Herman Miller + Knoll &
the Changing Home + Office
by Carl Liggett,
Specialist, Modern Design
Senior Specialist, Modern Design
You may have heard the news. Just last month, two American titans of modern furniture design and production combined as Herman Miller acquired Knoll. The merger is set to be completed this year and, according to Herman Miller, “will create the preeminent leader in the field of modern design.” In an odd combination of both celebration for their shared futures, and perhaps a touch of lament over the loss of their storied competition and independence, Toomey & Co. Auctioneers will be offering a brief survey of many of the most iconic Herman Miller + Knoll-produced designs from throughout both companies’ histories. This selection of pieces will conclude our Modern Design + Post-War & Contemporary Art auction on Wednesday, May 19, 2021 and represents both early examples and more recently produced iconic designs whose value and usefulness has not waned.
Herman Miller + Knoll Merger and New Home + Office Realities
Throughout most of Knoll’s history, it has been one of Herman Miller’s largest competitors in the world of modern furniture design and manufacturing for both the home and office. But this past year has demanded adjustments to how many of us live and work, creating parallel changes in demand for certain types of goods such as office furnishings. Some related broader trends were already beginning to occur. Even before COVID-19 challenged us all with new realities in daily life, retail and other businesses were making adjustments.
Auction houses also were already moving increasingly online. In some ways, the pandemic seems to have simply fast-forwarded the pace of such transitions. Similarly, the merger of Herman Miller and Knoll largely stems from the need for pandemic-era adaptation. The movement toward working from home and an increased desire to improve the quality of that environment is a shift that has affected both the auction business and these large design firms. In a press release announcing the merger on April 19, 2021, Herman Miller President & CEO Andi Owen explained:
“As distributed working models become the new normal for companies, businesses are reimagining the office to foster collaboration, culture and focused work, while supporting a growing remote employee base. At the same time, consumers are making significant investments in their homes. With a broad portfolio, global footprint and advanced digital capabilities, we will be poised to meet our customers everywhere they live and work.” — Herman Miller President & CEO Andi Owen
As purveyors and aficionados of mostly vintage modern design here at Toomey & Co., we are not thinking quite as much about what it means for the new company’s joint market position today, not to mention the $1.8 billion acquisition price tag. We primarily know Herman Miller and Knoll as the hugely admired originators (or at least licensed manufacturers and/or distributors) of much of the most iconic modern design ever created. Therefore, the merger is also an opportunity to look back at the companies’ immense influence on modern design and their formerly autonomous legacies.
History of Herman Miller
Initially founded as the Star Furniture Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1905, Herman Miller is the somewhat older of the two companies. It became Herman Miller Furniture Company in 1923 under the newly acquired leadership of Dirk Jan De Pree. It was D.J. De Pree that brought in the hugely impactful Gilbert Rohde, who can be credited with moving the company in a modern direction in terms of both design and business viability. (For more on Gilbert Rohde, see a previous article, Art Deco Material from The Estate of Michael Rabkin.)
After Rohde’s death in 1944, De Pree can also be credited with bringing in the architect George Nelson as the new Director of Design. His collaborative firm George Nelson & Associates, which also included the underappreciated designer Irving Harper, is responsible for many of Herman Miller’s best-known creations, such as Lot 324, a nightstand from the Thin Edge line.
As Director of Design, George Nelson also recruited a dynamic duo who would become among the brightest stars of American modern design by means of their work with Herman Miller. The sale will feature many designs by Charles and Ray Eames, including four Herman Miller-produced 670 / 671 lounge chairs with ottomans. Lot 331 is a particularly fine example that was produced in 1978, is in excellent vintage condition, and features a rosewood-veneered, bent-plywood frame. Lot 351 is a rare matching pair of cherry-veneered lounge chairs and ottomans that was produced in 1991. The sale will also feature a version of the chair in all black (Lot 353), made in 2014, as well as a recent production La Chaise lounge chair by Vitra (Lot 352).
History of Knoll
Knoll was founded by Hans Knoll in New York City in 1938, but the company is more firmly associated with its guiding light, Florence Knoll. Florence was an architect, designer, and business leader who married Hans Knoll in 1946 and assumed control of the company in 1955 following her husband’s death. Her minimal modernist style came to define the company’s aesthetic, while she also massively increased Knoll’s size and influence. There are many famous designs we associate closely with Knoll, but the clean-lined cabinets designed by Florence Knoll are perhaps our most direct association with the ‘Knoll look.’ Lot 335 is an always desirable wall-hanging version of this cabinet design in walnut with sliding white doors.
The laundry list of influential designers who contributed work to Knoll throughout its history is jaw-dropping, and many of them are featured in our upcoming sale. Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chairs are among the more notable designs in the Knoll catalog, and a fine Italian-produced pair in excellent vintage condition is available as Lot 337.
The bent-wire forms of Warren Platner are similarly classic Knoll designs, and four lots of this line of furniture will also be up for bid as Lots 339-342. Other Knoll-produced pieces in this sale include designs by Eero Saarinen, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Harry Bertoia, Robert Venturi, and Kazuhide Takahama.
For us, the ongoing presence and production output of Herman Miller and Knoll to this day is a warm reminder of the importance of their early influence, the overall strength of their businesses, and the continued relevance of their best design creations. If you have been a fan of Herman Miller and its products, it is likely that you have also had a similar affection for Knoll, or vice-versa. It is exciting and not all that difficult to imagine them working together. We are certain that the merger of these two pioneers of modern design and manufacturing will allow them to thrive in a changing home/office landscape and continue providing exceptional innovative original as well as classic design into the future.