How did Herman Miller become THE office chair?

Herman Miller’s history dates back to 1905, when it was known as the Starr Furniture Company and made traditional bedroom suites. During the 1930s, it began producing furniture tailored for modern living, and in the 1940s became the company as we know it today under the guidance of its visionary design director George Nelson. During the postwar era, Nelson worked with Charles and Ray Eames and and essentially developed–and popularized–what we now call midcentury design.

Beginning in 1960s, the company’s main focus turned to office design when it invented a modular furniture system called the Action Office, aka the cubicle, and later had the singular distinction of turning task chairs into objects of desire. Since then, it’s been deeply entrenched in furniture for corporate settings–a fairly lucrative model until the ’00s, when growth rates began to diminish and the economic crash upended business.

Amid dramatic shifts in the marketplace, Herman Miller vowed to change course. Now, the legendary brand wants to sell consumers on a better life through good design. “It’s about helping you envision a lifestyle, whether it’s a lifestyle about work or a lifestyle for your home, or a lifestyle for where you heal,” CEO Brian Walker says about Herman Miller’s ambitions. In short, it’s becoming a lifestyle brand.

The “Shift” strategy is the formal name of Herman Miller’s five-year initiative to reposition itself in the furniture market. It revolves around four points: moving from the realm of offices to every interior environment, expanding its market from North America to other corners of the globe, and shedding its reputation as selling solely to design professionals–towards an approach that includes consumers.

The company implemented the plan in 2011 and since then, it’s steadily overhauled its business from how research and development is structured to how sales people talk to customers to how it even thinks about consumers in the first place. It’s scooped up complementary companies to bolster its offerings and carried out one of the largest real estate transactions in its history to bring its family of brands under one roof at the flagship. But at the heart of Shift is a pivot from peddling products to providing lifestyle solutions.

In the last 40 years Herman Miller had narrowed its approach to focusing on one particular audience: its bread and butter, American corporate customers. However, amid the volatile economy in the ’00s (between 2000 and 2003, Herman Miller’s sales dropped from $2 billion to just $1.3 billion), slow growth in the contract furniture industry, and changing demographics and living styles, the company saw the writing on the wall. It had to either change its approach or keep fighting with its competitors–including Knoll, Steelcase, and Humanscale–for a piece of a smaller pie.

In other words, how does an industry stalwart revamp for 21st-century relevance? By mining its rich history, remixing it, and bringing it to new audiences.

There’s a dichotomy in the furniture industry: contract and consumer. Interior designers and architects are the contract customers, who usually place large orders through dealers for spaces like hospitals, offices, hotels, and restaurants. Consumers are nonprofessionals who purchase through retail. One of the biggest shifts in Herman Miller’s strategy was thinking more broadly about who the consumer is and how to engage them.

In a similar way that Nike identified the needs of its consumers, Herman Miller conducted intensive demographic research to inform the furniture solutions for living challenges. For example, one of its core groups is a “design-passionate” consumer, which is more defined by a mindset than a particular income level or age range. They could be empty nesters looking to downsize, people buying a second home, apartment dwellers who don’t have a lot of disposable income but want something that can last a lifetime, or someone interested in sustainability.

This focus on consumers and their needs also came to bear on building the Herman Miller Collection, a group of furniture named after the first catalog George Nelson produced for the brand in 1940, featuring designs that can work equally well in residential, office, work, or hospitality environments. Many of the classics Herman Miller is known for–from the likes of Nelson, the Eameses, and Noguchi–live in this group, as do contemporary pieces from European brands it distributes, like Magis and Mattiazzi. Just as Nike made sure that it could supply products to any athlete of any level, Herman Miller assembled the products in the Herman Miller Collection to serve anyone that needed furniture.

Another example of this “consumer-obsessed” strategy is the Living Office, a philosophy of office design created to help customers build environments that help people work better and mesh with a company’s culture. The company is framing the Living Office not as a workstation system but rather as a point of view.

One recent trend is offices having more residential touches, like a communal kitchen or sofas for employees to work or lounge upon. Case in point: many of Airbnb’s offices. For some businesses, telecommuting and working from home is becoming more common. Herman Miller’s consumer-based approach taps into both of these shifts.

The furniture industry as a whole is susceptible to swings in the economy, which is part of the reason Shift was needed in the first place. Businesses grow–they need more workstations and equipment. The housing market expands–people need to furnish those spaces. When the market contracts, pocketbooks do, too.

This fundamental pivot in the brand’s history informed its core philosophy and in some ways, the Shift strategy is attempting to achieve the same spirit of transformation. Will the results prove to be as successful? Time will tell if the groundwork laid by the Herman Miller’s leadership will pave the way for another century of business. I nthe meantime, if you haven’t already done so, go try out their chairs, the ultimate symbol of the DotCom throne.

Check out my related post: Have you tried Uniqlo?

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