college in Millbrook, New York, earning a degree in Fashion Design in 1933. She completed fashion sketches throughout her life—even creating original paper dolls with custom clothing, complete with the tabs used to affix the clothing onto the doll! She designed a few textiles (one of which—“Crosspatch”—won an honorable mention in a 1946 Museum of Modern Art competition) and dedicated significant energy into the design and creation of her own clothing. The clothes she designed for herself and for Charles are quintessential Eames—functional yet beautiful, with playful delights to be found in the details.
D.J. De Pree, the founder and president of the Herman Miller Furniture Company (which produced Charles and Ray Eames’ furniture), was known for his religious fervor. Further, the company is headquartered in Zeeland, Michigan, a Dutch-American enclave with deep Protestant Christian roots. So, when an employee suggested the creation of a company-sponsored chorus in 1952 (something that might otherwise have been an unusual corporate activity), the De Prees granted it legitimacy, naming it the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus and inviting the chorus to perform at company and company-sponsored events. They soon required choral robes to outfit the company chorus and asked Charles and Ray Eames to design them.
Herman Miller Mixed Chorus Soprano and Contralto Vocalist Choir Robes, 1953-1960 / THF75585, THF75580
With Ray’s background, it is likely that she was primarily responsible for the design, although as always in collaboration with her husband. The robes are bold and colorful and make a statement, but they are also functional. Their symbolism is evidence of the Eames’ signature research-heavy process and attention to detail. The colors of the robes identify the vocal type (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and each color’s hue (from light to dark) corresponds with the vocal range (from high to low). The horizontal black lines at the center of each robe reference the musical staff. Charles and Ray may have scoured the extensive Eames Office reference library to ensure symbolic depth and accuracy. Or, perhaps, this came from an ingrained knowledge of music. They enjoyed a variety of musical types, like jazz, folk, and classical, and music was a major component of the films they produced throughout their life, often collaborating with talented composers like Elmer Bernstein. The theatrical backdrop of Ray’s childhood, her interest in textiles and fashion, and the Eames’ interest in music coalesce in these robes.
Herman Miller Mixed Chorus Tenor and Bass Vocalist Choir Robes, 1953-1960 / THF75574, THF75569
The robes were designed at the Eames Office in Los Angeles, but it is unknown whether the robes were created there and shipped, finished, to Zeeland, or if the patterns and fabric were shipped and the robes were then sewn locally.
By 1960, the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus was disbanded, and Hugh De Pree, son of D.J. De Pree, donated the robes to the Hope College Chapel Choir in the neighboring city of Holland, Michigan, where the family had deep connections. The Hope College Chapel Choir was larger than the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus, so more robes had to be made. Doris Schrotenboer and Millie Grinwis, a mother and daughter team from Zeeland, made the extra. Millie Grinwis recalls that the fabric and patterns were shipped from the Eames Office to her mother’s home, where they were painstakingly put together.
After over 44 years in use, the original robes were retired in 2004. Unwilling, however, to part with the signature design, Hope College commissioned replicas, albeit in a slightly lighter fabric. The original robes were donated to several institutions. At The Henry Ford, these robes add an extra dimension to our design collections, as well as another way to better understand the many talents of Charles and Ray Eames.
The Hope College Chapel Choir recording at Milwaukee’s WTMJ-TV, circa 1965. / Photo Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. She is also an alumnus of Hope College, where she was first delighted by these robes! Thank you to Geoffrey Reynolds at the Joint Archives of Holland for graciously sharing pictures of the Hope College Chapel Choir through the years.
Deborah Sussman began her design career as an intern at the Eames Office in 1953. There, over the course of a decade, she was promoted to an art director and worked on graphic design, exhibitions, films, toy design, packaging, and photography. In 1963, she acted as designer for the “Beware of Imitations” image below, with Charles and Ray Eames as creative directors. Appearing as an advertisement in Arts & Architecture magazine, it celebrated Eames-designed furniture produced by Herman Miller. The image is a fascinating herald, hinting at how Sussman’s approach toward the power of large-scale graphics to communicate within environments would define her future vision.
Herman Miller “Beware of Imitations” Advertisement. / THF147716
The foundation image was printed to poster size and affixed to the outside wall of the Eames Office, where it was photographed in situ. The weathered brick wall, scrabbly Californian plant life, and spray-painted stencil additions surrounding the paste-up add texture to the image, revealing it to be evidence of a process. An image at the Library of Congress takes us one step further into this moment, revealing Sussman pasting up the original work.
If you look closely toward the bottom left of this image, you will also see a bouquet of flowers on a placard with the text, “Zeeland, Michigan.” Zeeland is, of course, home to the Herman Miller company, but the floral design has its own interesting lifespan. It appears on Herman Miller’s stock certificates and on the underside of a kiosk designed by the Eames Office for the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Sussman is credited with contributing to both projects.
Kiosk from the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. / THF156766
Detail of the underside of the IBM Kiosk. / THF171121
Sussman left the Eames Office temporarily to continue her design studies through a Fulbright scholarship in Germany, but was eventually “lured back” to California to work on the Mathematica exhibit. When The Henry Ford acquired the 1964 version of the Mathematica exhibit (now on permanent view in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation), extensive research was undertaken in the Charles & Ray Eames Papers at the Library of Congress to create the most historically accurate version of the exhibit possible. Photographs at the Library of Congress documented numerous contributions made by women to the exhibit’s design, including Sussman, Ray Eames, and many others. Sussman, for her part, once recounted setting the type for the mathematician biographies that appear on the History Timeline and also appears in a photograph working on the graphics for the base of the Multiplication Cube interactive.
Detail of the Multiplication Cube from the Eames Office-designed Mathematica exhibit. / THF164150
Detail of the History Timeline in Mathematica. / THF170845
In 1968, Sussman formed an independent design practice as Sussman/Prejza & Co. with her husband, Paul. Together they designed things like the “urban branding” for the cities of Long Beach and Santa Monica, California, and wayfinding signage for Walt Disney World and EuroDisney. Her favorite kind of work involved vibrant, larger-than-life graphic and typographic treatments installed in architectural spaces and outdoor urban areas. For this work, she is credited as a pioneer of “environmental design” and “Supergraphics.”
Design Preview / Brand Identity Guidelines for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. / THF287946
This approach is especially obvious in her design identity work for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The look and feel of the LA Olympics—created by Sussman/Prejza & C0. in collaboration with the Jerde Partnership—transformed the city of Los Angeles. The holistic plan was for “an energetic montage of color and form [to] appear on everything from tents to tickets.” There were 43 art installations, 28 game venues, 3 Olympic villages, and wayfinding signage. There was a monumental 145-foot tower of colorful scaffolding erected in Exposition Park. Color-coded gateways and walkways lined with concrete “Sonotubes” wrapped in bright abstract graphics. Uniforms for officials and volunteers.
An entire issue of Design Quarterly was dedicated to the project, in which the designers explained their hopes for a successful event as “a modern environment that recalls the imageable qualities of a medieval jousting festival” and one that anticipated that “the city will be transformed overnight, as if an invasion of butterflies has descended upon it.”
Souvenir Street Banner designed by Deborah Sussman for the LA 1984 Olympics. / THF171692
Color played an essential role in unifying the visual language of color, graphics, and typographic treatments. Notably, Sussman broke away from the palette of traditional red, white, and blue, and captured the “Southern California spirit” through shades of vibrant magenta, vermillion, aqua, purple, and sunset orange. A favorite quote in the Design Quarterly issue states: “The glorious colors—the banners, the kiosks and booths, even the trash cans and hot dog napkins—were happily original, all Toyland confetti, in light and airy shades all their own. We get enough of red-white-and-blue everywhere else, don’t we?”
Partial credit to Sussman’s approach can be connected to her early training at the Eames Office, where her mentors emphasized the value of playfulness. There, she had the opportunity to document festivals in other countries. She learned to appreciate folk art and the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Rim. And the “kit of parts” approach to design was part of everyday life at the Eames Office too, which undoubtedly influenced Sussman’s own adaptable “visual alphabet” for the 1984 LA Olympics. Today, her contributions for this and other projects stand as beloved and masterful examples of environmental graphic design. Like many designers who passed through the Eames Office, Deborah Sussman took what she learned, remixed it, and made it an evolved and color-saturated language all her own.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
The auditorium at the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference before guests arrive. / THF610598
The setting is sparse. The downward sweep of theatre curtains, a man seated stage left, backed by a hinged office cubicle wall. Technology in this image is scarce, and yet it defines the moment. A video camera is perched on top of the wall, its electronic eye turned downwards to surveil a man named Douglas Engelbart, seated in a modified Herman Miller Eames Shell Chair below. A large projection screen shows a molded tray table holding a keyboard at its center, a chunky-looking computer mouse made of wood on the right side, and a “chording keyboard” on the left. Today, we take the computer mouse for granted, but in this moment, it was a prototype for the future.
The empty auditorium chairs in this image will soon be filled with attendees of a computer conference. It is easy to imagine the collective groan of theater seating as this soon-to-arrive audience leans a little closer, to understand a little better. With the click of a shutter from the back of the room, this moment was collapsed down into the camera lens of a young Herman Miller designer named Jack Kelley. He knew this moment was worth documenting because if the computer mouse under Douglas Engelbart’s right hand onstage was soon going to create “the click that was heard around the world,” this scene was the rehearsal for that moment.
Entrance to the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference, San Francisco Civic Auditorium. / THF610636
“The Mother of All Demos”
On December 9, 1968, Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) hosted a session at the Joint Computer Conference at the Civic Center Auditorium in San Francisco. The system presented—known as the oNLine System (or NLS)—was focused on user-friendly interaction and digital collaboration.
Douglas Engelbart demonstrates the oNLine System. / THF146594
In a span of 90 minutes, Engelbart (wearing a headset like the radar technician he once was) used the first mouse to sweep through a demonstration that became the blueprint for modern computing. For the first time, computing processes we take for granted today were presented as an integrated system: easy navigation using a mouse, “WYSIWYG” word processing, resizable windows, linkable hypertext, graphics, collaborative software, videoconferencing, and presentation software similar to PowerPoint. Over time, the event gained the honorific “The Mother of all Demos.” When Engelbart was finished with his demonstration, everyone in the audience gave him a standing ovation.
Fixing the Human-Hardware Gap
In 1957, Engelbart established the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at SRI to study the relationship between humans and machines. It was here, in 1963, that work on the first computer mouse began. The mouse was conceptualized by Engelbart and realized from an engineering standpoint by Bill English. All the while, work on NLS was percolating in the background.
Douglas Engelbart kicks back with the NLS at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). / THF610612
While Engelbart was gearing up to present the NLS, Herman Miller Research Corporation’s (HRMC’s) president and lead designer Robert Propst was updating the “Action Office” furniture system. Designed to optimize human performance and workplace collaboration, Action Office caught Engelbart’s attention. He was excited by its flexibility and decided to consult with Herman Miller to provide the ideal environment for people using the NLS. Propst sent a young HMRC designer named Jack Kelley to California so he could study the needs of the SRI group in person.
Jack Kelley and Douglas Engelbart testing Herman Miller’s custom Action Office setup at Stanford Research Institute. / THF610616
After observing and responding to the needs of the team, Kelley recommended a range of customized Action Office items, which appeared onstage with Engelbart at the Joint Computer Conference. One of the items that Kelley designed was the console chair from which Engelbart gave his lecture. He ingeniously paired an off-the-shelf Shell Chair designed by Charles and Ray Eames with a molded tray attachment to support the mouse and keyboard. This one-of-a-kind chair featured prominently in The Mother of All Demos.
An unobstructed view of Jack Kelley’s customization of an Eames Shell Chair with removable, swinging tray for the NLS. The chording keyboard is visible at left, and the prototype mouse is at right. / THF610615
During the consultation, Kelley also noticed that Engelbart’s mouse prototype had difficulty tracking on hard surfaces. He created a “friendly” surface solution by simply lining the right side of the console tray with a piece of Naugahyde. If Engelbart was seen to be controlling the world’s first mouse onstage in 1968, Kelley contributed one very hidden “first” in story of computing history too: the world’s first mousepad. Sadly, the one-of-a-kind chair disappeared over time, but luckily, we have many images documenting its design within The Henry Ford’s archival collections.
A closer view of the world’s first mousepad – the beige square of Naugahyde inset into the NLS tray at bottom right. / THF610645
The computer scientist Mark Weiser said, “the most profound technologies are the ones that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” If this is true, the impact of Engelbart’s 1968 demonstration—supported by Kelley’s console chair and mousepad—are hidden pieces of the computing history. So as design shaped the computer, the computer also shaped design.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
Brochure for Chicago Merchandise Mart Exhibit, "Herman Miller Modern for Your Home," 1935-1940 (THF229429)
West Michigan is known for its furniture. Furniture factories-turned-apartment or office buildings can be seen throughout Grand Rapids and its surroundings—some with company names like Baker Furniture, John Widdicomb Co., and Sligh Furniture still visible, painted on the brick exterior. While fewer in numbers today than in 1910, West Michigan still boasts numerous major furniture manufacturers. One of these, the Herman Miller Furniture Company in Zeeland, is known around the world for its long history of producing high quality modern furniture—but the Herman Miller name was not always synonymous with “modern.”
A young man named Dirk Jan (D.J.) De Pree began working as a clerk at the Zeeland-based Michigan Star Furniture Company in 1909, after graduating from high school. It was a small company and De Pree excelled, partly due to his appetite for reading books about business, accounting, and efficiency. Just a decade after starting with the company, he was promoted to president. In 1923, De Pree convinced his father-in-law, Herman Miller, to go in with him to purchase the majority of the company’s shares. The furniture company was renamed the Herman Miller Furniture Company in honor of De Pree’s father-in-law’s contribution, although Miller was never involved in its operation. Renamed, rebranded, and under new ownership, D.J. De Pree pushed a new culture of quality and good design that, he hoped, would help the company stand out amongst a competitive and crowded West Michigan furniture industry.
Dressing Table, ca. 1933 (Object ID: 89.177.112), Image copyright: Herman Miller, Inc.
At the time, many West Michigan furniture companies were producing stylistically similar pieces that were essentially reproductions of historic forms, especially Colonial and European Revivals. Most of the manufacturers “designed” furniture by copying from books or authentic vintage furniture found in museums. The best designers were known to be the most faithful copyists. The Herman Miller Furniture Company manufactured primarily reproduction furniture until the early 1930s. Their furniture lines were typically very ornate and sold in large suites—and following in the footsteps of other West Michigan companies, Herman Miller released new lines with each quarterly furniture market, despite the undue pressure this placed upon them.
As the Great Depression crippled industry across America in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Herman Miller Furniture Company struggled to survive. With bankruptcy on the horizon, D.J. De Pree reflected on the shortcomings of the furniture industry and issues within the company. A devoutly religious man, he also prayed. Whether by divine intervention or regular old coincidence, Gilbert Rohde—a young designer that would leave an indelible mark on the Herman Miller Furniture Company—walked into the company’s Grand Rapids showroom in July of 1930, bringing with him the message of Modernism.
The Herman Miller Furniture Company, Makers of Fine Furniture, Zeeland, Michigan, 1933 (Left: THF64292, Right: THF64290). Herman Miller continued to produce historic revival furniture, like the above Chippendale bedroom suite, even while embracing the more modern Gilbert Rohde lines, like the above No. 3321 Dining Room Group.
Born in New York City to German immigrants in 1894, Gilbert Rohde (born Gustav Rohde) showed aptitude for drawing at a young age—he claimed to have drawn an identifiable horse by the age of two-years-old! He was admitted to Stuyvesant High School in 1909, which was reserved for gifted young men. There, he designed covers for the school’s literary magazine, won drawing contents, and began to experiment with furniture design. While he had aspirations (and demonstrated aptitude) to become an architect, he began working as an illustrator and later, a commercial artist. He was successful in this venture for years and learned invaluable lessons about advertising and marketing which would help him—and his future clients—tremendously in the years to come. With determination to become a furniture designer, in 1927 Rohde departed on a months-long European tour of sites associated with the modern design movement. Among his stops, he visited the Bauhaus design school in Germany and the Parisian design studios that featured the modernist ideas exhibited in the breakthrough Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. Returning to the United States months later, he began designing furniture with a clear European modern influence and soon began to focus on designing mass-produced furniture for industry, namely for the Heywood-Wakefield Company of Massachusetts.
Dresser, 1933-1937 (THF156178). An early example of Rohde-designed furniture manufactured by Herman Miller, this dresser was designed for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair’s “Design for Living Home.” The house and its furniture garnered broad public acclaim, benefitting the budding Rohde and Herman Miller partnership.
By 1930, Rohde was looking for more clients. He visited the Herman Miller showroom in Grand Rapids, Michigan—at the end of a long day of denials by other manufacturers—and met D.J. De Pree. Rohde argued that modern furniture was the future and told him, “I know how people live and I know how they are going to live.” This confidence, despite few years of actual furniture design, convinced De Pree to give Rohde a chance at designing a line for Herman Miller. Further, Rohde was willing to work on a royalty arrangement with a small consultation fee instead of all cash up front. In combination with Herman Miller’s already-precarious financial situation, these factors helped to offset some of the risk in producing this forward-thinking furniture. Herman Miller began selling Rohde’s first design, an unadorned, modern bedroom suite in 1932, but still played it safe by continuing to sell historic revival lines alongside Rohde’s modern furniture. As design historian Ralph Caplan notes, in those early years, Herman Miller was “like a company unsure of what it wanted to be when it grew up.” But Rohde’s furniture sold. By the early 1940s, Rohde’s modern lines made up the vast majority of Herman Miller’s output.
Left: Coffee Table, 1940-1942 (THF35998), Right: Rohde Sideboard, 1941-1942 (THF83268). Gilbert Rohde admired the Surrealist Art Movement. In his early 1940s Paldao Group, the forms and materials pay homage to the work of the Surrealists—and were the first biomorphic forms used in furniture manufactured in the United States.
Tragically, Rohde’s tenure at Herman Miller was cut short by his untimely death at the age of 50 in 1944, but his impact is lasting. Rohde’s emphasis on simplicity and functionality of design meant the materials and the manufacturing had to be of the highest quality—this honesty of design and emphasis on quality appealed to De Pree’s Christian values. It remains a hallmark of Herman Miller’s furniture to this day and undoubtedly contributed to the longevity of Rohde’s furniture sales. Sales of Rohde’s furniture did not slow the season after it was introduced, like many of the historic reproductions. The Laurel Line, Rohde’s first coordinated living, dining, and sleeping group, remained in production almost his entire tenure with Herman Miller. D.J. De Pree recounted that his lines often sold for 5-10 years instead of the 1-3 that was typical of the historic reproduction styles. Rohde’s design work for Herman Miller extended far beyond furniture and into advertising, catalogues, and showrooms, and he advised on the manufacture of his furniture too. This expansion of the designer’s role and the creative freedom allowed by D.J. De Pree came to define Herman Miller’s relationship with designers and then the company itself.
Rohde Modular Desk, 1934-1941 (THF159907). This Laurel Group desk was part of one of Rohde’s early—and most successful—lines for Herman Miller. It was part of a coordinated modular line, which meant that new pieces would be added regularly over years. This was in opposition to the new lines for each quarterly furniture market approach that D.J. De Pree counted as an “evil” of the furniture industry.
Cover and interior page from Catalog for Herman Miller Furniture, "20th Century Modern Furniture Designed by Gilbert Rohde," 1934 (left: THF229409, right: THF229411).Gilbert Rohde expanded the role of the designer during his tenure at Herman Miller. In this 1934 catalogue, he was educator as well as designer, explaining to the consumer that “Every age has had its modern furniture…When Queen Elizabeth furnished her castles, she did not order her craftsmen to imitate an Egyptian temple…”
Gilbert Rohde and D.J. De Pree transformed the Herman Miller Furniture Company—from one manufacturing reproductions at the brink of bankruptcy, to one revolutionizing the world of modern furniture. George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard and countless others were able to make incredible leaps in the name of modernism, largely due to the culture and partnership developed by Gilbert Rohde and D.J. De Pree. In George Nelson’s words, “we really stood on Rohde’s shoulders.”
Katherine White is an Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.