Outtakes About This Outpost

August 15, 2003
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It must be especially frustrating to be an employee of Marshall Field's here, in Michigan's second largest city (though the stores here are said to be among the most profitable of the entire group); even more so when one considers that those remotely or intricately connected to the Minnesota retailer have no clue as to why Herman Miller for the Home is considered our apple pie. The retailers' uneducated decision makers' first insult was to hire an even less learned communications firm from eastern Michigan to help determine new marketing for this region, and the vast differences between east and west completely escaped their attention — even in these days of one-on-one and targeted marketing.

So, too, did the address of Herman Miller's headquarters escape their notice, and the fact that the Big Three office furniture manufacturers are all headquartered in "furniture city" environs. So, too, did the fact that Grand Rapidians take regular shopping trips in and out of Chicago (less so Detroit).

So it is congruous that such a group is befuddled by three weeks of Business Journal phone calls for additional information on the Herman Miller for the Home store-within-a-store at Marshall Field's in Chicago (and not GR), a concept, as we heard along the Chicago-GR grapevine, that should be installed by September.

While those in the far-flung Marshall Field's office likely feel in league with Jay Leno's hapless targets who can't recall what office is held by Dick Cheney or Colin Powell, the evidence of Baker Furniture, Kendall and Frank Lloyd Wright are clearly written on street signs and buildings here (so there are clues…).

  • Design City USA? Sculpture City USA? Recent stories in the national magazine Sculpture Review and in the Boston Globe and Denver Post offer a peek at what visiting travel writers think of GR — and "flabbergasted" is not far off the descriptor mark.

First, the Boston Globe proclaimed across the top of a recent Sunday Travel Section cover: "Michigan's City of Surprises; Grand Rapids has transformed itself into a cultural hub." The Globe writer begins: "This city loves art so much that even its municipal garbage trucks sport a painting of an Alexander Calder sculpture," and explains the relationship (which marks its 35th anniversary next year).

This writer must have seen the signs: "Michigan's second-largest city and once known almost exclusively for its furniture manufacturing … offers its million annual visitors the unexpected. A 24-foot-high bronze horse based on Leonardo da Vinci's sketches stands on the city's northeast side, and the first urban park designed by Maya Lin … adds an artistic and green touch to the business district." And more: "Of all the homes I have seen around the world, the Meyer May House in Grand Rapids is the one I would most like to live in — if it were not a museum of indescribable worth."

"Besides culture, the city is becoming known for its cuisine. We loved San Chez, which has excellent tapas. We were intrigued by The BOB. … We would never have thought that at Judson's Steakhouse, which specializes in 24-ounce prime aged rib eye, my husband and I would taste our first walleye, a freshwater fish that was incredibly delicious." The travel story recounts a conversation with GRMAYOR, a visit to the Grand Rapids Art Museum and Van Andel Museum Center and itemizes the collection at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, "something no visitor should miss."

The Denver Post art critic Kyle MacMillan used Grand Rapids as an example for Denver is his dissection of the first sculpture unveiled in the city's "long-empty" Performing Arts Sculpture Park. The headline: "Sculpture Park Could Take Cue from Grand Rapids." He proclaims the necessity of a "signature piece" to draw art aficionados who "would come to Denver specifically to see (it) in the same way that they are traveling to Grand Rapids, Mich., of all places."

MacMillan notes, "That much smaller and lower profile city has put itself on the artistic map, most recently by hiring Maya Lin…" He recounts the Calder story and opines, "As Denver considers how to further develop its sculpture park, it could do well to take some lessons from Grand Rapids, targeting high-profile artists … to create pieces that could gain the city similar attention and make the site a national attraction in its own right."

  • This must all have been missed by the "Design Within Reach" e-zine Design Notes columnist, who apparently has never left the little Manhattan island he calls home, nor visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art which enshrines the Furniture City and many of its designs.

Asking how readers might advise him in boosting Midwestern sales and lamenting a lack of love for modern design in the "fly-over" zone, he writes, "We have great educational institutions in these states and traditional leaders in the U.S. modern furniture manufacturing, like Herman Miller, are based in areas as insular as rural Michigan. Why is the acceptance of modern design low in this geographic area?" Perhaps we could suggest the egotistical but obviously uneducated NYC thug be drug by a wild (DaVinci) horse to this "rural Michigan outpost."

A follow-up column last week noted his own copywriter "spent much of her life in Michigan and commented on the subject saying, 'Herman Miller furniture isn't a luxury brand in Michigan. It's a staple. You find it in almost every office building, library and college classroom. Eames and Nelson have the same unassuming presence in homes. People are accustomed to the comfort and endurance of these designs.'"

One of his readers writes, "Don't you dare get the folks in the flyover interested in modern furniture! Then they'll know what gold they have in all their mid-century office buildings. Instead of heaving all those Knoll and Herman Miller pieces into the nearest dumpster when they renovate, they'll be dragging them home."

Then the column asks for readers to name the most influential designer in … the San Francisco Bay area.

We think we'll start our own influential designer series.

  • Millennium Park tour guide extraordinaire Peter Secchia applied his ambassadorial skills throughout last week, the finishing touch being a small soiree to celebrate last weekend's opening of a park almost three times the size of Central Park.

Still missing: a sculpture that might greet residents to the beach portion of the park, its gateway. Secchia acknowledged/lamented that a sculpture park along the lakes and woodlands would be redundant given Fred Meijer's vast undertaking. Then we learned that Meijer had indeed donated a replica of everyone's favorite sculpture, that of children dancing in a circle, and one of the pieces, Marshall Fredericks "Boy and the Bear."

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